Getting up to speed on social and emotional learning

Increasingly, academic institutions, international organizations, and non-profit foundations are calling for social and emotional skills to take greater prominence both in the everyday practices of schools as well as in the policy agendas of the organizations that support them. 

Note: whether you call them social emotional skills, soft skills, non-cognitive skills, transferable skills, 21st century skills, or something else is still a matter of some debate.

Putting terminology aside, a few of the more prominent efforts to call attention to the importance of social and emotional skills in education include the following:

  • A 2012 report from the U.S.-based National Research Council, “Education for life and work: developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st century”
  • A 2012 literature review from the University of Chicago, “Teaching adolescents to become learners”
  • A 2013 literature review prepared for the UK Cabinet Office, “The impact of non-cognitive skills on outcomes for young people”
  • A 2015  report and framework (updated in 2017) from the OECD released as part of an effort to measure social and emotional skills, “Social and Emotional Skills: Well-being, Connectedness, and Success”
  • A 2016 background paper for the UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report, “Non-cognitive skills: definitions, measurement, malleability”
  • A 2016 report from the World Economic Forum, “New vision for education: fostering social and emotional learning through technology”
  • A 2017 paper from the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, “The evidence base for how we learn”
  • A 2018 report prepared by New Zealand’s Chief Science Advisor, “A Commentary on Digital Futures and Education”

A few research and policy organizations calling for action in this space in the U.S. include:

  • A 2013 report from the Asia Society and the Rand Corporation, “Measuring 21st century competencies: guidance for educators”
  • A 2014 report from the Rand Corporation, “Measuring hard to measure student competencies: a research and development plan”
  • A 2014 briefing paper from the Economic Policy Institute, “The need to address non-cognitive skills in the education policy agenda”
  • A 2014 report from the New America Foundation, “Skills for success: supporting and assessing key habits, mindsets, and skills in PreK-12”

And finally, a few key academic research studies underlying or extending on this thinking come from the following:

  • Durlak (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: a meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions.  “This article presents findings from a meta-analysis of 213 school-based, universal social and emotional learning (SEL) programs involving 270,034 kindergarten through high school students. Compared to controls, SEL participants demonstrated significantly improved social and emotional skills, attitudes, behavior, and academic performance that reflected an 11-percentile-point gain in achievement. “
  • Heckman (2012). Hard evidence on soft skills. “Achievement tests miss, or perhaps more accurately, do not adequately capture, soft skills—personality traits, goals, motivations, and preferences—that are valued in the labor market, in school, and in many other domains. The larger message of this paper is that soft skills predict success in life, that they causally produce that success, and that programs that enhance soft skills have an important place in an effective portfolio of public policies.”
  • Heckman (2013). Fostering and measuring skills: interventions that improve character and cognition. “The literature establishes that achievement tests do not adequately capture character skills–personality traits, goals, motivations, and preferences–that are valued in the labor market, in school, and in many other domains…Character is a skill, not a trait. At any age, character skills are stable across different tasks, but skills can change over the life cycle. Character is shaped by families, schools, and social environments. “
  • Jackson (2016). What do test scores miss? The importance of teacher effects on non-test score outcomes. “…Teachers have effects on skills not measured by test-scores, but reflected in absences, suspensions, course grades, and on-time grade progression. Teacher effects on these non-test-score outcomes in 9th grade predict effects on high-school completion and predictors of college-going—above and beyond their effects on test scores. Relative to using only test-score measures of teacher quality, including both test-score and non-test-score measures more than doubles the predictable variability of teacher effects on these longer-run outcomes.” For an accessible interview with Jackson, this post from the 74 is great.

All of these papers have helped ground much of my thinking on the importance of the key competencies in the New Zealand education context, and U.S.-based school districts would do well to have a familiarity with them as well.  A good place to start thinking about how to act on some of this research might be the District Resource Center or the Measuring SEL blog of the Center for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).

SOLO your roll: A critique of the SAMR model

Working in edtech, I was exposed to the SAMR model many years ago. It’s widely used here in New Zealand, as in the United States. And it’s a handy acronym used to help teacher conceptualize new possibilities for the integration of technology into the classroom.

For that purpose, it works just fine.

It’s when movement up the SAMR ladder is assumed to lead to more complex and critical thinking that I have questions.

SAMR stands for the following:

Substitution – tech acts as direct tool substitute with no functional change
Augmentation – tech acts as a direct tool substitute with functional improvement
Modification – tech allows for significant task redesign
Redefinition – tech allows for the creation of new tasks, previously inconceivable

It was conceived by a chemistry PhD who is now on what looks like a lecture and consulting circuit in education circles, with some interesting content online for free.  Well done on his part developing a tool that has resonated with education audiences around the world – we need all the creative thinking we can get in education.

But we also need all the critical thinking we can get. And it’s how the SAMR model is derived in practice that demands more critical thought than what it receives.

Consider this example, the first one in the top hit from a Google search for “SAMR model:”

Original Assignment: A hand written paper
Substitution: A Word Processor replaces a Pen/Pencil in a writing assignment.
Augmentation: A Word Processor and text-to-speech function are used to improve the writing process.
Modification: The document created using the Word Processor and text-to-speech function is shared on a blog where feedback can be received and incorporated to help improve the quality of writing.
Redefinition: Instead of a written assignment, students convey analytic thought using multimedia tools.

SAMR examples often look like this – the original assignment is bland, without any description of the type of thinking required, and then two things happen by the time you’ve hit “Redefinition”:

(1) The activity now requires more complex thinking
(2) The activity now has a technology focus

In the example above you can see how this plays out – the original assignment is literally a sentence fragment, “a hand-written paper.” The “redefined” assignment is certainly that, now describing what students will do (“convey analytic thought”) and how they will do it (“using multimedia tools”).

This separation is critical – multimedia tools might “redefine” the means of expression, but they don’t, by themselves, lead to deeper thinking.  Take it from someone who has watched students flick between tabs on a Google image search for 20 minutes, then copy and paste text into a slide straight from Wikipedia to finish up a “multimedia presentation.”

We hear so often in edtech that “it’s not about the tech” or “technology is just a tool.” And that’s why I’d be very cautious in leading learning conversations with the SAMR model.

If technology is truly secondary, then lead with something  like Bloom’s Taxonomy, or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, or the SOLO Taxonomy, or whatever it is that you use to anchor learning design for students. Then ask, “Given the type of thinking and depth of learning we’d like to see at this stage, how can technology help us meet our objective?”

Tech may or may not be the best tool for the job. If it is, use it for all of the awesome potential that it has to meet your learning goals. And then maybe compare the exercise you’re undertaking against the SAMR model to see how significant a shift in practice you’re asking teachers and students to make.

But if you’re leading with the SAMR model as a framework for deepening critical thinking, just be aware that the construct can be used “redefine” a task right back to really powerful pencil and paper output if you just set things up right:

Original Assignment: A multimedia presentation
Substitution:  Pen/Pencil draft replaces a Powerpoint slide template
Augmentation: Reading work aloud to a classmate is used to improve the writing process.
Modification: Students swap draft outlines so that feedback can be received and incorporated to help improve the quality of writing.
Redefinition: Instead of a multimedia presentation, students convey analytic thought using a hand-written assignment







Kiwi Soft Power

Summer is long gone, but this Op-Ed from the  Feb. 10 edition of the Dominion Post still resonates for its hilarious take on the politics of the summer barbecue.

Donald Trump’s sleep is restless. He dreams of column after column of cold-steel phallus rolling along Pennsylvania Avenue. Rows of gigantic missiles to put Putin in his places, thousands of gun–metal grey tanks to set Jong-un’s nerves a-gangling. 

Meanwhile, in a backyard on a humble street in Tauranga, power is displayed in the deft handling of a sausage and sashay of steak (sirloin or eye fillet, certainly not rump) over a hot plate. 

National ‘s Simon Bridges no doubt knows the value of Kiwi soft-power around a barbecue; the light, beer-induced banter among powerbrokers; the casual sweep of tongs to distract the eye and redirect the discussion; and the ability to diplomatically keep other pretenders away from that fiery altar. 

We may not have the missiles, the marines, the military might, but there is much to be learned from a man or woman’s management of the barbecue. 

Our own leader, Jacinda Ardern, demonstrated such power on Waitangi Day when she grabbed the barbecue implements to distribute the sausages and further undermine the pillars of male hegemony. 

Bridges may also fancy his chances at leadership. If he is, at some point in the future, named National Party leader, he will recall that his successful campaign began with a barbecue in a backyard on a humble street in Tauranga. 

Brilliant. And for the record, Bridges currently does sit as the leader of the National Party.

Key Competencies in the NZ Curriculum

It’s now truly writing time for my Axford paper, and I’ve done a pretty unremarkable job updating this space during my time in New Zealand. With about 3 months left, I’d like to change that. The current strategy? Kick off the day with a short spout of writing, whether on something read or something experienced over the past few months.

The core of my work is looking into the role technology can play in supporting the development of the Key Competencies of the New Zealand Curriculum. That curriculum refers to those competencies as “capabilities for living and lifelong learning”, defined as the following:

  • Thinking
  • Relating to others
  • Using language, symbols, and texts
  • Managing self
  • Participating and contributing

That is, TRUMP – an acronym most schools here seem to have moved on from, though you may spot the occassional set of TRUMP attributes on a teacher’s wall here or there.

Putting aside the irony of that acronym alongside managing self and relating to others for a moment, it’s important to note that the KC’s themselves are based on work from the OECD. The OECD built a framework to guide the development of its PISA assessments through a process known as the Definition and Selection of Competencies – the DeSeCo project.  The four competencies that resulted – acting autonomously, functioning in heterogenous groups, using tools interactively, and thinking – were chosen as a set of skills that meet the following criteria:

  • Every student needs them
  • They are relevant across cultures and disciplines
  • They are interdisciplinary, i.e. relevant to all areas of the curriculum

For my part, I chose to focus on understanding how secondary schools address the KC’s for the following reasons:

  • Teaching has traditionally focused on student acquisition of content knowledge in largely isolated disciplines. I wanted to better understand how New Zealand schools think about moving beyond this paradigm into one focused on teaching skills as well as content.
  • Survey data of NZ teaching practices show that teachers may be struggling to develop aspects of the key competencies among students, such as ensuring that students “think critically and talk about what and how they are learning,” a practice fewer than 25% of NZ teachers rated as being done “very well.” A practice that critical to the education of children being marked fairly low in comparison to others deserves further investigation.
  • Part of the reason schools often neglect to focus time and energy on developing “capabilities” among students is that they are not accountable for growth in those areas in the same way they are held accountable for achievement in traditional subjects like math and reading, or traditional metrics like graduation rates. I wanted to better understand how the NZ Ministry of Education supports the broad goals it has set out for students through its national curriculum in part by understanding how schools view their own accountability in meeting those goals. I’ve found, as with many aspects of NZ education, the way schools approach talking about, implementing, and measuring the KC’s varies considerably from one school to the next.



Measuring Skills that Matter

Most everyone agrees that “soft skills” matter, even if they don’t agree on what to call them. Soft skills, social emotional skills, non-cognitive skills, even 21st century skills can all generally refer to the attributes you’d appreciate in a good co-worker – someone who is collaborative, creative, empathetic, able to give and receive feedback, and able to focus to get things done.

I would argue that most of the time we assume that these types of skills develop naturally in school – we assume that by virtue of going to class, completing tests and projects, and finishing school that students graduate with both content knowledge and the ability to work well with others, think creatively, and solve unencountered problems.

To a certain extent, that’s true, as University of Chicago research James Heckman has shown. In one paper, “Hard Evidence on Soft Skills” Heckman compared three groups of American adults – those who had graduated with a high school diploma but did not attend college, those who received a diploma as adults (known as a GED), and those who dropped out of high school without a diploma.

In Heckman’s sample, the high school-only and GED graduates ostensibly had the same cognitive skills – that is, they performed similarly on a standardized test (the Armed Forces Qualification Test). You might expect that due to their similar achievement levels, high school and GED graduates would perform similarly in the labor market – and you’d likely expect them both to perform better than those with no diploma.

But they don’t. Heckman found that GED graduates actually perform more like those who never obtained a high school diploma than those who did. And those high school graduates? They perform better than both groups.

He attributes these differences among groups  to non-cognitive skills and argues the following:

– Variations in standardized tests can be partly explained by non-cognitive factors. Children who show curiosity and persistence, for example, tend to have higher test scores – they’ll stick with a task like a test and be interested in how everything turns out. That curiosity and persistence tends to be rewarded later in the workplace and beyond.
– Standardized tests fail to fully account for the range of skills one needs to be successful in the workplace and other arenas. So policymakers and analysts who judge a system solely by achievement test scores may be misled by the numbers (e.g. GED recipients are counted as high school graduates but in the long run don’t perform like them).
– In sum: “Monitoring school progress and creating programs to enhance skills requires a broader framework of measurement. Interventions that promote beneficial changes in personality have an important place in a portfolio of public policies to foster human development.”

I would expect a fair number of teachers to be nodding their heads in agreement with these conclusions. But how those teachers approach their work isn’t always informed by them, partly because of the pressures created by policymakers in the systems in which those teachers operate.

The tricky part here is that even though we know non-cognitive skills matter, it can be quite difficult to determine how we know students are making progress on them – as well as what strategies are best used to develop them.

Here in New Zealand, standardized testing took a big hit with the end of National Standards; a challenge now lurks in thinking about how system performance can be assessed. In the U.S., districts in California and charter organizations are broadening their measures of success, even as the debate continues about how to do so.

As I continue to visit schools and dive into research, I’m looking forward to understanding more about how schools themselves and developing systems to measure what matters among their students.


List of Sorts: Appreciations and Adjustments

After living in New Zealand for a few months now it’s time for a short, random list of sorts – below are a few simplicities I appreciate and a few things that take some, shall we say, getting used to.

–Poor Knights Islands. Bland Bay. Cape Foulwind. Doubtful Sound. Doubtless Bay. Dead Whale Reef. While the Maori names of places are the richest in meaning, I’m definitely enjoying their droll British counterparts. Seems like there were quite a few days when Captain Cook wasn’t having a great time mapping New Zealand.

— Our first encounter with NZ’s eels came at a wildlife center in Hokitika that had a tank full of 90-year old, female, blind specimens that long ago lost the taste for fish and now subsist solely on steak (an excellent retirement plan, btw). The crazy thing about these eels is not how they’ve managed to carve out a life being hand-fed steak tartare at every meal, but that they were all born in the ocean somewhere east of Fiji and Tonga and drifted back to live out their lives in New Zealand streams. Somehow their parents made it from those streams across the ocean to spawn in the first place – science, of course, is trying to ruin the grand mystery by tracking exactly where this all happens.

— Glowworms are magical. On a night walk through kauri trees in Waipoua Forest small constellations of bright blue glowworms (actually fly larvae) sparkle like stars. Between eel migratory patterns and glowworms, I definitely didn’t expect to be this fascinated by larvae.

— Maybe I’ve just missed some places in the States, but ordering up a tuna roll always means you’re getting fresh fish. If you’re not careful in NZ your tuna roll might just come from a can…

— … but the espresso at gas stations totally makes up for sad tuna. We’ve come across a few gas stations with full-on barista service and flat whites at the ready.

— Some time around 10:30-11am, teachers head to the lounge for a cuppa, whether it’s tea or coffee. Not only do most schools in the U.S. not provide tea and coffee for staff, they certainly don’t make time for it.

— Honesty boxes are everywhere from the side of the road to the office cafeteria. In the office you’ll see a box of baked goods, a tin for collecting payment, and a ledger to write down how much you bought and when (have not seen anyone just leave their VenMo name yet; possible missed opportunity for those of us without a lot of small change around). I often wonder how much a cookie side hustle pulls down in a given week, and what the true intentions are – give your coworkers a much-needed sugar boost, or run that cookie racket so you’ve got your coffee budget covered all week?

— Besides the stunning natural scenery, it’s nice to hike in a place where there isn’t anything waiting to kill you. No bears, snakes, scorpions, etc. Maybe, just maybe, a spider might cause you trouble. But your biggest threats are more likely to be something like cliffs, avalanches, or rip tides, the last of which is why the Swim Reaper has his own website.

— Finally, I’ve never seen a country more into David Bowie. I support this wholeheartedly.


Old ideas and new

For the past couple weeks I’ve been setting up school visits and looking into the literature on 21st century skills and competencies, digital technologies, and authentic learning in education.

Here’s a few choice quotes that feed into much of the thinking in those realms.

If students are to be prepared to cope with new and changing conditions, they must be exposed to more than current factual knowledge and occupational skills…They must learn, for example, how to think, communicate, organize, interact, make decisions, solve problems, and assign priorities, but most of all, they must learn how to learn.

By using the community as a classroom, we are in a position to use natural situational frames as a means for integrating learning and practice and fitting patterns of formal learning to local patterns of informal learning…we can use the natural setting and events of the community to bring students into the flow of real-life experiences where they can acquire more pervasive and useful process skills.

That’s from a 1981 paper by a researcher at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks making the argument for more project-centered forms of education rooted in local communities.

Now here’s the OECD, in its Education 2030 position paper:

Students will need to apply their knowledge in unknown and evolving circumstances. For this, they will need a broad range of skills, including cognitive and meta-cognitive skills…social and emotional skills…and practical and physical skills…

A concept underlying the learning framework is “co-agency” – the interactive, mutually supportive relationships that help learners to progress towards their valued goals. In this context, everyone should be considered a learner, not only students but also teachers, school managers, parents and communities.

Sound similar? It’s a good reminder to myself and others thinking about education futures that often plenty of effort has been undertaken to think through these things in the past.

For example, is this a venture-funded micro-school, or just an effort supported by the design-thinking innovation gurus of of the School District of Philadelphia in the 1960’s?

…facilities such as abandoned warehouses, offices and schools along the Parkway were used for meeting places and to store materials and resources. Students and teachers met on a flexible schedule for various learning activities, depending on outside involvements and individual or group needs. Teachers served as tutors and counselors, and supervised student activities with cooperating agencies and institutions in the community.

The answer, of course, is the latter.

Humbly acknowledging that much of the way that we talk about education and many of the solutions proposed have already been explored in the past, I’m going to keep plugging away on this literature review with a couple of questions in mind.

1. What resources do we now have available to improve learning?

2. What realities do we face that compel us to test out those resources?

These, of course, aren’t new questions. Some of the best questions never are.

Articulation, Feb 2018: We’re all cool with innovation here, right?

I read a lot, and without some kind of reflection, usually forget what I read. “Articulation” is an attempt to connect some of the dots.

How leaders can master persuasion as a skill and habit (First Round Review)
In which a Google engineer reads Daniel Kahnman’s Thinking Fast and Slow and goes on the lecture circuit; or, how to get everyone to agree without thinking too hard about it. Which leads us to…

How Betsy DeVos softened her message on school choice (Politico)
In which the beleaguered U.S. Secretary of Education learns that people are less testy about ideas that come packaged as “innovation.” Like school choice. And on that note…

New Zealand is a school choice utopia. But do students perform better? (PBS)
In which, much like a parent doing some school shopping, the “BBI Sports Cloud” distracts me from wondering what academic performance looks like, and systemic white flight from “low decile” schools is discussed.

Note: Several key features of the New Zealand education system mentioned in the PBS article, published for a U.S. audience, are now out of date, including (1) Though still widely known, decile levels are no longer publicly reported, replaced by an internal “Risk Index” that will drive school funding (2) Performance on National Standards is no longer reported annually in lower grade levels  (3) The entire 1989 Tomorrow’s Schools governance model and operating framework is under review as the new Labour government tries to put together a 30-year vision for education




5 resources for learning the Māori language

From Te Waipounamu to Te Ika a Maui, one of the more striking aspects of being in New Zealand/Aotearoa is its bilingualism.   Māori words and phrases pepper perfectly routine English sentences in the newspapers, TV, and radio. Much of the geography and wildlife of Aotearoa is known in singularly Māori terms. And government agencies list their titles and much of their signage in words I understand and those I absolutely have to learn more about.

The recognition of te reo Māori has not come without a struggle – there was a time when speaking it in schools was prohibited, for example (brief history here).  But since 1987 Māori has been recognized as an official language of New Zealand.

With a relatively short amount of time here, I’ve been doing what I can to learn as much te reo as possible. Here’s a few resources I’ve found particularly helpful.

1. Online dictionary and grammar tools
For looking up a single word, I’m partial to for its thorough explanations of words with multiple significant meanings.  For grammar  I’ve found quite helpful when wondering about a general approach to language, such as how to ask questions.

2. Books and workbooks
On the road, having a copy of “Māori Place Names” on the dashboard was indispensable – so many locations in New Zealand are named for natural features, with names that fly by or blend together until they are unpacked.  I picked up a copy of  “Teach Yourself Māori” a while ago which I’m going to go ahead and *not* recommend  it – a lot of my time has been spent trying to make sense of the formatting of the book. I’m intrigued by these Māori Made Easy books and workbooks and their 30-minutes/day approach, but haven’t pulled the trigger yet. [ED: Picked one up on Feb. 22, loving it]

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Context: New Zealand and American education

Ty Cobb hit .366 over a storied baseball career. Sir Don Bradman posted a 99.4 mark in cricket. Both .366 and 99.4 fall under the category of “batting averages.”

While I can immediately place Cobb’s batting average in context, it takes some furious googling to know what goes into “The Don’s” mark.

I’m facing this kind of challenge daily as I try to acclimate to a new education system. A “standard” here isn’t necessarily a standard there, a college in one place is a high school in another, and all sorts of other terms need clarification (an early thanks to those who’ve paused to explain the basics, repeatedly).

The implications for the speed at which I’m able to work or dig into details are large. To summarize some cognitive science for a second, when you have limited background knowledge on a topic, your working memory (which processes information in the moment) is easily taxed. The more background knowledge you have stored in long-term memory, the quicker you’ll be able to process new or unfamiliar bits of information.  

In the U.S., I’m fairly fluent on the mechanics of most education systems – how many students are served, how success is measured, how organizations are typically staffed and structured, etc. I take a lot of this knowledge for granted as it’s been built up for years as a student, teacher, and professional. It enables me to immediately register basic facts and keep conversations moving beyond widely understood information.

In New Zealand, I’m still developing that fluency. And while being a newcomer allows me to ask some simple questions that might prompt reflection on assumptions that haven’t been tested in awhile, those questions can also slow things down quite a bit.

So in an effort to lock in some essential facts about the scale and operations of education in the U.S. and New Zealand I’d like to spend a bit of time today focused comparing some of the basic features that have frequently come up in conversations so far. (comparison being an effective method for learning).

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