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MSPnet Blog: “SEL #4: The “competency” frame”

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posted February 5, 2018 – by Brian Drayton

I have been fascinated to see how, as  “social and emotional learning”  (SEL) has gained currency as a focus of school policy, it as been translated into the native language of modern educational policy, that of standards and accountability.  This language has various dialects, and the one that seems to be increasingly in use is that of “competencies”  and skills.

A good example of this marriage of SEL and  “competency” is the recent report from Aspen Institute’s “National Commission on Social and Emotional Learning.” (The commission is one that Aspen  created;  the co-chairs are Linda Darling-Hammond, Gov. John Engler, and Tim Shriver of CASEL (the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.)  The report tells us (pg. 10) that

Decades of research in human development, cognitive and behavioral neuroscience, and educational practice and policy have illuminated that major domains of human development—social, emotional, cognitive, linguistic, academic—are deeply intertwined in the brain and in behavior. Moreover, all are central to learning and success.

Not only that, but

 “robust and irrefutable” research has confirmed that “these skills and competencies emerge, grow, and change over time from infancy, throughout childhood and adolescence, and even into adulthood.


To facilitate student success, adults must understand the broader environmental and social context in which students learn. They must also create and assess learning conditions that give students the opportunity to activate, demonstrate, and grow the social, emotional, and academic competencies they bring to the classroom.

Now, what is a “competency” in this era?  A widely-circulated list of core characteristics of a “competency,”  developed by iNACOL, reads thus:

  • Students advance upon demonstrated mastery;
  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students;
  • Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students;
  • Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs; and
  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

There’s work going on in many states to incorporate these values into their standards.   The State of Maine has developed “developmental frameworks” that are commended by CASEL, and one can see why.  Indeed, these frameworks do a pretty good job of integrating  SEL with other habits and processes of learning, working, and collaboration.  Yet a sample (from the guidelines on “clear and effective expression”) may suggest questions about how such descriptors could be operationalized as “explicit, measurable, transferrable learning objectives”  :

Recognizes how body language, tone, and delivery affect audiences differently, when modeled and identified by others.  Reflects on own level of engagement and emotional response, with feedback.  Relies on observations and feedback from others to adjust body language, eye contact, pace, and volume of speech or technique in writing.  Notices overt body language, tone, and expression of others.   Follows expectations in attempt to convey purpose, using basic conventions.   Tinkers with new forms of expression and techniques.

Illinois has also developed an elaborated set of SEL “learning standards.”  These are laid out as learning progressions keyed to 5 points in the K-12 timeline:  early and late elementary, middle school, and early and late high school.  The progression for “Use communication and social skills to interact effectively with others includes the following:

2C.1a (early elem.) “Identify ways to work and play well with others.”  
2C.2a (late elem) “Describe approaches for making and keeping friends.”  
2C.3a (middle/jr high) “Analyze waysto establish positive relationships with others.”  
2C.4a (early HS) “Evaluate the effects of requesting support from and providing support to others.”
2C.5a (late HS) “Evaluate the application of communication and social skills in daily interactions with others.”
The school authorities seem to have some sense of  how hard such “standards” would be to measure, much less incorporate into the curriculum (though I guess they’re moving ahead with them).  They provide, among other “learning supports,” a “compendium” of SEL measures that have been developed by psychologists and other researchers over the years, with the hope that they will be useful to researchers, educators, and others who are seeking to engage with SEL.  The list focuses entirely on the young end of the range (preK-early elementary, in most cases), and most of the measures are not surprisingly very labor-intensive, and pretty technical — requiring a fair amount of training and practice before they could be used well.

So how does this all fit into the other challenges, initiatives, disruptions, and innovations that schools are supposed to be taking on?  EduTopia, in highlighting 10 of  CASEL’s guidelines for a SEL program in schools (here), makes clear the size of the challenge for a school or district, including program design and integration with the rest of the curriculum;  addressing school climate issues;  building cooperative home-school relations oriented to the SEL program; and teacher professional development.  After all, as the Aspen Commission points out, teachers can’t instill social/emotional competencies that they don’t have themselves.  (Herein, it seems to me, is a rather large can of worms.)

On top of it all, as CASEL points out, financial sustainability is an issue for a SEL program (just as finances are an Achilles’ heel for many ed-tech innovations).

As I will discuss in my next post, the multiple challenges — how to measure, how to deliver, how to integrate, how to sustain SEL as a separate strand of school policy and practice, as a remediation for recent dehumanizing trends in ed policy — are being seen as fertile ground for entrepreneurs, and of course some of these are convinced that techology will of course be a central ingredient.