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

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Dec 10, 2018
by Louise Hallman
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The Politics of SEL Reform - "Start Small, Learn Fast, Fail Well"

Participants of Social and Emotional Learning: a Global Synthesis discuss how to reform education systems around the world Participants heard Finland had many successful building blocks within its education system, but these are not easy to replicate elsewhere

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 before 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 universal global 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 multi-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.