How project-based studying can foster social-emotional studying expertise –

contributed by Mike Kaechele

Many project-based learning workshop facilitators begin with participants imagining the characteristics of their ideal graduate from their school or grade level (sometimes referred to as their graduate portrait).

The teachers answer the question individually: “What do you want your students to know and be able to do after their year with you?” The answers are then collected and documented as a whole group.

Example of an Ideal Graduate Protocol from the PBL workshop

I myself have used this protocol with thousands of educators across the country from preschool through college. The results are always the same. Almost the entire list is extracurricular at first glance. Occasionally something like fluency reading makes the list, but content is mostly missing. What the teachers suggest instead are capabilities.

Many of the qualities listed are “soft skills,” a term I now detest. What I realized is that the qualities of an ideal graduate are actually social and emotional skills. Having conducted this protocol with the teachers, I now follow it by showing the CASEL competencies and letting them make connections between their ideal completion goals and the five CASEL categories and their subheadings.

This naturally leads to the question: If these SEL competencies are primary goals as a school and they largely fall outside of our content standards, then how do we teach, practice and assess SEL competencies?

The next question is when do we, as classroom teachers, have time for this in our already overwhelmingly busy schedules? My answer, of course, is project-based learning. PBL is the perfect structure to teach, practice, and assess SEL skills And content standards at the same time. Let’s look at some of the ways students can develop SEL skills while also learning content through PBL.


A low-hanging fruit example is when students explore their identities in a project that focuses on who they are or their role in the community. Teens love to explore and share who they are becoming. Identity work is an opportunity for students to discover the connections between seemingly disparate members of the classroom, leading to cohesion and an appreciation of diversity.

Over time, in a PBL classroom, students develop confidence based on the quality of the work they share and the feedback they receive through public presentations. Students see themselves as productive members who contribute powerfully to the community and ultimately lead to self-efficacy.

See also What are the different types of project-based learning?


When students start investigating, they need to manage the 3 Ts: their time, their team, and their assignments. Robust PBL puts students in situations where healthy conflict arises between team members as they seek solutions to the project’s dilemmas.

This is an excellent opportunity to provide students with frameworks and tools to manage deadlines, disagreements, and expectations from community partners. PBL teachers use the need-to-know process, group contracts, scrum boards, and other structures to teach students to address their own challenges rather than organizing everything for them.

relationship skills

Two of the most important skills students need today are collaboration and communication. In PBL, students not only work with each other, but often also with experts from the community. You will learn to give and receive productive feedback for each other. The students present their results in written and oral form. Communication skills are practiced daily.

In addition, students learn to deal productively with personality challenges and disagreements. Team members need to divide up the work and then share their insights with each other to complete their project tasks. Collaboration is a key element of a well-functioning PBL team.

See also examples of student work in project-based learning

social awareness

In PBL, students learn to work with all kinds of people, both in the classroom and in the community. Building on class culture, as students develop through identity work, they recognize that differences can lead to creativity and an appreciation of shared humanity rather than division.

Another skill that can be developed in PBL is empathy. Students must examine the project challenges from multiple perspectives. You can interview or take on the role of different views in the community. Students appreciate the nuances of a problem by thinking deeply about how valid concerns and opinions are represented by dissenting voices.

Responsible Decision Making

Problem solving is at the heart of PBL. Student teams get involved Rich request understand the project challenge. They sensitively consider all points of view in their proposed solutions. They reflect possible expected and unexpected outcomes. Students then make real decisions and monitor their results.

The students realize that they have a voice in their community and can now make a difference. This leads them back to self-awareness as students see themselves as powerful change-makers who build the knowledge and skills to address and fix needs in their community.

Ultimately, cultivating SEL skills in students is an important part of the “end product” of project-based learning.

Of course, students do not come to our classrooms with fully developed SEL skills, but the PBL framework gives teachers the opportunity to teach, practice, and assess skills naturally throughout the day. PBL logs and tools enable a smooth and ongoing process.

Educators are quick to discover that the SEL competencies listed in the ideal graduation protocol are not disconnected from the curriculum. Instead, they are the required skills that allow students to collaborate in the inquiry process.

So rather than finding time to add SEL instruction, PBL educators are discovering that teaching SEL competencies throughout the year saves time on classroom management and guides students to deeper learning of their content standards. Most importantly, it helps create the next generation of leaders in this world.

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