The Challenges of Social Emotional Learning

The Challenges of Social Emotional Learning

One of my favorite early-semester moves is to tell students something like, “I can’t teach you to write, but I can definitely help you learn to write.”

I hope my message to them is clear, that ultimately whatever benefits they’re going to receive from the course are driven by the students themselves, their engagement, their effort, their enthusiasm.

We don’t need a single variable, control group study to understand that the emotions and attitudes people bring to an experience play a significant role in the ultimate outcome of that experience. This applies to situations well beyond school. 

For example, the “prequel” trilogy of Star Wars movies (The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith) are now widely acknowledged as pretty bad.“JarJar Binks says hi!” But at the time of release, many of us — starved for more of what we’d been waiting for for 20 years since the original movies — streamed to the theaters and walked away with some grumbles, but nonetheless satisfied.

Point is, good feeling and positive attitude can go a long way.

The mindsets we bring to our classroom experience fall under the umbrella of what is often called social-emotional learning (SEL), an area rooted in psychological research that seeks to understand what attitudes contribute to student learning.

Two of the most widely known concepts inside of SEL are “grit” (found in the work of Angela Duckworth), and “growth mindset” (largely associated with Carol Dweck). 

Grit is essentially an attitude of sticktoitiveness, a willingness to work hard in the present for future benefits. Growth mindset is the belief that being good at something is not an immutably fixed trait and can, instead, be developed through effort and persistence.

“I’m bad at math” reflects a fixed mindset. “If I work hard I can learn math” is a growth mindset.

When we examine the attitudes of the successful, we tend to see a lot of gritty people with growth mindsets. Perhaps then these are the key to academic success?

School districts began experimenting with specific SEL curricula on the theory that direct instruction in things like grit and growth mindset may pay off with improved student learning.

I understand where the impetus for this kind of push comes from. Over the course of my career of teaching writing, I found myself increasingly concerned not about the writing abilities students brought to the classroom, but the attitudes they brought to the act of writing.

Students were disengaged, viewing writing as separate from genuine expression and communication, something to be done solely for the purpose of a class assignment, with success measured by a grade. This is not the kind of attitude that is well-suited to developing as writers.

In theory, this would make me a fan of SEL approaches that seek to directly inculcate grit or a growth mindset, since both are helpful ingredients when it comes to learning to write. In fact, the Learners’ Workshop at Educational Endeavors finds authentic ways to introduce the concept of growth mindset, implementing research-based interventions and inviting students to reflect on how a growth or fixed mindset has impacted their recent learning experiences. This is an example of a sound idea being integrated into the curriculum.

In practice, however, the way these concepts have been applied has often been less than helpful. Attempts to instruct in SEL without integrating it into a broader curriclum tend to be haphazard and even counterproductive.

One byproduct of a recent controversy in Florida, in which the Florida Department of Education rejected 21 proposed math textbooks because they ran afoul of a new law passed by right-wing conservatives seeking to keep social-emotional learning and other “prohibited concepts” out of the classroom, is how hamfistedly some textbooks have been trying to incorporate things like grit and growth mindset.

A math lesson on using 10 as a base to help with addition has one cartoon student expressing a problem the student is meant to reason through, while another student stands in the opposite corner of the frame, a dialog bubble coming out of his mouth saying, “To learn together, disagree respectfully.”

The overall effect is one of an extreme non-sequitur, an attempt by a textbook publisher to include SEL content without making it integral to the curriculum.

Now, because of this new Florida law, textbook publishers will scramble to remove these elements, which may not do any particular harm in terms of the quality of the material given how crude the SEL attempts were in the first place, but the whole situation points to some rather shallow thinking about how these things impact students’ abilities to learn.

While individual attitudes matter (my early semester signals about the importance of students being in charge of their own learning were my way of establishing a positive framework for those attitudes), what’s even more important is the overall learning atmosphere, the collective conditions under which students are being asked to learn.

The conditions during the pandemic have been — to say the least — difficult. Highly politicized moves like the one being made by the Florida legislature are also not helpful.

And neither is social-emotional learning grafted on without care and consideration. 

Learning is a complex endeavor, and anything that seeks to ignore that complexity is doomed to failure.