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MSPnet Blog: “Social and Emotional Learning #2: Something new under the sun?”

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posted December 22, 2017 – by Brian Drayton

In our amnesiac society, it is not surprising that inventive, inquisitive, and engaged people might re-invent the wheel. (Realistically, most things are new to us — that is, while someone may know a lot about a lot of things, there’s still plenty that will come freshly to them, and retain the power of surprise and intrigue.)  This is why “novelty sells” at least as effectively as “sex sells” in the market place. Novelty, I suspect, is among the most important “value propositions”  typically offered  for an educational idea, or policy, or product.  (It is of course entirely conventional, these days, to talk about education in business terms, as the relentless revolution continues its transformation of social norms.)

So as I have been reading about social-emotional learning, I have been struck by claims that SEL represents a new discovery, and therefore an imperative new addition to our educational toolbox.  I wonder if I am being marketed at.

For example, a recent report from the Learning Policy Institute introduces itself thus:

Long-standing demands from business and industry have recently converged with advances in the science of learning to establish the critical importance of social and emotional, as well as academic, development for school and life success.1 Variously called “soft skills,” noncognitive or co-cognitive factors, or 21st-century competencies, these skills, mindsets, and habits help people succeed in a social world, enabling them to accomplish their goals. Young people’s abilities to manage their attention and feelings, collaborate well with others, show perseverance, build strong relationships, and learn from challenging experiences are the building blocks for future success.

So the needs of business and industry are now sanctioned by scientific advances, to convince a hitherto unsuspecting populace that “academics” are not enough for “school and life success”  (although academic success is made more likely by these “soft skills” so we can look for test scores to reflect the quality of softness imparted in a particular school).

I would not bristle at statements like these, except for two things:

[1] The statement is linked fairly quickly to the accountablity frame which is required of anyone who wishes to be taken as a Serious Person in educational policy these days — as in the Executive Summary:

 How might schools be encouraged to help students develop socially and emotionally, and to foster positive school environments, in the context of new accountability? This paper provides a framework for considering how measures of SEL and school climate may be incorporated in an accountability and continuous improvement system.

I should point out that the first recommendation of the report is that

 States should not use measures of individual students’ social and emotionalcompetencies for accountability purposes,

but the sentence ends:

 at least for now.

[2] The novelty and novel urgency of this advance in human understanding is quickly linked as well to the commercial machinery of the Education Industry — not by the authors of this study,  yet one can see the “hooks” where commerce will attach.  For example, the report recommends that

States could consider including measures of school climate, supports for SEL, and related outcomes in their federal and state accountability systems….States could provide districts with well-validated tools for measuring SEL and school climate. State agencies and districts should provide schools with resources and technical assistance for school improvement as they encourage social and emotional learning.

“Meaures,”  “supports,” “tools,” “resources,” and “technical assistance” need not be commerical projects and services — but what’s a school district to do, faced with a new wave of expectations, backed by a whole new category of experts?

An interesting parallel development has been under way for a long time with respect to children’s recess.  Various strands of “reform” ideology conspired to convince administrators across the country that the Standards and Accountability strategy might, regrettably but inevitably require the elimination of recess.  In 2010, Nicholas Thacher wrote in EdWeek

The suburban New England town in which I run a small elementary school has just been obliged to eliminate morning recess for its public school children….Our excellent superintendent had the unenviable task of moving from one acrimonious evening meeting to another in the opening weeks of our school year, trying to explain why, since standardized-test scores haven’t met the designated benchmarks, the schools have been mandated to eliminate morning recess and force the children to spend their midmorning time swotting up on their academic skills….The thinking is that more minutes in the classroom will enable the youngsters to sharpen their minds and raise their scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS tests.

The ill effects, or plain dumbness, of this tactic has led to the reinstatement of mandated recess in several states — but often it is cast as “physical education” time, rather than free time, which can be spent in games, or day-dreaming, or conversation, or what you will. If it’s “physical education,” then it can be parametrized, regulated, and productized.   This is now the American Way of education: If you want to get people’s attention about something,  it needs to get expressed in the languages of regulation and of economics  This is now the lingua franca of policy, just as Latin once was (and English now is) the customary language of science (new species descriptions of plants, algae, and fungi must use either of the two, so botanical Latin is still a thing). But, much as I loved learning Latin, I also learned early on that things get lost — and imposed —  in translation, sometimes very important things.

I think that remembering (the core of culture), is as important a “critical thinking” skill as any (and it doesn’t make it on the usual lists of such skills, such as here or here. After all, isn’t time one of the Four Dimensions through which we move, as we “wander in the wilderness of this world”?  It is a small but important act of freedom, as well as the door to discovery,  to recognize the history of things, people, ideas, and not let everything get swept down the memory hole.

So just for fun, you might like to celebrate the New Year (which I hope will be joyous for all who read this!) by visiting John Locke’s Thoughts concerning Education (1693) (you can get a free ebook here), which has a good deal to say about SEL, Enlightenment-style.  Locke was not a parent, but he clearly had known actual children and, like a good empirical philospher and physician, had learned some things from his experience.  While I would not call his a book of pedagogy, and it is bound by many assumptions about class and gender, yet it is remarkably humane and balanced for all that — and his prose is always a pleasure to read.

His treatise starts with a premise (all pronouns are sic):

A Sound Mind in a sound Body, is a short, but full description of a Happy State in this World: He that has these Two, has little more to wish for; and he that wants either of them, is but little the better for any thing else.

and then spends roughly the first quarter of the book on health as well as social and emotional learning  (which he treats under the terms “civility” and “breeding,”  whose outcome is “wisdom” — and these crop up again and again all through the book.  Locke takes it for granted that one is dealing with a whole personality, physical, psychological, and intellectual — but he realizes that his reader may be laboring under the delusion that “education” is principally a matter of academics, and preparation for adult life, and he is at pains to argue for the broader view.  I resist the temptation to quote pages;  here are three little samples:

He that at any Rate procures his Child a good Mind, well principled, temper’d to Vertue and Usefulness, and adorned with Civility and good Breeding, makes a better purchase for him, than if he laid out the Money for an addition of more Earth to his former Acres. ….

Wisdom I take in the popular acceptation, for a man’s managing his business ably and with foresight in this world. This is the product of a good natural temper, application of mind, and experience together…

Reading and writing and learning I allow to be necessary, but yet not the chief business. I imagine you would think him a very foolish fellow, that should not value a virtuous or a wise man infinitely before a great scholar. Not but that I think learning a great help to both in well-dispos’d minds; but yet it must be confess’d also, that in others not so dispos’d, it helps them only to be the more foolish, or worse men.

What, after all, are the aims of education?

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SEL and Current Institutions

posted by: Betsy Stefany on 12/22/2017 12:07 pm

The SEL topic offers a chance to examine the advantages connecting discussions between career terms and STEM educational expectations. I, however, have lots of questions on how to approach the focus of this term into education, especially public schools.
The start of dealing with Locke's era should be mindful that progress through what was then "childhood" was short and the under the close relationship of religion. The process of joining workforce started early, but also the community relationships where more connected. From Centuries of Childhood, Philippe Aries shares that "in 1600 the specialization of games and pastimes did not extend beyond infancy"from then on " the child played the same games as the, either with other children or with adults."
Current practice has not only church and state separated but also laws, language and practices differ depending on the institution. As we leave the geographic recognition of these institutions through the internet or by physical extensions have we kept up with the early recognition of these changes?
As we add flipped classrooms, the expectation of project-based learning and extended learning opportunities, isn't there an expectation that we will prepare learners for the loss of their classroom status, laws and enter a system that differs from a child directed mission of teaching and parenting?
We certainly would expect teachers to model learning, however their practices change with the intro of tool integration into education.
One example is the copyright law. Students witness the teacher practice of photocopying copyrighted texts and do not know that laws differ for educators in this a certain extent. Another consideration is early internet solid practice of studying the Acceptable Use Policy when joining online communities.
Are classroom teachers the sole "community" to deal with the broad expectations of SEL when many of the metaphorical "tools" have been eliminated from their references?

Two interesting posts from the Answer Sheet

posted by: Brian Drayton on 12/23/2017 6:15 am

relevant to SEL in various ways:
1. "Educating the whole child isn't just jargon" ng-the-whole-child-isnt-just-jargon-heres-how-its-done/?tid=hybrid_col laborative_3_na&utm_term=.b79904811754

2. "Yes, there are high poverty public schools that operate at a high level, here's how it's done."
The Big Takeaway here: "If I had to put into one sentence what the key lesson... is, it would be that they focus on improving the knowledge and skill of the adults in schools and give them the time and space to collaborate about what kids need to learn and how to teach it." re-are-high-poverty-public-schools-that-operate-at-a-high-level-heres- how-they-succeed/?utm_term=.d87d88319acf&wpisrc=nl_answer&wpmm =1