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Crean Davis: Can Social Emotional Learning Catch Fire in Schools — Without Flaming Out?

November 30, 2016

Allison Crean Davis
Allison Crean Davis

Allison Crean Davis is a senior adviser at Bellwether Education Partners, focusing on issues related to evaluation and planning, predictive analytics, extended learning opportunities, and Native American education.

Allison Crean Davis is a senior adviser at Bellwether Education Partners, focusing on issues related to evaluation and planning, predictive analytics, extended learning opportunities, and Native American education.
Talking Points

.@ACreanDavis asks: Can Social Emotional Learning catch fire in schools — without flaming out?

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In the education sector, there’s a tension between the need for good information to better serve kids right now and the reality that solid, reliable evidence from research takes time. Patience among education’s vast and varied stakeholders is generally, and understandably, short. As legislators adopt policies or educators adjust practices in response to promising, if nascent, research findings, they do so within education’s milieu of parent-child relationships, scarce public dollars and fractious politics. Public schooling is inherently emotional: dry tinder ready to ignite.

So as the information gap frequently gets filled by media-heavy rushes to judgment, stakeholders take fire. Promising, well-intended initiatives, like the Common Core Standards, burn and struggle to survive even before there is a shared understanding of their potential, much less evidence of their impact.

If education is going to mature as a discipline, it needs to embrace an evidence-based, not ideologically based, approach, much like the field of medicine once did. A more patient, disciplined collective mindset will allow promising approaches to be tested and will shield innovations from suffocating dogma. Ironically, relatively recent efforts to cultivate just this kind of mature social and emotional mentality, one that spurs achievement, are already being targeted for the next educational firestorm.

A recent post at The Federalist lights the match, portraying the education sector’s move to integrate social emotional learning (SEL) into schools as a dangerous, “lemming-like march toward psychological manipulation of children.” The authors argue that characteristics such as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making are “highly subjective behavioral standards” and that emphasizing or, even worse, attempting to measure them turns teachers into therapists and students into psychological patients, and replaces the role of parents.

This article is the journalistic equivalent of yelling “fire” in a theater, designed to have folks crawling across the floor to the nearest exit. It’s as if the authors are saying: Don’t think. There’s danger. Escape! To which I say: Calm down. Harness one of the “subjective” social emotional skills in question, self-management. Instead of panicking, work to understand the rationale behind the push for more social emotional learning in schools and how the still-emerging science presents some limits to the work.

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It is true that in recent years, more and more educators are attending to that “something other” in kids, the social and emotional competencies that propel and relate to academic performance. These characteristics also matter for their own sake, and most of us have a sense of this. We have that friend who makes the same damaging decisions over and over again. We’ve endured the parent at our kids’ soccer game who can’t seem to empathize with the kids as they make mistakes on the field. We’ve tried to complete a group project with a colleague who won’t step up to the plate. We’ve perhaps noticed, in our own lives, that procrastination or unrealistic goals have limited our success in maddening ways. We’ve also seen examples of ordinary people doing extraordinary things because they are persistent, disciplined, willing to accept and internalize feedback, and able to maximize their personal support system.

These “other” skills go beyond intelligence, knowledge and experience. They are something else. And we know they matter.

Researchers have noted this too. Economists have found that cognitive and these “other” noncognitive skills are equally important to an array of labor-market outcomes (e.g., schooling, employment, wages) and behavioral outcomes (e.g., teenage pregnancy, smoking, drug use, participation in illegal activities). In the military, grit and hardiness have been shown to predict the success of officer candidates. Measures of integrity and conscientiousness help us predict job performance. In fact, employers rate “soft skills” such as attitude, communication and teamwork as more important to hiring decisions than content knowledge. And in education, traits such as openness and conscientiousness predict grades at primary, secondary and postsecondary education levels.

It makes sense, then, that educators are taking note, not only of what research is suggesting but also of what the real world is requiring. It is also true that the science behind social emotional learning is still formative, a theme within the Federalist piece and one on which I focus in my recent chapter related to this topic. One sign of this nascency is the variety of terms used to describe social emotional constructs. One researcher’s “grit” is another’s “persistence,” which is deemed highly correlated with another’s “self-discipline.” Are they all talking about the same characteristic? Or do these terms actually represent unique attitudes and proclivities? At this point, the jury is still out.

This variation contributes to the related challenge of how to measure social emotional characteristics. Clear definitions of constructs are critical to developing valid measures or assessments of them; solid measurements, in turn, are critical to understanding the construct and improving it. The degree to which SEL is actionable in schools and can be shown to have a positive influence on children’s performance will hinge on refined measurement tools.

In respect to this, education policymakers should resist the temptation to include assessments of social emotional characteristics in high-stakes accountability systems at this time. The existing measurement tools are not designed for that purpose and, psychometrically, have too many limitations to be used that way. Although the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) allows states flexibility in how they define student success, which may include metrics related to SEL, it does not require it. Instead, policymakers should consider emphasizing social emotional learning within a low-stakes environment, as complementary to academic standards of learning, and as part of a larger whole for child development. Educational leaders should ensure that social emotional characteristics are assessed with a variety of information sources, including (and importantly) the voices of teachers. They should also prevent practices that permanently shoehorn children into characteristics that are legitimately and appropriately dynamic.

The iterative march of science does not preclude exploration of the value of social emotional characteristics in schools. But even as districts integrate SEL learning, policymakers and practitioners should exercise a degree of caution. To get this right will be an exercise in meta-SEL: requiring collective focus, persistence, open-mindedness and a resistance to impulse. As it turns out, what science requires may be the ultimate prevention to flaming out.