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DAILY RECAP

Getting Smart – Day 2 – Advancing Social and Emotional Learning

Second day of Getting Smart session sees Fellows consider the past, present and future of social and emotional learning, what evidence is needed to advance SEL, and what can be learned from music and neuroscience

Getting Smart - Day 2

Getting Smart - Day 2

Louise Hallman | 06.12.2016

The past, present and future for social and emotional learning

Has social and emotional learning (SEL) been overlooked in the past? What place does it have on curricula at present? And what greater importance might SEL have in the future? 

These were just some of the questions facing the opening panel on the first full day of the Salzburg Global session Getting Smart: Measuring and Evaluating Social and Emotional Skills. Bringing perspectives from the UK, Costa Rica, Slovakia and Korea and from across sectors including the media, public policy and research, opinions varied greatly.

While the formal categorization of SEL might be recent, skills such as grit, resilience, communication, and empathy have long been present in schools’ curricula, argued one Fellow. These skills used to be developed through participation in the arts and music. However, these subjects are being squeezed out and sacrificed in place of greater emphasis on more “valued” subjects such as math, science and literary. “We’re removing the ‘joy of learning,’” warned one Fellow. “You can teach a child to recite a poem but that won’t give them empathy.”

The social aspect of SEL should also not be overlooked, pointed out another Fellow; the whole school environment is a vital component in nurturing SEL, with the principal especially important in establishing a school’s ethos.

The importance of the more cognitive skills-based subjects has partly been driven by the importance of their assessment and the subsequent rankings of schools and whole countries’ education systems in various national and international league tables. This has led to the proposal that perhaps SEL would be taken more seriously if it were quantified, tested and measured. Whether SEL can – and indeed should – be tested is still very much the subject of heated debate, as was seen in Salzburg.

While the assessment of SEL would likely help raise its profile and perceived value, it could also lead to a narrowing of skills or a universal understanding and expectation of students’ “soft skills” regardless of cultural or country context. 

It must also be recognized that assessment is not the only motivation for teachers (or students). As one Fellow remarked, the ultimate goal is not to quantify and measure SEL but to nurture these skills. What other alternative incentives should be considered and adopted? “Do we teach it for the sake of teaching or teach because it can be measured?”

What evidence do we have and what do we need to promote SEL?

The day’s second panel considered “How do we ‘make the case’ for social and emotional learning (SEL)?”

Positive attitudes and behaviors towards self, school and society are developed through SEL. Research has shown that students who took part in controlled SEL programs saw improved classroom behavior, had better self-esteem and management of their of stress, and fewer instances of depression. Evidence increasingly shows the importance of social and emotional learning and its impact on other, cognitive skills – or as a discussant on the second panel put it: “If we invest in the heart, that will help the head.”

Researchers also expect that future employers will put greater emphasis on “human” skills such as communication, collaboration and creativity as we enter the “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” making SEL vital for success in the workplace of tomorrow as well as the classroom of today.

Yet ambivalence towards SEL remains with some parents, educators, policymakers, and students questioning how much, if any, time it should be given in the curriculum. There is also a persistent ignorance about where SEL skills are most needed and valuable. SEL is not just necessary in schools – these skills must be practiced elsewhere also, and used throughout a person’s life, not just their education.

How can we produce better evidence to support stronger arguments for the promotion and nurture of SEL?

Hundreds of SEL programs are currently being studied, but it is not enough to know if SEL programs work, but how, why and for whom as different results can be found in different contexts. Why is it that students who took part in a music-led SEL program exhibited greater empathy than those in the control drama-led SEL program? SEL programs alone do not see positive effects – they need to be well-planned, well-taught, and well-implemented.Research has also shown that SEL programs are more effective when they are integrated in to the general curriculum and taught by classroom teachers rather than external experts. While they benefit hugely from such programs, adolescents often find it hard to engage in top-down SEL programs; educators need to engage them in both the program design and implementation.Evidence to support SEL can be found an built upon from many sectors beyond just education: much can be learned from studies focusing on neuroscience, psychology, health and economics, such as the impact of SEL on physical as well as mental health (mindfulness reduces heart pressure) and how cost effective this can be for society-at-large.Responsibility for building this evidence base lies not only with policymakers and researchers, but also NGOs, teachers and parents. These adults too need to have their SEL developed. 

Music and PTSD as a case study

The arts can play a huge role in enhancing and nurturing SEL, none more so than music.

Neuroscience show that music activates all four parts of the brain: the frontal lobe that controls behavior and emotions; the parietal lobe that integrates sensory and visual information; the temporal lobe that processes language and stores long-term memories; and the occipital lobe, home to the visual cortex.It is partly for this reason that music has been used in helping war veterans with PTSD.

Working together with gold-selling and Grammy Award-winning songwriters, US veterans taking part in the “Songwriting with Soldiers” initiative draw on their experiences in war and the difficulties of returning home to produce not just music but songs with powerful lyrics. Every time a person remembers an incident it moves from long-term memory to working memory. The process of recalling troubling memories and traumatic experiences and turning them into songs enables the PTSD-suffering soldiers to change how they remember such experiences. “Songwriting is a unique way of encoding a memory,” explains neuroscientist, musician and law school dean Harry Ballan.

Music therapy has been shown to be beneficial in other areas. Research has shown some non-verbal autistic children can become verbal through musical exercises that help expand parts of the brain.

If music is to be adopted into SEL programs, it is important to recognize that creation holds more benefits than appreciation. Even just six weeks of piano lessons has greater cognitive benefits than attending weekly music concerts throughout a lifetime.

Download the newsletter from Day 2


The Salzburg Global Session Getting Smart: Measuring and Evaluating Social and Emotional Skills is part of the Salzburg Global series Education for Tomorrow's World, hosted partnership with ETS. More information on the session can be found here: www.salzburgglobal.org/go/566 You can follow the discussion on Twitter with the hashtag: #SGSedu

06.12.2016 Category: SALZBURG UPDATES, IMAGINATION, EDUCATION
Louise Hallman