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MSPnet Blog: “Social-emotional learning: Preamble”

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posted December 13, 2017 – by Brian Drayton

“Character” has always been one concern of education, at least of K-12 education (after that, it’s called “ethics,” or “morals,” maybe). Sometimes, conventional wisdom suggests that it’s really the parent’s responsibility, and not, say, the physics teacher’s. Sometimes, character formation is assumed to be part of the school’s responsibility. Now is one of those times.

Starting in the Romantic period, the development of your character was an unfolding of in-born potential, the gradual discovery of one’s true being.  There might well be all kinds of environmental influences that shape your unfolding character, for good or ill, but the basic endowments were, as you might say, the core truth, and environmental influences could not efface that endowment.  Lots of folk psychology was built around this — “The apple doesn’t fall from the tree!”  “Blood will out!”  The current popularity of “evolutionary psychology” is one modern variant of this deterministic point of view.

In other cultural climates, the child is more or less fully malleable, and while he or she is under the overpowering influence of home and other institutions (religious and secular community, and of course school), the responsibility for the child’s character is theirs: “As the twig is bent, so will the tree grow”; “Spare the rod and spoil the child”; “Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man.”   So if your child “turns out bad,” yours may well be the blame;  if well, the credit.

In between these two extremes, which sometimes, I suspect, are held simultaneously by the same person, so complex is the task of accounting for human behavior, there is the 18th century view (which has a Stoic savor) that your character is something you create (cf.  Goffman’s “presentation of self”).  Joseph Ellis (in His Excellency George Washington) speaks of about how George Washington’s “Rules of Civility” “reflected an earlier era’s conviction that character was not just who you were but also what others thought you were,” and Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy famously demanded that Eliza Bennett read his refutation of her charges against him, because “my character requires it.”

From the same era, Kant writes (in his essay on education) that  “Character consists in the firm purpose to accomplish something, and then also in the actual accomplishing of it.”  Thus, even if you have  inherited certain capacities and limitations, your character is nevertheless the result of your own agency (or lack thereof), and though family, school, and community play important roles, in the end all this can be transcended (or fulfilled)  by your forming and accomplishing a firm purpose.   (Kant elsewhere in his essay talks about how character consists in following maxims — guidelines or heuristics for moral and ethical behavior. The child follows those given her by her elders, the adult follows those provided by society.)  More generally, one has the task of shaping a consistent persona, founded on some few key principles (maxims!), and then, having chosen one’s best, to live up to that persona.  (“Character” is a Greek word, related to the verb charássein, “to engrave” :  you might say, playing with the etymology,  that your character is thus a work of art.)

Well, in our post-Enlightenment times, the age-old debate appears in new clothing — a recent entry is “grit,” most associated with the work of Angela Duckworth.  Mike Rose, writing a guest post in The Answer Sheet, gives a brief fair resumé of Duckworth’s research:

These findings suggest that over 90 percent of her populations’ achievements are accounted for by other personal, familial, environmental, and cultural factors, but, still, her findings are important and make a contribution to the academic study of personality—and support a commonsense belief that hard work over time pays off.

He goes on to register dismay at  the ways that grit has been over-praised and, of course, commercialized.  Moreover, some want to load it onto the accountability juggernaut (despite Duckworth’s pleas for it not to be used that way, here appearing on Larry Cuban’s blog with useful links to other sources).

Rose points out another lamentable development, in which systemic structures of inequality make use of a long-admired virtue — persistence, now renamed ‘grit’ — in a rhetoric of superiority and avoidance of social responsibility:

of course, a good deal of the discussion of grit doesn’t really involve all students. Regardless of disclaimers, the primary audience for our era’s character education is poor kids. As I and a host of others have written, a focus on individual characteristics of low-income children can take our attention away from the structural inequalities they face. Some proponents of character education have pretty much said that an infusion of grit will achieve what social and economic interventions cannot.

As Ethan Ris writes in another guest post on the Answer Sheet (Valerie Strauss has paid sustained attention to this topic), there are nuances and complexities in the narrative about grit:

Both sides of the debate miss the fact that historically, the grit discourse is driven primarily not by concerns about disadvantaged students but by the anxiety of middle and upper-class parents about the character of their own children. The critics, however, are right that poor children are the inevitable losers of this game.

Grit quickly entered the modern “ed industry” process.  You see the idea hyped as something of a panacea (Edutopia:  “True Grit: the best measure of success”).  Then there is the search for a metric, a way to quantify this characteristic.  As George Anders wrote on EdSurge earlier this year,

 When school systems want to track the role of grit, or help instill it, however, everything gets trickier.Something as simple as testing students for grit…isn’t simple at all. The famous marshmallow test, developed in the late 1960s by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel, is a clever way of assessing young children’s self-control, as seen by how long they can resist the temptation to grab a nearby snack. But the marshmallow test or its variants don’t scale; they are too intrusive and too time-consuming to be usable in a school district with many thousands of students.

So the search is on for “quick, unobtrusive, scalable—and reliable—tests for grit among K-12 students.”

By this time, the range of commercial enterprises has taken up the hue and cry, while research creeps along behind — books are written for teachers and parents (just do a search), big companies pay attention (on Pearson’s blog, we learn that we need to upgrade our grit to GRIT),     and the other products gush forth, all “based on research,” — e.g. “the New Science of GRIT.”  See examples here and here.

The point is that, as with ed tech products, a reasonably interesting research result is, in our desperate times, quickly over-applied, parametrized (hence creating “data” that can be used in lots of different ways, including ‘accountability’), and then commodified, so that a conventional wisdom is created and then catered to by many different actors in the Market (which more and more subsumes the educational “system” now ascendent).

A similar cycle can be seen at work on related interesting ideas such as the “growth mindset,” and  “social-emotional learning,” a more inclusive term whose growing popularity signals a deep concern that the recent waves of “reform” in education are overlooking some vital human elements.  I have been reading some recent studies on social-emotional learning (inevitably and ominously “SEL”), and my next few posts will arise from that reading.

NOTE:  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the writer alone, and not necessarily those of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation. 






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Coincidentally -- see Curmudgucation

posted by: Brian Drayton on 12/13/2017 7:58 am

Just opened Peter Greene's "Curmudgucation" blog, and found he's posted "How to teach social and emotional learning." Check it out! tional-skills.html