Some Advice from Rick Hess: An SEL Champion Responds
Rick Hess’s December 12th column in Education Week, Some Advice for Champions of Social and Emotional Learning, hit close to home. A former school superintendent, I am a passionate Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) advocate. In other words, I am the intended audience for Hess’s “free advice” to SEL champions. As such, I was interested to discover where he and I overlap, and where we don’t.
Like me, Hess recognizes that education is about values, intellect, passion, as well as skills, and that obsessive testing of students has narrowed and distorted the very mission of our public schools. Yet Hess is frustrated with how SEL advocates promote our cause. To him, terms like “social and emotional learning” and “noncognitive skills” are old wine in new bottles, a trendy way of reframing 1950s-style virtues such as character, responsibility, and citizenship.
Starting from his premise that current SEL terminology is little more than foundation-friendly camouflage for a traditional set of values, Hess offers five pieces of advice to the SEL community, aimed at winning the support of skeptics — and cementing his support as well.
His first point is a great opportunity to explore the grounds for his assertion. Once we put that in context, points two through five come into focus as well.
1. “Be clear about what the ‘it’ is.”
Hess finds the language of SEL needlessly opaque. If it’s about “honesty, respect, and a willingness to accept responsibility, I’m all in,” he says. And maybe that’s the problem. If you view SEL as a tool primarily aimed at instilling deference to authority, the language we employ will indeed seem fuzzy. If, on the other hand, you see SEL as a way of strengthening emotional intelligence, social awareness and self-awareness, then all the words Hess disparages — motivation, anti-bullying, inclusion — make a lot of sense. Let’s not get hung up on a set of words and acronyms and recognize that learning is both social and emotional. It’s the latter I want for my children, and by extension, all children: school as a community promoting empathy, openness, curiosity, generosity, and emotional safety. Which are, incidentally, the exact traits Google cites as keys to success among its employees.
2. “Don’t oversell the research.”
I agree. Let’s dispense with randomized control studies and experiments. Not because the benefits of SEL can’t be proven, but because we have the proof, and it’s nearly a century old. SEL values don’t come from the ’50s or even the Flower Power era. The pioneers of SEL were the late 19th century Progressives, who viewed learning as primarily social and psychological, and believed a curriculum rich with art, music, and gardening would best prepare children for what John Dewey prophetically foresaw as ever-fluctuating professional demands. The Progressive approach was rigorously tested in the Eight Year Study (1933–1941), which found children from progressive schools “show more leadership, think more clearly, [and] have a better understanding of democracy….”
3. “Dusting off the same old tactics will only raise the same old eyebrows.”
Hess disputes “rosy” projections about the monetary savings to be gained from SEL, arguing they’re based on “boutique pilots” that can’t be replicated in the real world. Here we’re in firm agreement: we need new tactics — and new strategies. First, the tactical: let’s abandon the notion that innovation is only worthy when it leads to savings. This only promotes the current madness of sacrificing our future (because that’s what our children are, literally and metaphorically) to the demands of short-term budget concerns. I firmly believe that educating the whole child — mind, body, and spirit — will indeed save on public resources. But I reject a national education narrative whose sole aim is to cut dollars for schools. Which brings me to the strategic: our new national narrative must address the structural barriers to replicating successful whole child approaches. To argue replication can’t happen is beyond defeatist. That’s not how we put a man on the moon.
4. “SEL advocates need to concede that this stuff invites discussion of ‘ideology.’”
Hess charges us with dodging what he perceives as SEL’s inherent tension: mostly leftist SEL advocates seeking changes in “lots of states and communities” that lean right. Let’s set aside my own history as a one-time Republican congressional candidate. And let’s leave to another day the question of exactly how many communities lean right on re-envisioning public education. We SEL advocates have indeed dodged our obligation and ideological principles to firmly, unapologetically assert that democracy itself demands we educate the whole child –mind, body, and spirit — so that 21st century Americans show compassion, respect, and curiosity towards each other as we tackle our enormous challenges.
5. “Don’t repeat the missteps that plagued the Common Core.”
Hess warns that community resistance will be unavoidable when “schools seek to shape children’s character and emotional well-being.” For this, SEL advocates owe Hess a debt of gratitude. If we have created the impression that we come with an agenda to shape character and emotional well-being, then we have erred. SEL and whole child-centered education nurture the child’s inherent desire to understand and relate to the world, not mold him or her to some preapproved ideal. Like John Dewey, we believe “the child’s own instincts and powers furnish the material and give the starting point for all education.” I guess if you think band is a left-wing conspiracy and self-expression is for hippies then, yes, SEL has an agenda. But I’ll go toe-to-toe with anyone who argues standardization and testing drills build a better citizen than self-directed inquiry, empathy, and collaboration. So, if there’s opposition, bring it. Rick Hess just helped us clarify our thinking, recommit to the notion that learning is both social and emotional, and the urgency of educating the whole child.