Combining SEL and PBL to Prepare Students for the Fourth Industrial Revolution

This article was written by Patrick Cook-Deegan and appeared in PBLWorks. To see the article as it originally appeared, click here.


Commenting on the state of education today, Google’s former Chief Education Evangelist, Jaime Casap, articulated the predicament facing today’s teachers: “We are preparing students for jobs that don’t exist, to use technology that hasn’t been invented, to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.”

As educators, what skills should we teach our students to prepare them for their personal and professional futures?

Surprisingly, research shows that it’s not predominately technical skills that tomorrow’s employers will be looking for. An international McKinsey Institute study found that 75% of what tomorrow’s employers will seek in their employees are cognitive, interpersonal, and self-leading capabilities. Additionally, Google’s Project Oxygen recently determined that only one of today’s top ten in-demand skills for great managers is technical, while the other nine more closely resemble durable, social and emotional skills.

We can’t yet know all of the impacts the Fourth Industrial Revolution will have on education, but we do know that combining SEL with Project Based Learning helps students develop essential, durable skills—like self-awareness, adaptability, collaboration—that will remain in demand no matter how technology develops.

Professional Development: SEL in PBL Online Workshop

To teach durable skills, we must prioritize combining action-oriented SEL with purpose learning. Integrating social and emotional development with Project Based Learning is the most effective way for students to build essential skills and make learning relevant to their lives. Let’s take a look at this one-two combo in action.

FlexTech High Schools Combine SEL and PBL

Michigan’s FlexTech High Schools were early believers in the power of innovative SEL and PBL integration. In 2017, they partnered with Wayfinder—a leading SEL and future-ready skills curriculum developer—weaving our Six Core Skills into their graduate profile and adapting our Belonging and Purpose curricula within their advisory classes.

Throughout their high school experience, FlexTech students have opportunities to practice action-oriented social and emotional learning. Every content class follows a Project Based Learning model with the goal of developing and assessing at least one of the Six Core Skills. As students progress along their SEL journeys, they have opportunities to exercise agency—choosing which Core Skill(s) they want to develop, and proposing their own projects to demonstrate academic skill mastery and social and emotional growth.

FlexTech Network’s Director of School Leadership, Sarah Pazur, has ensured that FlexTech meaningfully engages students in SEL and PBL from freshman year to graduation. "PBL and Wayfinder go hand-in-hand,” Pazur says. “Because we implement both PBL and Wayfinder at FlexTech, students learn through passion and purpose-driven projects that simultaneously build the social and emotional skills necessary to thrive in school, work, and life.”

Learn More: Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is essential to success in PBL

The impact of this powerful combination shines through during The Writers’ Night, a yearly event planned and organized by students. The night grew out of a creative writing project called Exploring Writing Communities from Mr. Joe Lieberman’s 11th-grade Humanities class, which gives students the opportunity to demonstrate mastery of writing, social and emotional, and 21st-century skills like collaboration, empathy, and adaptability.

The Writers' Night is an example of student voice and choice in action. Organizers select a theme for the night and create advertisements to recruit student writers from all grades to share their own original written works. As students prepare their works and organize the event, they build self-efficacy and receive feedback according to FlexTech’s writing rubric and Wayfinder-aligned Portrait of a Graduate. They then host a curated night where students read their works to an audience of peers, families, and other members of the school community.

Speaking about showcases like this, Pazur says, “It's incredibly rewarding to see students reflect on their personal and academic growth at our project showcases every year. They often express how our program has helped them feel a sense of belonging, agency, and pride."

Producing the event themselves affords students the opportunity to exercise agency, and fosters belonging as students come together over a common interest. The result is an authentic, academic-focused event with a public audience.

Of course, common interest isn’t the end-all-be-all for developing a sense of belonging within a school community. There must be intentional, deeper relationship building embedded in the everyday learning experience. That’s where FlexTech’s advisory model comes into play.

Every FlexTech student develops a close mentoring relationship with a single teacher across the span of their high school experience. Each advisory year is themed according to Wayfinder’s Belonging and Purpose curricula: Belonging in ninth grade, followed by a progression of purpose learning focused on the self, the local community, and the world in tenth-twelfth grades, respectively.

As students enter ninth grade, advisors help ease the transition with activities that promote joy, perspective sharing, and community-mindedness. This year is all about guiding students to identify and appreciate their own qualities and strengths as they grow into empathetic and upstanding community members.

From there, advisory transitions into purpose learning for tenth-twelfth grades. During these years, advisors teach a curriculum that supports students to get in touch with their values, set personally meaningful goals, and make actionable plans to contribute to the communities around them. Alongside academic advising and responsive, school-wide community-building efforts, Flex Tech’s advisory SEL supports students to foster a welcoming, safe school environment and prepare students to thrive outside of it.

As Wayfinder’s partnership with FlexTech demonstrates, SEL and PBL are inextricably tied. Students graduate with the skills they need to find their way in an uncertain future with self-determination and purpose.