Michael Nettles - With SEL, “What Works in Cape Town May Not Work in Cardiff”




Latest News

Print article
Dec 02, 2018
by Michael T. Nettles
Register for our Newsletter and stay up to date
Register now
Michael Nettles - With SEL, “What Works in Cape Town May Not Work in Cardiff”

Senior Vice President of ETS and session co-chair delivers his opening remarks on the global need for SEL education Michael Nettles at Salzburg Global Seminar

Good afternoon. And welcome to Social and Emotional Learning: A Global Synthesis. Or as I like to call it, “Season 3, Episode 4 of How and Why to Get Along With Others.” Given that there are 63 headstrong intellectuals here for five days of discourse and debate, we will surely put our own social and emotional skills to the test.

I don’t know about you, but I would not have it any other way.

My name is Michael Nettles, and I am the Senior Vice President of the Policy Evaluation and Research Center at Educational Testing ServiceETS — of Princeton, New Jersey. I am also the co-chair of this edition of the Salzburg Global Seminar, along with Barbara Holzapfel of Microsoft Education, and Maggie Mitchell Salem of the Qatar Foundation International in Washington, D.C.

I am very gratified by the tremendous interest in this topic. This is the fourth SEL seminar that we have held over the past three years. We convened the first here in Salzburg in 2016, and followed up with seminars in by the Dead Sea in Jordan and last June at ETS in Princeton in the United States, as well as spin-off meetings and conferences in Kampala and Santiago.

In all by the end of this session, more than 200 of our colleagues representing more than 50 countries will have participated in these discussions on the importance of traits variously referred to as social and emotional skills, soft skills, 21st century skills, noncognitive skills, and personality traits.

We met in various locations around the world not to spread the word about the importance of SEL. Clearly, the word was already out. Indeed, interest in the topic is so great that we have scheduled another seminar for next March here in Salzburg. Season 4, Episode 5. Rather, we went elsewhere to learn how these skills are viewed, taught and measured in different places.

It is a critical point given how geographically and culturally dependent education tends to be. What works in Cape Town may not work in Cardiff. That is certainly true in the United States, where public education is a jealously guarded local prerogative at best, and a political, cultural and racial flashpoint at worst. What works in Massachusetts will not work in Tennessee.

Perhaps no one here is more familiar with that imperative than our colleague Karen Niemi, who is the President and CEO of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Collaborative for Academic Social & Emotional Learning, or CASEL. CASEL works directly with 20 school districts serving 1.6 million K–12 students throughout the United States to help them embed SEL into their academic programs. It is a lot of different cultures to keep track of, and no one is more effective at it than Karen.

But as a broad concept, Social and Emotional Learning is on the global education agenda — one that resonates powerfully among the most accomplished and renowned educators, researchers and policymakers throughout the world. You are proof of that.

Not that we need it, but there is other proof: The U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goal for Education sets a target date of 2030 “to ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable … lifestyles [characterized by respect for] human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and nonviolence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.”

The Global Pull of Soft Skills

It is fair to ask why there is so much interest in the subject. The answer, I think we can all agree, is that social and emotional skills are foundational to individual, and thus community and global well-being.

As for the precise definition of those skills, that too depends on geography and culture. The Big Five provide a framework: extroversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism. But everyone further defines them in their own way, and context matters.

As head of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, our colleague Dr. Jennifer Adams identified 10 critical “exit outcomes” for students. According to this approach, students should graduate being:

  1. goal oriented
  2. ethical decision makers
  3. academically diverse
  4. effective communicators
  5. resilient
  6. digitally fluent
  7. innovative and creative
  8. globally aware
  9. critical thinkers
  10. and collaborative

That is a bit different from the approach taken in Manizales, Colombia, by the Urban Active School — the Escuela Activa Urbana, or EAU. The EAU encourages an active teaching model focused on classroom participation, democracy, tolerance, respect, conflict resolution, cooperation, collaboration, teamwork, leadership, and student motivation.

Our colleague Maria Cortelezzi, Executive Director of Argentina’s Proyecto Educar 2050, and two co-authors examined the EAU’s approach in a 2014 article for the PREAL blog of the Inter-American Dialogue’s Education Program. They concluded that EAU students learn more than other public-school students at both the cognitive and noncognitive levels, particularly with regard to emotional development and development of students’ social skills.

Manizales and Ottawa, incidentally, are two of the 11 cities around the world participating in the OECD’s Study on Social and Emotional Skills of 10- and 15-year-old students.

On the other side of the world, our colleague Manish Sisodia, the Delhi minister of education, who had hoped to be with us but is being ably represented by Shailendra Sharma, is overseeing a “happiness curriculum”  for students in nursery up to class VIII at all Delhi government schools.  The curriculum, which Minister Sisodia and the Dalai Lama launched last July, includes meditation, moral values and mental exercises, and is aimed at helping students solve problems caused by negative and destructive emotions such as anger, hatred and jealousy.

To quote from the Delhi Directorate of Education, “the primary purpose of education has to be to create happy, confident and fulfilled human beings, who will play a meaningful role in society. … Self-aware, sensitive and emotionally mature children are far more successful owing to their advanced ability to engage in meaningful relationships with their friends, family and society.”

As Minister Sisodia put it in an interview with The Washington Post, “If a person is going through our education system for 18 years of his life and is becoming an engineer or a civil servant, but is still throwing litter on the ground or engaging in corruption, then can we really say that the education system is working?”  

Back around the globe again, Marc Brackett of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence is the lead developer of an evidence-based approach to SEL that is centered on a different Big Five emotion skills: Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing and Regulating emotions — or RULER. RULER aims to integrate social and emotional learning into the DNA of schools by enhancing how school administrators lead, how teachers teach, how students learn and how families parent.

Research has shown that RULER improves academic performance; decreases bullying and other in-school problems; enriches the classroom atmosphere; reduces teacher stress and burnout; and enhances instructional practices. The RULER approach has been adopted by more than 1,500 public, charter and private pre-school to high schools in the United States, Australia, China, England, Italy, Mexico, Spain, and Sri Lanka.


So SEL is not just catching on. It has caught on.

With changes in curriculum come — or should come — changes in assessment. Whether we ultimately make effective and meaningful use of SEL will depend on whether we develop and deploy effective and meaningful ways to assess soft skills, and put the test data to effective, meaningful and, importantly, affordable use.

In fact, Catherine Millett, who hosted the opening conversation on SEL in December 2016, posed a question to Koji Miyamoto and me about the contextual challenges that arise when it comes to measurement and how can we overcome these challenges of using common measures in Africa, Asia, Latin America and in other parts of the world. Koji and I obviously did not provide a sufficient answer, and that is another reason why we are all here today.

That is where we are now.

Of course, assessing tolerance and collaboration are substantially more complex than assessing math or reading. Simply defining socio-emotional constructs can be elusive, especially in the absence of identifiable learning progressions, as our colleague Esther Care, of the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, notes in a co-authored report published in October.

Even then, the same geographic and cultural variations that characterize education in general raise equally complex issues of cross-cultural validity.  If you think education is culturally specific, I would submit that acceptable social and emotional attitudes and behaviors are culturally specific on steroids.

As Esther Care and her Brookings colleagues put it, “Challenges specific to assessment of 21st century skills may be one reason why education systems are having difficulty translating policies into actual practice in schools and classrooms.”

Addressing that variation is an aim of the OECD’s Study on Social and Emotional Skills — to produce a set of validated international instruments to measure social and emotional skills of school-aged children; and to demonstrate that valid, reliable, and comparable information on social and emotional skills can be produced across diverse student populations and settings, and to identify the policies, practices and other conditions that help or hinder the development of these critical skills.

I should point out that ETS is advising the OECD on SEL measures. Among our other activities in this area, we are also:

  • examining SEL measures in the context of the United States Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress
  • developing a situational judgment test for middle and high school students for the Wallace Foundation, a New York City-based philanthropy that works to improve learning and enrichment for disadvantaged children and foster the vitality of the arts for everyone
  • designing a survey of teachers, school leaders and administrators on the value of noncognitive assessments and the clarity of score reporting
  • integrating into our data analyses and publications such affective measures as communication skills, achievement motivation, intellectual engagement, sociability, working independently, time management, leadership and risk-taking
  • and advising CASEL’s Assessment Work Group

What’s New Is Old

It is an exciting area of education, research and assessment. It all seems very new! And yet it is not at all new to those of us at ETS. Henry Chauncey, the founder and first president of my organization, was pondering the importance of soft skills in 1949. In handwritten notebooks that Catherine Millett and I discovered in the ETS archives some months ago, Chauncey pondered what he called the “non-intellectual factors which affect success or failure.”

He was interested in investigating such “personal qualities” as “drive … motivation … conscientiousness, intellectual stamina … ability to get along with others” as ways to “ascertain whether [an] individual will be [a] good member of the community, in college and later in life, in any one of the many ways that one can contemplate …”

Considering that he wrote these notes just a few years after the end of a World War and at the dawn of the Atomic Age, it is perhaps not surprising that devising ways to improve social and emotional skills might have been of concern.

In some ways, teaching social and emotional skills is the most conservative tradition in education. One need not subscribe to any particular catechism to see in the Big Five emanations of what the Golden Rule, the New Testament injunction to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Somewhat further back, Aristotle asserted that “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all,” an observation that is featured in a brochure of Dr. Brackett’s Center for Emotional Intelligence at Yale.

More recently, the Dalai Lama has pointed out that one seeks enlightenment not for oneself but for the benefit of all beings.

I could say that the world could use a little more of that these days! In that context, rather than lament the current crop of world leaders who seem oddly enamored of intolerance, xenophobia and scapegoating, perhaps we can view them as our best advertisements for effective Social and Emotional Learning curricula. As the saying goes, “Thank you. You are my teacher.”

But we better hurry since we may be just one tweet away from catastrophe.

Once again, welcome. And I look forward to learning from you all over the next few days.

The program Social and Emotional Learning: A Global Synthesis is part of Salzburg Global's mutli-year series Education for Tomorrow’s World. This year’s program is being held in partnership with ETS, Microsoft and Qatar Foundation International, who will also co-chair the program, together with additional partners, the British Council, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and the Inter-American Development Bank.

Related Content

Creating Systems Transformation in Education

Dec 11, 2018

Learning Endures: Creating Educational and Workforce Opportunities for Migrant Students

Dec 18, 2019

Salzburg Global Seminar Expands Partnership with ETS

Mar 14, 2019

Hot Topic - Should SEL Be Measured? If So, How?

Jan 25, 2019

How SEL Can Help Prevent Violence

Dec 05, 2018

The Truth About Technology and SEL

Dec 05, 2018

A Broader, Fairer and Smarter Education System in the UK

Jan 18, 2019

The Politics of SEL Reform - "Start Small, Learn Fast, Fail Well"

Dec 10, 2018

Transforming the Citizens of Tomorrow through SEL

Dec 19, 2018

Hot Topic - Should Social and Emotional Learning be Integrated Into School Curriculum or Not?

Dec 11, 2018

SEL, Creating Systems Transformation, and the Politics of Reform

Dec 04, 2018

Addressing the Supply and Demand of SEL Skills

Dec 03, 2018

Hot Topic - Why Is There a Demand for SEL and Who Is Driving This?

Dec 03, 2018

Social and Emotional Learning: A Global Synthesis

Dec 02, 2018

Social and Emotional Learning - A Global Synthesis

Dec 02, 2018

Michael Nettles - Clarity and Cloudiness in the Uses of Big Data for Education

Dec 13, 2015

Michael Nettles - Why the ‘Whole Child’ Matters

Dec 04, 2016

Michael Nettles - “Language is Both Barrier and Bridge to Cooperation, Peace and Progress”

Dec 13, 2017

Michael Nettles - "There Is Power with Converting a Seminar into a Social Movement"

Nov 04, 2014