In addition to my job as Director of District Partnerships at TransformEd, I have been, for a number of years, a project scholar for the Institute of Advanced Studies in Culture, an interdisciplinary research center at the University of Virginia. There, I work with a variety of scholars to explore how U.S. high schools, including private, religious, independent, charter and public schools, approach character development among their students. My specific work has focused on the rural public-school sector (as defined by the National Center for Educational Statistics), about which I wrote a chapter that was recently published in Content of Their Character: Inquiries into the Varieties of Moral Formation. It consists of descriptive analysis of student character formation at six rural public high schools in the United States during the 2014–2015 and 2015–2016 school years. The analysis is based on classroom observation, school documents, and administrator, parent, teacher, and student interviews.
There’s a palpable, growing urgency to focus on social-emotional learning (SEL) in our schools. Education experts and policymakers recognize that building healthy relationships and responsible decision-making matters to student outcomes, and teachers overwhelmingly acknowledge that SEL is important to learning. Meanwhile, recent “staggering statistics” reveal the high rate at which today’s students suffer from mental illness and trauma – conditions which certain SEL-related practices can work to address. For these reasons and others, more and more educators are seeking to intentionally cultivate learning environments that help students develop socially and emotionally.
Though many studies have shown that teachers have large effects on student achievement, we know little about the degree to which teachers affect a broader set of student outcomes. In a new paper forthcoming in the Journal of Human Resources, I explore how teachers affect a range of student skills and competencies beyond those measured by multiple-choice tests.
I first heard of growth mindset about three years ago when I had to do a mandatory professional development module at the end of the school year for my district. At a time when I am usually run-down and exhausted, this learning exhilarated me: I realized growth mindset could be a game-changer in the classroom. Carol Dweck says, “In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching, and persistence. They don't necessarily think everyone's the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”
Demand for social-emotional learning (SEL) is growing – but it’s not a new phenomenon. Education experts and policymakers recognize that building healthy relationships and responsible decision-making matters to student outcomes. Most schools are already implementing some type of SEL program or practice, and, in terms of both instructional resources and teacher time, education systems invest heavily in SEL. Moreover, in a recent EdWeek article on the need for SEL in schools, Peter DeWitt shares “staggering statistics” from the American Psychiatric Association, National Institute of Mental Health, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that reveal the high rate at which today’s students suffer from mental illness and trauma.
I think about growth mindset all the time, almost daily. The first time it reveals itself to me is in the morning when my twelve-year-old daughter asks me to braid her hair before school. You see, I’m not good at it. Usually I am rushing through the process because of the stress of weekday mornings and the fact that I know I’m not very good at it.
Advances in many fields—including neuroscience and psychology—have moved the work in social emotional learning (SEL) forward over the last fifteen years. We know that early experiences shape a child’s developing neurological and biological systems for better or worse, and that the types of stressful experiences that are common in families living in poverty can alter children’s neurobiology in ways that undermine their ability to succeed in school and in life (Thompson, 2014).
The learning and life benefits of social and emotional learning (SEL) are well-established (see CASEL research for a few of the most recent SEL research studies). In schools, classroom teachers have opportunities to build SEL competencies and skills — especially in the areas of collaboration, cooperation, and teamwork. Here are some ideas from the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) SEL Fellows for classroom teachers interested in creating classroom environments that support relationship skills with peers.
“It turns out that the learning that happens in the 80% of waking hours that are spent out of school (between the ages of 5-18) has as much to do with achievement gaps that show up in school as anything in the school. We can’t expect a 20% solution to solve 100% of the problem; we’ve got to address the inequalities of enrichment and stimulating activities outside of school.” - Professor Paul Reville, Harvard University Graduate School of Education / Education Redesign Lab
In education, we sometimes fall into an acronym trap: ESSA. IEP. ELA. SEL. Or we default to rattling off statistics as shorthand for what we’re really talking about. And sometimes, this kind of secret education code serves us well. It allows us to transmit information efficiently. But it also comes at a price if we forget to balance it out with stories about the humans at the center of our work.