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).

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.



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.