SEL, Creating Systems Transformation, and the Politics of Reform

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Dec 04, 2018
by Louise Hallman
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SEL, Creating Systems Transformation, and the Politics of Reform

Embedding social and emotional learning at a systems level involves buy-in from all levels of the system - from the students to the minister Delhi Education Minister addresses Parker Hall from a classroom in Delhi

Education policies are often introduced but then thrown out on the changing of administrations, political or otherwise. To avoid this, social and emotional learning (SEL) needs to be adopted at a systems level.

As experts from India, the US, New Zealand and Kenya explained on the first full day of Social and Emotional Learning: A Global Synthesis, integrating SEL at a systems level needs buy-in from all actors in the education system. 

In schools, SEL should be encouraged not only for students, but also teachers and all other staff throughout the school. Outside of individual schools, buy-in is needed from the school districts and local education administration, such as having someone within the school district who is responsible and can advocate for SEL. 

The buy-in of parents and students is also vital to ensuring the long-term support for and success of SEL. Oftentimes, parents complain that time spent on SEL programs is a “time-taker” from the more traditionally revered academic subjects, but evidence shows improved SEL can in fact be a “time-maker” as it enables students to better engage, pay attention, and process information, as well as work more collaboratively with their peers in a more learning-conducive environment thanks to reduced anti-social behavior, such as classroom disruption or bullying. 

Unable to travel to Salzburg but undeterred from sharing his innovative policy, Delhi education minister Manish Sisodia filmed a video that morning in a city classroom to introduce the “Happiness Class”. This program is a new addition to schools’ curriculum in the Indian capital and aims to improve students’ mindfulness and confidence, which in turn will have an impact on their attainment in their other academic subjects. 

SEL does not have to be delivered as a separate course such as the Happiness Class, but can instead be integrated into other subject areas. Languages, literature and geography can help develop cultural awareness and empathy; history teaches critical thinking; and team-building can be developed through PE and drama, for example. 

Achieving system-wide transformation thus needs both a top-down and a bottom-up approach, but bottom-up need not start only with the parents, teachers and students. High-ranking local officials, such as school superintendents in the US, can be powerful advocates in spreading change outward and upward. 

Watch: Manish Sisodia, Delhi Education Minister, addresses Salzburg Global Seminar from a classroom in India

The Politics of Reform

Finland is often asked, “What’s your secret?” when it comes to education reform. Is it the teacher training? Is it the integrated curriculum? Is it the overarching education policy? 
But as it was pointed out on the panel “SEL and the Politics of Education Reform,” there is no single secret ingredient. “We have many building blocks,” pointed out the Finnish panelist; combined, these blocks have built a successful education system, but these blocks are not easy to replicate wholesale in another country. 

When testing and rolling out new programs, the following advice was given: “Start small, learn fast, and fail well.” Evidence collection, evaluation, and adaptation are all important prior to scaling up. But this approach was not deemed appropriate for all contexts, with another Fellow pointing out on Twitter: “Doesn’t work in an Indian context where the numbers are huge and contexts are diverse. Innovations in education have not traditionally scaled.”

Introducing the oxymoron for the day, one panelist urged SEL implementation should be “compulsorily voluntary,” i.e. everyone should do it, but how SEL is delivered should be determined by the local context.

Context matters. As another panelist added, “What works in one country might not work in another; what works in one school might not work in another; what works for one child might not work for another.” (After all, even McDonald’s, which pride itself on its global universal standards, adapts to local markets!)

With so many different actors involved in delivering SEL education reform – from individual teachers and schools to policymakers and politicians, researchers and other advocates – efforts need to be made to “network autonomous actors” and guide their direction. A key ingredient to achieving this networking and thus implementing successful education reform is trust. Trust needs to be developed at all levels, from the teachers to the ministry. 


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.