Panelists discussed the expanding evidence base regarding the value and interconnectedness of social, emotional and academic development during an event hosted by the Aspen Institute, with several panelists expressing a variety of views regarding how the benefits of transformational educational ideas could be portrayed to educators of all levels.
Oscar Barbarin, a professor at the University of Maryland, said while there are significant economic benefits for incorporating social-emotional development into student’s education in the form of increased work productivity, fewer interactions with the criminal justice system and other aspects, he is wary of utilizing that reasoning as the primary ambition for convincing others to commit to SEL integration.
“I think there’s a weak argument because there’s a distinction between immediate payoff and long-term payoff ... the benefits won’t come until much later but we’re asking schools to ante up now,” he said. “We need to appeal to our higher angels. The goal really is to lead all of us on the pathway to a better life, a good life. It’s one of the most important outcomes. Once we make this shift, we realize that the kind of things we need to do will be a bit different.”
In working to instill social-emotional learning into cognitive practices in K-12 schools, some of the panelists said schools need to work to ensure student participation and connection to a school community. Camille Farrington, a senior research associate and managing director at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, said teaching practices should create a learning environment where students “feel like they’re engaged in an endeavor that matters.”
”If you’re trying to convince people of a sense of belonging, you have to have a community they want to belong to,” she said. “How do we create communities and learning environments that integrate the social-emotional needs as much as the cognitive needs of kids?”
Changing the philanthropic model to support better practices
DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson opined on the importance of research in higher ed institutions to help principals and district leaders discern possible processes and approaches to help improve students’ environment. He said that in his experience, teachers understand the importance of supporting and understanding pertinent research.
“Understanding how this work is supportive of what they’re trying to get done and why, that learning how to get better at it is worth their time … it begins to help them see we’re not just making this up,” Wilson said. “It’s saying, ‘we’re really interested in helping you succeed.’”
Wilson also noted the need to reconsider oft-used approaches which may not be particularly helpful, especially when it comes to funding. He said there was often a significant number of philanthropic dollars available for education, but he believed too much of it was disconnected from other streams, with no funding sources offering a strategic, intertwined approach. Zoe Stemm-Calderon, the director of education at the Raikes Foundation, concurred with Wilson’s assessment, saying that there were often a multitude of reform agendas all being funded by a multitude of different sources without communication to help ensure funds were used to their fullest potential; she said many funding sources saw the need for reform, as well.
“We need to stop funding that way,” she said, noting that many funders often referred to a form of ‘initiative fatigue’ without taking the faults of philanthropic approaches into account. “We create our own problems as funders.”
Maurice Elias, a professor at Rutgers University and the director of the school’s Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab, also noted the importance of ensuring that educators develop strong social/emotional competencies in their own approaches as they work to instill such practices in their own students, likening social-emotional competency to literacy.
“I believe if you can’t read, you will have many difficulties in life. If you can’t read situations and people, you’re also going to have many issues,” he said, also noting the importance of understanding that transformational SEL adjustments would also require institutions specializing in teacher education to reassess how they support their own students. “We are going to be challenged to rethink the training of educators in the U.S. We can’t avoid making that training a bit more extensive, and we need to think about that support after they enter the school doors, and it’s not just episodic but ongoing.”