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MSPnet Blog: “SEL #3: Some review studies”

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posted January 22, 2018 – by Brian Drayton

With the new year under way, I return to my series on Social and Emotional Learning, which is featuring widely in the edublogosphere as well as in policy.
It might be good to start off by reminding the unwary reader that, though I will try always to fairly characterize and describe the ideas in my sources, my core interest is in the framing that is discernible in the documents. This is because, as I am NOT the first to observe, our era of “evidence based” policy and practice is only partially related to evidence. It is also an era of ideological or philosophical struggle, whose ebbs and flows shape the experiences of teachers, students, parents, and citizens. willy-nilly. It is also an era of extremely refined propaganda, aimed at influencing attitudes and behaviors in the ideological tug-of-war.
In my first entry in this series, I attempted a first formulation of some of this framing:

The point is that, as with ed tech products, a reasonably interesting research result is…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).

Let’s look at some more research. We start with  “A review of the literature on social and emotional learning for students ages 3–8: Characteristics of effective social and emotional learning programs.”   This is the first in a series of studies by the US Department of Education’s Institute of Educational Sciences (IES) and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Ed Laboratory, which will occupy this post and the next. ( The 4-part series is available here.)

The authors acknowledge that there are various definitions of the term, but settle on five key “competencies”: “self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decisionmaking.”  These in turn are seen as part of a broader system that includes executive functioning and self-regulation:

… students are exposed to social and academic information that they must interpret, analyze, and respond to in acceptable ways… Therefore, they need to develop self-regulation and executive functioning in addition to social and emotional skills. Executive functioning and self-regulation are the mental processes that enable students to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully … Both self-regulation and executive functioning influence social and emotional learning … Accordingly, effective SEL programs, particularly in preschool, include approaches to enhance self-regulation and executive functioning.

A different resumé of the literature, from the Wallace Foundation (see here for the report), organizes

SEL skills into three domains: cognitive regulation (including attention control, inhibitory control, working memory/planning, cognitive flexibility), emotional processes (including emotion knowledge/expression, emotion/behavior regulation, empathy/perspective-taking), and social/interpersonal skills (including understanding social cues, conflict resolution, prosocial behavior)

Why, asks the RAND study on “Social and Emotional learning interventions under the ESSA,” should teachers, schools, and communities undertake SEL interventions?  Well, three major reasons are:

First, research suggests that an emphasis on SEL can enhance, rather than detract from, schools’ core missions of promoting academic achievement and attainment…. Second, evidence suggests that explicit SEL interventions are effective in helping students develop social and emotional competencies and improve other aspects of students’ lives above and beyond the effects of academic achievement… Finally, in recent years, most states have revised their academic standards or adopted new ones [that]  have broadened the range of competencies that students are expected to demonstrate—for example, by increasing the emphasis on communication, collaboration, and persistence.

The “interventions” suggested (I quote the RAND report, which makes a typical list)  include direct instruction on these competencies, as well as

general teaching practices that support classroom environments characterized by shared expectations, positive relationships, and other features that promote SEL (e.g., use of  group work to facilitate collaboration)…integration of SEL instruction into the academic curriculum (e.g., engaging students in complex mathematics problem-solving activities to help promote persistence in addition to mathematics learning) efforts to create a schoolwide climate and conditions that foster SEL, including new disciplinary approaches and a common vision.

Now, I can’t help but feel that something is odd when “facilitating group work” or “engaging students in compex problem-solving activities,” not to mention a safe and secure school environment, are treated as “interventions” otherwise not to be found in school life, and even given the “learning progressions” treatment (though in the IES “Review” linked above, this is called “vertical integration”). Why the “recent policy interest?    I suspect that these ingredients of a rich and constructive learning experience are not news to most teachers, most adminstrators, most parents, most students.  Makes no sense, unless “recent policy interest” means a discovery that the pendulum has swung rather too far in the direction of standardized testing of concepts and skills in a narrow range of subjects.  This is Peter Greene’s take, in a post from last December:

I pin the return of SEL on the rise of test-centered learning, on a rising tide of people looking around and saying, “Oh, yeah– I suppose there is more to learning to be a grown-up human than just bubbling answers on a Big Standardized Test.”

Yet I am reminded of Twain’s (?) comment that history doesn’t repeat itself but rather rhymes.  The recognition that There is More to Learning than academics is now necessarily expressed in a policy vocabulary that reflects what Jal Mehta in Teachers College Record called “the penetration of technocratic logic into the educational field.”

Hence, SEL is operationalized as competencies, which can be parametrized for measurement, data collection, and commodification — and the next few posts will address each of these in turn.

For homework, check out Audrey Watters’s 10th entry in her review of “top-ed tech stories” for 2017:  “Education technology and the new behaviorism.”

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