If the shoe doesn’t fit . . .

Thanks to the good people at GOOD, there’s a really interesting article about the power of social and emotional learning (SEL) – and it’s making me wonder what would happen if we stopped modifying the word “learning” so much and started thinking more holistically about what powerful learning really looks like, and requires.

In the article, Marc Brackett, a research scientist in Yale’s psychology department, recounts his own disaffected relationship with school as a child, and, knowing far too many children still feel the same way, “wants to do a complete emotional makeover of the nation’s schools.” What follows is a laundry list of ideas and approaches we would be wise to adopt: from integrating lessons in emotions into all subjects, to ensuring all teachers understand the skills, knowledge, and attitudes necessary for the emotional literacy of children. “You have to think about what motivates students to want to learn,” Brackett explains. “If you know how emotions drive attention, learning, memory, and decision making you know that integrating SEL is going to enhance those areas.”

Amen, I say. So why aren’t these sorts of practices more widely adopted?

Perhaps part of the answer is couched in the way Brackett describes the benefits themselves – as a valuable approach that must be integrated across the existing curriculum. If you’re a busy principal – and if you’re a principal, you’re busy – it’s hard to read that and not see the prospect of strengthening your school’s commitment to SEL as “one more thing.” Sure enough, I’ve heard many principals use that exact phrase when referencing the many different networks and organizations whose primary value proposition is couched as a modification of the word “learning.” Whether it’s civic-, service-, character-, or social-and-emotional-learning you’re after, it may be that the “just add us” strategy is its own worst enemy.

This is ironic since the latest brain-based research across a range of fields confirms each of the value propositions of these different networks. Powerful learning, we now know, is experiential, it’s relationship-driven, and it’s as much about helping us understand ourselves as it is about helping us make sense of the scientific method or learn to diagram a sentence.  Yet even well-intentioned articles like this one point to “substantial data indicating that SEL raises test scores,” reflecting an ongoing perception that the only way you can make traction for your program is to speak the language of the system, and thereby leaving unchallenged and unnamed the anachronistic practices and policies of the Industrial era – in which the primary needs were to batch and queue unprecedented numbers of children through the system and prepare them for a more certain set of expectations and opportunities than today’s students can expect.

So what if we stopped seeking to integrate these seemingly separate approaches into the existing structure of schools, and started insisting instead on a wholesale reboot of schooling itself? In the former, overworked principals will continue to feel the need to choose between individual programs (“are we a civic-minded or a character-driven school?”), and we’ll continue to break up the core components of a transformational learning environment into different projects, programs, and campaigns. In the latter, we will challenge ourselves to align our practices and policies with the latest knowledge about how people learn, and the latest understanding about which skills and competencies are most essential for young people in order to be successful global citizens.

I vote choice B.

Categories: Learning, Organizational Change

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