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).

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.