I had my first real taste of project based learning (PBL) in 10th grade high school biology. It was exhilarating. I am dyslexic, and so the emphasis on constructivist, student driven inquiry with less reliance on textbook and fact driven learning was eye-opening and relieving. It was an experience so fundamental to my development that I fell in love with science itself and choose to pursue a career therein.
But, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. I was used to getting answers from my teachers. I didn’t really know how to think about how and why questions in substantive and productive ways, my background knowledge was weak because I had read so much less than my peers and I had little experience working with other students as a part of a team. The bar seemed raised in ways I had never considered important to being successful in school. In the end, what made this first PBL experience so tractable? How did my teacher make PBL accessible to me?
The challenge of implementing PBL may seem overwhelming because students are so varied in their backgrounds, experiences, strengths and weaknesses. The knowledge and skills required to successfully navigate a PBL experience differ substantially from more traditional instructional approaches, which can create new and unexpected barriers to learning for some. For example, students may struggle with: 1) student-to-student collaboration and interdependence, 2) autonomy in decision making over the direction of learning, 3) problem solving and higher-order thinking skills (all those how and why questions), and/or 4) the use of literacy skills to process and communicate new understandings.
In retrospect, when I think about my high school biology teacher I am struck by his key strategy — forging and leveraging relationships with his students. But maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised. The quality of teacher-student relationships over the course of school substantially predicts student outcomes, both emotional and academic. And, education science suggests that social and emotional skills are the foundation of teaching and learning.
My teacher was effective at facilitating supportive personalized learning experiences because he was so adept at reading his students social and emotional cues during learning. After all, emotions are how we signal – both internally to ourselves and externally to the world – when things are working for us or not. My teacher could read my anxiety when I fell quiet during an animated group discussion and offer appropriate support; and, when he wasn’t sure how I was doing he asked questions like, “sometimes I feel stressed trying to pull all of my ideas together into a coherent explanation – how are you feeling about this activity?” Better still, he modeled and taught me how to use my social and emotional signals to know myself and become expert in my own learning. Programs like the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s Ruler Curriculum are making strategies for developing social and emotional skills in teaching and learning accessible to more practitioners.
Classrooms are rich with cultural, ethnic, gender, social and emotional, and academic diversity. In most things, I hold to the mantra that there is no one solution to meet the needs of diverse learners; but attending to relationships and the emotional cues therein seems an absolute cornerstone, a kind of universal principle to laying the foundation for accessible PBL.