Mental Health Awareness Youth Life Skills

Does Social and Emotional Learning Belong in the Classroom?

Asking if SEL should occur in a classroom is like asking if breathing should happen in the room.

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) has been gathering traction as a new education trend over the past few years. Back at the start of 2018, EdWeek was noting “Experts Agree Social-Emotional Learning Matters, and Are Plotting Roadmap of How To Do It.” But many folks still haven’t gotten far beyond the “it matters” stage in their plotting.

That’s the easy part. We can mostly agree that SEL matters; in fact, we ought to agree that it already happens in classrooms. It’s impossible to avoid; where children are around adults, SEL is going on.

Asking if SEL should occur in a classroom is like asking if breathing should happen in the room.

The real question is whether or not it should occur in a formal, structured, instructed and assessed manner. That is the question that starts all the arguments. We can break down the arguments by asking the same questions we ask about any content we want to bring into the classroom.

Why do we want to teach this?

Some SEL proponents have developed a utilitarian focus. Summarizing the work of the Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development, EdWeek said “social-emotional learning strategies center on research that has linked the development of skills like building healthy peer relationships and responsible decision-making to success inside and outside the classroom.” But what happens if we approach what used to be called character education with the idea that it’s useful for getting ahead?

Doesn’t SEL need to be about more than learning to act like a good person in order to get a grade, a job, and a fatter paycheck?

Are you even developing good character if your purpose for developing that character is to grab some benefits for yourself?

We can reject that kind of selfish focus for SEL and instead focus on the “whole child,” and treat SEL, as Tim Shriver (co-chair of that Aspen Institute) and Frederick Hess (of the American Enterprise Institute) wrote, as “an opportunity to focus on values and student needs that matter deeply to parents and unite Americans across the ideological spectrum—things like integrity, empathy, and responsible decision making.” But then we find ourselves with another problem.

What do we want to teach?

If we’re going to adopt SEL in order to essentially teach students to be better people, then who will decide what “better” looks like? Is “tolerance” going to be one of the virtues, and if so, does that mean that students must learn to tolerate persons who would not be tolerated by their families (be that married gay folks or strict religious conservatives)? Should students be taught to feel empathy for everyone, from Nazis to sociopaths?

Source: Forbes.com. Peter Greene, Senior Contributor. Does social and emotional learning belong in the classroom. ww.forbes.com/sites/petergreene/2019/08/22/does-social-and-emotional-learning-belong-in-the-classroom/ Accessed: August 26, 2019.

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