While catching up with this past week's New York Times Sunday Review, I was thinking of something Paul Bruno wrote on my last post:
If only fans of reform math were this concerned with rigorous controls and falsification exercises when considering their preferred education research.If only. Especially when it comes to practices that potentially waste large amounts of student time. (People seem in general to worry a lot more about policies that waste money than they do about policies that waste time--particularly other people's time, and most especially other people's children's time).
Accordingly, many of today's instructional practices would seem to do just that. One potential time-waster that's not getting nearly the scrutiny it should, besides making students explain their answers to easy math problems, is so-called "social and emotional learning." According to an article by Julie Scelfo in last week's Week in Review article, entitled Teaching Peace in Elementary School:
In many communities, elementary teachers, guidance counselors and administrators are embracing what is known as social and emotional learning, or S.E.L., a process through which people become more aware of their feelings and learn to relate more peacefully to others.
Feeling left out? Angry at your mom? Embarrassed to speak out loud during class? Proponents of S.E.L. say these feelings aren’t insignificant issues to be ignored in favor of the three R’s. Unless emotions are properly dealt with, they believe, children won’t be able to reach their full academic potential.
S.E.L., sometimes called character education, embraces not just the golden rule but the idea that everyone experiences a range of positive and negative feelings. It also gives children tools to slow down and think when facing conflicts, and teaches them to foster empathy and show kindness, introducing the concept of shared responsibility for a group’s well-being.This trend has been going strong at least since the 1990s, albeit under a variety of different acronyms (from PATHs to RULER). The general justification, in part, is stress among students, which, while invariably unprecedented, has ever-changing causes. The stressors, this time around, are:
not only the inherent difficulty of growing up, but also an increasingly fraught testing environment, a lower tolerance for physical acting out and the pervasive threat of violence. (President Obama last year characterized school shootings as “becoming the norm.”) Poverty and income inequality, too, create onerous emotional conditions for many children.Of course, poverty and income gaps predate public schools. School shootings are an entirely different matter, and I would not presume to know the general psychological effect their incidence, and publicity, has had on today's school children. As for the other two factors, I'll get back to those later.
First let's look ask what scientific basis there is for any of this. As Marc Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, explains:
The neural pathways in the brain that deal with stress are the same ones that are used for learning,Right: stress is a form of learning. But how does this get us to school-based S.E.L.s? The best I can come up with is this: neural pathways go with stress and stress goes with learning and learning goes with classrooms, so learning to de-stress goes with classrooms. But this kind of "jerk is a tug and a tug is a boat and a boat floats on water and water is nature and nature is beautiful" argument can take us pretty much anywhere we want.
Author Julie Scelfo, however, also cites studies, in particular a meta-analysis of many studies:
Studies have found that promoting emotional and social skills correlates with improved outcomes in students’ lives. A 2011 analysis of 213 S.E.L. programs involving 270,034 kindergarten through high school students published in the journal Child Development found that the participants demonstrated significantly improved social and emotional skills, attitudes and behavior compared with a control group, as well as an 11-point gain in academic achievement percentiles.However, as the meta-study itself notes in its conclusion:
only 16% of the studies collected information on academic achievement at post, and more follow-up investigations are needed to confirm the durability of program impact.Scelfo cites a second study in which:
researchers from Penn State and Duke looked at 753 adults who had been evaluated for social competency nearly 20 years earlier while in kindergarten: Scores for sharing, cooperating and helping other children nearly always predicted whether a person graduated from high school on time, earned a college degree, had full-time employment, lived in public housing, received public assistance or had been arrested or held in juvenile detention.
Moreover, positive relationships, emotional competency and resilience have also been widely identified as helping to prevent mental illness.But that's relevant only if S.E.L. programs really do raise social competency scores long term. After all, it's not exactly headline news that social competence predicts success in the classroom, success on the job, and success in staying out of trouble. In some cases, regardless of social competency, S.E.L. programs might have the opposite effect, stressing kids out more by forcing them to air their emotions in class and engage in role-playing activities with arbitrarily chosen peers.
Here's the one specific S.E.L. moment described in the article:
At P.S. 130 in Brooklyn, where most students qualify for free lunch, a class of third graders recently sat in a circle and brainstormed, for the second day in a row, about steps they could take to prevent an aggressive boy in another class from causing problems during lunch and recess: A 9-year-old girl said she “felt scared” when the boy chased and grabbed her; Leo, an 8-year-old with neon orange sneakers, described, with agitation, how the boy sat down, uninvited, at his table and caused so much commotion that it drew sanctions from a cafeteria aide.
“How does he really bother you?” a girl in a pink sweatshirt asked, seeking clarification, as she’d been taught.
“Because,” Leo responded, his voice swelling with indignation, “it took 10 minutes from recess!”It's easy to talk about a kid behind his back; whether and how the class that actually has the offending boy in it has gone about handling him is left unclear. As for taking time away from recess, one has to wonder what these S.E.L.s activities are taking time away from.
Scelfo does acknowledge concerns about the time taken from academics. She cites Robert Pondiscio in particular, whom she characterizes as "a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning education policy group in Washington." (I know Robert Pondiscio and wouldn't call him "right-leaning;" since no one in the article is identified as left-leaning, it's hard to guess Scelfo's reference point.) But, no matter: to Pondiscio and his kind Scelfo has this to say:
Skeptics of using school time to tend to emotions might consider visiting P.S. 130, where the hallway outside a third-grade classroom is decorated with drawings made by students showing their aspirations for the current school year.
One child hopes “to make new friends.” Another wants to “be nice and help.”
And as for Leo, who is frustrated about losing 10 minutes of recess?
Underneath a watercolor self-portrait, in which his body is painted orange, he wrote: “My hope for myself this year is to get better at math.” If S.E.L. strategies work, he will be better equipped to reach that goal.And here Scelfo ends her piece, apparently convinced she's addressed Pondiscio's objections. Which were:
It’s easy to recognize the importance of S.E.L. skills. It’s much harder to identify and implement curricular interventions that have a measurable effect on them. Thus ‘what works’ tends to be defined as ‘what I like’ or ‘what I believe works.Let's return, now, to the two other factors that Scelfo cites as stressing kids out these days: "an increasingly fraught testing environment" and "a lower tolerance for physical acting out." Instead of potentially wasting kids time with S.E.Ls classes, let's give them back the time they're wasting on standardized tests, and let's give them back their time for physically acting out, which used to be called recess. And, in particular, let's stop suspending everyone's recess whenever some kids get physical.
For a final alternative to S.E.L.-based stress reduction, let's return to Scelfo's opening paragraph:
For years, there has been a steady stream of headlines about the soaring mental health needs of college students and their struggles with anxiety and lack of resilience. Now, a growing number of educators are trying to bolster emotional competency not on college campuses, but where they believe it will have the greatest impact: in elementary schools.When it comes to college-level anxiety, one source that remains under-appreciated is the increasingly poor academic preparation kids get in high school. And here we come full circle. For one big reason why kids are increasingly ill-prepared academically is because they are wasting their time in the service of the latest education fads, from explaining their answers to easy math problems to working through emotional issues in S.E.L. sessions.