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).