In June, Chester E. Finn, Jr. wrote a scathing piece comparing the work of social-emotional learning (SEL) to the self-esteem movement promoted in California in the 1980s. Using the subtitle of “faux psychology,” he tried to dismiss SEL altogether. The polemic nature of his piece is probably best dealt with by ignoring it. The author seems like Sleeping Beauty waking up after 30 years, looking around, and not realizing how much the world has changed. But given a bit of time, Sleeping Beauty may be able to adjust to the new world, and the best path forward is to engage in dialogue rather than an argument.
Given the history of education fads, the author is certainly right to look critically at the way SEL is sweeping the field. But let’s begin with why this might be. For decades, education’s big issue was not self-esteem; it was that education theory and practice were robbed of the perspective that the learner is primarily a human being, that the student is a whole child. The field disregarded that children make meaning both with critical cognitive focus and with emotions and passion. Thanks to a decade or so of the No Child Left Behind Act, the idea of the holistic learner was pushed out and educators were forced to focus almost entirely on students’ testable cognitive skills.
Those years did, in fact, focus us on rigorous academic outcomes comparing the U.S. with international education systems. Still, while it put needed pressure on the entire education system, let’s not forget that the billions of dollars invested in the high stakes testing approach yielded limited positive results.
Ultimately, No Child Left Behind was a social experiment far greater than any self-esteem education, and the results were disappointing and in some ways even harmful.
Now, in an effort to mend the system, educators are trying to build up a broader version of the learner. If we understand that reality, we can work out solutions instead of tearing down the efforts to usher in a new way of engaged, personalized, and emotionally meaningful learning. We should truly view this era of experimentation and the acknowledgement of the whole child as a welcome development.
Having established this issue, let’s address the specific points the author makes. First, Mr. Finn contends that SEL skills and character are not identical; on that, he is correct. Character brings in a strong moral dimension, something SEL does not typically include or want to include. However, this does not make dimensions of social-emotional development less powerful than those of character. While there is a place for character in education, the downside is that it often verges on indoctrination rather than student exploration and choice in moral development. On the other hand, SEL quite consciously stays out of the moral business by focusing on necessary competencies, such as those associated with 21st-century learning, college, and employment skills. Still, some SEL frameworks and competency lists include a few skills that have elements or morality, such as empathy, perseverance, and self-management. Thus, a productive conversation is needed rather than an a priori decision that character education is good and SEL education is not.
Second, it is true that the evidence base for SEL itself is not extremely strong, however it is incorrect to say that it doesn’t exist – and it’s a growing field! Additionally, while the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has done great work in the field, the paradigm shift we are witnessing today is far more than CASEL-related. A significant and exciting piece of this is that a number of research and practice paradigms are coming together to develop a robust field. SEL is a culmination of much research and testing ranging from neuroscience and trauma research, to in-depth studies on adversity and resiliency, all the way to the classification of 21st-century skills. Together, these well-researched fields represent a strong foundation for SEL. For this reason, I call it social-emotional development; it involves not only school-based learning, but also well-being and growth. Understanding it’s groundwork, it is hard to imagine that SED will be a momentary fad.
Taken together, the support for SEL becomes much stronger than the author leads us to believe, and perhaps Sleeping Beauty will wake up to an enormously productive world that is reshaping education. Mr. Finn, we would welcome you to join this new world.