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.