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The Changing Climate for Social-Emotional Learning

I spent a decent chunk of 2019 writing about social and emotional learning (SEL): both endorsing the idea that schools need to take SEL far more seriously and examining whether advocates are going to push a healthy intuition into an inept, ideological ditch. I commissioned various papers and hosted many discussions on all this. At the year's final dinner, Johns Hopkins University's inimitable Hunter Gehlbach sought common ground in the value-laden questions that arise when we get deep into the heart of SEL. As a razor-sharp social psychologist and former high school teacher, Hunter always leaves me interested in hearing more. So, I asked him if he'd jot down a few thoughts about what he had in mind. He was kind enough to do so, with the assistance of Hopkins doctoral student Claire Chuter. Anyway, I thought the result, on "The changing climate for SEL" was well worth sharing. Here's what they had to say:

It has been a strange decade for climate. In the past 10 years, political climate in the U.S. has reached historic levels of discord, while the earth's changing climate has accelerated with dismal speed.  School climate, by contrast, has been a bright spot. Increasing numbers of schools from across the country have warmed to the idea that attention to students' social- emotional learning (SEL) can improve well-being, academic achievement, and the overall school climate.

Yet, as the excitement around infusing SEL into schools enters a new decade, it faces new challenges. Many schools have shifted their discussions. The lofty, high-level, agreeable conversations about how to produce strong characters and whole children have given way to difficult, specific, concrete decisionmaking efforts. Tensions are rising. Who gets to decide which character traits and how they are taught? Which aspects of the whole child will reap additional funding—their athleticism, special needs, or mental health? 

As legislators propose broad SEL policies, some worry that the specific practices embraced in Berkeley might be hard to stomach in Biloxi (and vice versa). Because we all have strong, deeply rooted convictions that our view of reality is the right one, we find it hard to fathom how others' SEL priorities make sense. If common ground cannot be established, fissures between SEL advocates could relegate the SEL movement to the plight of the common core, or worse still, to the fate of the dodo bird.

In the face of our current political climate, establishing common ground seems a particularly daunting task. One potential approach might be borrowed from recent work examining climate science. This research suggests that if people with polarized views begin from a place of common agreement, they might end with greater convergence of opinion when they shift to a subsequent topic of disagreement. In this case, the study took advantage of the fact that most liberals and conservatives believe in science generally and used this common ground to shrink the gap in their disparate opinions about the merits of climate science.

But is there a conception of SEL that could provide this type of common ground for multiple constituencies? On the one hand, perhaps the rising popularity of SEL and school climate is due, in part, to the vague meaning of the terms. SEL may represent an ink blot into which different parties can projectively envision their personal preferences for students.

On the other hand, we also think that a common embracing of SEL can occur by remaining focused on the fundamental psychological needs of students—core needs that apply to everyone regardless of race, political ideology, and culture. Specifically, all students require social connection, motivation, and self-regulation. In other words, before any learning can occur, students must feel a social bond with their teacher and (at least some) peers, they must be motivated to engage in their learning tasks, and they must sufficiently self-regulate to maintain their focus.

Focusing on these three areas delivers multiple benefits. Each domain already has a robust empirical backing—better addressing any of these three needs typically enhances student achievement and well-being. They provide a useful diagnostic tool—for students who are struggling academically, knowing about their social connectedness, motivation, and self-regulation capacities will often generate insights into how to get them back on track. Most importantly for the present discussion, because they are fundamental psychological needs, they are common to all students. As such, they can help unify the push for improved SEL in our schools and districts. 

Divergent political views may cause parents in Biloxi and Berkeley to differentially prioritize which values the educational system imparts to their children—for instance, whether students learn to emphatically stand their ground or empathically step back and listen. Reasonable people who embrace different educational goals might prefer that students strive for fiscal stability or pursue whatever makes them happy. These are philosophical questions with no right answer.

However, everyone can agree that students need a school climate in which they feel socially connected, remain motivated, and can self-regulate. The question then becomes how to best foster those social connections, motivate students, and teach self-regulation. Crucially, this question is no longer philosophical, it is empirical. We can test different approaches and learn what works best for most students most of the time across most contexts.

To accelerate this work in the coming decade, common ground seems crucial to establish—particularly in the current political climate. A conceptualization of SEL rooted in students' fundamental psychological needs seems like the most viable path toward that common ground. Such consensus might create exactly the right climate for the SEL movement to thrive.

Over time, I've mostly encountered two general objections to the kind of thing Hunter and Claire propose here. One is that it's unnecessary and invents a problem where none exists. True believers insist that everyone loves SEL and that talk of ideological conflict and competing values is mostly the sort of thing that bomb-throwers dream up to create trouble. To those people, who remind me of their predecessors who made the same sorts of claims about the wonders of No Child Left, Race to the Top, the Common Core, or teacher evaluation, I can only shrug and suggest they go read this or this or this. The second complaint is that Hunter and Claire have flagged something real, but that what they propose won't be enough to combat it or correct for it in a polarized era. To these people, I can only say: seems like all the more reason to give it a serious shot.

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