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MSPnet Blog: “SEL#the last: The way we do things now”

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posted February 19, 2018 – by Brian Drayton

Once you define social and emotional capacities as “skills and competencies,” as we saw in the previous post, then you can think about metrics.  Over the past 50 years or so, we have exercised tremendous ingenuity in the whole process of “operationalization” of concepts (constructs) in ed research and assessment.  All this sophistication is being brought to bear on SEL.  Among the values of this way of thinking are such scientific virtues as validity and reliability/replicability, but also such bureacratic virtues as ease of administration and of scoring and analysis.   It takes time, expertise, and (frankly) money to develop analytic measures of this kind, and as any reader of this blog knows, it also takes more than one bite at the apple — successive iterations and refinements, and sometimes false starts. It’s no surprise that The Market has stepped in energetically.  Of course, we need metrics and tools!  You know you’ve been longing for just this kind of help!  A teacher writes for Panorama Education:

Despite the fact that there’s so much consensus about the importance of SEL, there haven’t been good ways to measure these skills and continue to be limited resources for teachers and administrators about how to teach SEL skills, emotions, behaviors and mindsets. When I was in the classroom, I would have been incredibly excited about having a usable survey tool to measure my student’s SEL skills and behaviors, and even more excited about a set of resources that would have helped me develop my ability to teach social-emotional skills, mindsets and behaviors to my students.

Audrey Watters describes the trend:

These novel apps, bearing names like ClassDojo and Hero K12, promised to help by collecting students’ behavioral data and encouraging teachers to project the stats onto their classroom’s interactive whiteboard in order to keep students “on task.” It is, they claim, all part of a push to create a “positive classroom culture.”

Panorama is one of several companies that  want to help:

SEL skills are critical to school, career, and life success. Panorama helps you understand and support each student with skills like growth mindset, self-efficacy, social awareness, and self-management.

Now, as I think about persistence, respect, self-monitoring, and confidence, I would expect that the goal would be to help teachers observe and reflect about these characteristics, and talk with their students about them at a level that the kids can meet.  My first thought would not be about data collection, for example using a survey asking 3rd graders (say) to answer a survey complex series of Likert-scaled questions.  This, however, is the approach taken by several enterprises (both commercial and not-for-profit) in the development of SEL tools for what we may call “diagnosis.”

There are systems that place their focus on behavior management.  The idea is that a school-wide “solution” will create a uniform set of standards, “incentives,” and interventions throughout a school.  The best way to do that, obviously, is to install a software system that supports school-wide data collection and program implementation.  Here is stating the need:

without a digital School Wide Positive Behavior Reinforcement program in place, schools struggle to collaborate across grade levels and departments, offering little to no consistency for students. The behaviors that teachers identify and reinforce are usually varied, and students have different standards they need to meet depending on whose class they are in. Often times, these benchmarks don’t line up with administrative initiatives and school standards—they are chosen because they are important for that individual classroom teacher.

ClassDojo focuses more specifically on classroom climate — for example, if you want your kids to “learn empathy,” ClassDojo has developed a suite of tools that “aligns with teachers’ vision of the classroom as a friendly learning environment where character matters and positive thinking can lead to powerful results.”   According to one report from 2016, “Last year, 65% of U.S. K-8 schools had at least one teacher using ClassDojo. This year, the company’s reach surpassed 90%.”

It branched into video content last year, with a five-part series on “growth mind-set,” an idea pioneered by Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck. Then, this past fall, the company introduced its “empathy” video series.

The videos are intended to be starters for conversation in the class, and I expect that many teachers make good use of them.  The range of tools and services available for purchase or subscription to support SEL in one of its many varieties — and many are designed to collect lots of data about students, sometimes primarily for teachers’ use, sometimes for the school or district — and what about all that data?

I invite you to follow some of these links and make up your own mind about this trend.  I am uncomfortable, and my discomfort has three different sources.  In each case, the concern or objection can possibly be addressed or mitigated — there are always examples of researchers, developers, adminstrators, policy makers, who understand the issues, and have found a way to a positive, respectful, and promising implementation of  some innovated technique or tool. Yet it is only too common for an analogue of Gresham’s Law to prevail — good versions of the innovation driven out by the bad.

In this case, the first two sources of discomfort are intensified or amplified by the third. The first source of my discomfort  is the “new behaviorism” mindset  that writers like Audrey Watters address.  Children (and other humans) are seen as fit subjects for shaping and molding towards some desired product — though the nature of the target keeps moving, and is often dictated by short-term imperatives of the market or of politics (as in Frederick Hess’s “policy churn”).

The second source of concern is precisely that policy makers or entrepreneurs, seeing the need or opportunity for SEL, define SEL (or its components), the “need” or “problem” , and the solutions to the problem,  in ways that are as convenient as possible for adminstration and evaluation, and for “getting to scale”  — embodied, for example, in the quickly multiplying  SEL technologies, “systems,” and programs for sale or trial. This is a point that Peter Greene makes in his energetic manner — and his recent post on this topic has found a growing response in ed blog readership.

Finally, as I alluded to in the first post of this series, the educational “system” is now becoming highly integrated across commercial, policy, and public sectors — not necessarily to deliver long-recognized resources and services to children and teachers, but  so as to rapidly propagate new policy ideas and associated products and services.   The system has been called “fast psycho policy.” Ben Willams writes, in a very challenging essay on this phenomenon in education (using ClassDojo as a case in point)

As an educational intermediary, a curator of educational discourse, and a provider of free services that deploys strategies of user engagement to gain users through network effects, ClassDojo needs therefore to be studied and understood as the assembled product of a complex web of people and organizations that designed and maintain it; technical components; business plans; expert discourses, and the technical, social and economic concerns that frame them.

This “fast-policy” system is embedded in the increasing penetration of “platforms” as the dominant infrastructure for our culture, and ‘curators of public discourse’ as argued by Tarleton Gillespie.

When we say we’re “in education,” what is it we actually in?  How can we keep open a wider range of answers to that question than the ones created by the dominant framing of social processes — including education — in our time?







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Nancy Bailey on SEL

posted by: Brian Drayton on 4/4/2018 5:31 am

In this blog post from March 19th, Nancy Bailey talks about the move to create SEL standards. The blog post is a catalogue of criticisms, from the point of view of parents, children, and teachers- with links to relevant stories.
You may not agree with all of these, but I think they are worth reflecting on, if you are new to the debates about the current fad of standardization/measurement of SEL In particular, the commodification of SEL (in technology or other products) is linked in some cases with the other big challenge of our times, which is the continued transformation of schools into investment opportunities - as in "social impact bonds," for example.
Here's the link: -side/


posted by: Sara Silver on 4/4/2018 8:59 am

Nancy's post is a wise and sobering piece on SEL. Caveat emptor.