Long read: enable social-emotional learning and the future of education

Education seeks to prepare students for their futures – but the goal posts have changed, and emotional skills are now seen as the key to progression. Jane Ashworth, UK MD of SMART Technologies, joins us to discuss these changes and how they are reflected in the classroom

Jane Ashworth, SMART Technologies
Creating effective school environments and better outcomes for pupils requires school leaders and business managers to have a strong strategic plan and vision; quite rightly, the pupil lies at the heart of these plans. Today’s students possess skills like no other generation before them but they also face challenges that we’ve never faced before. As we continue to drive learning towards useable, lifetime skills and preparing students for viable futures in a technology-based society, school leaders must support group learning, collaboration and the more social aspects of education which are gaining importance and are already being measured.

Beyond cognitive: social and emotional skills

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) social and emotional skills are the abilities that regulate one’s thoughts, emotions and behavior. These skills differ from cognitive abilities; they impact how people manage their emotions, perceive themselves and engage with others rather than indicating their raw ability to process information.
The OECD recently conducted a study on skills for social progress and the power of social and emotional skills, detailing the impact of developing those skills and highlighting an underlying societal issue that educators and school leaders need to prioritise – namely social and emotional learning.
Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults acquire, and effectively apply, the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions. Developing these core life skills through SEL is crucially important to a child’s development, as it directly correlates to how socially, academically and professionally skilled that child will be as an adult.

The impact of social and emotional skills

The OECD study looked at five primary social and emotional skills – open-mindedness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, extraversion and agreeableness – to determine which were the strongest indicators of success. While there is long-standing value in academic skills, the benefit of having a balanced personal skill set is still under-valued
When it comes to navigating life there are endless potential outcomes in relation to academic achievement, job performance, health and personal well-being. Social and emotional skills not only influence experiences and achievements but also impact cognitive skills.
According to the OECD, findings from the General Education Development (GED) program indicated that GED recipients who dropped out of high school and passed the GED test had, ‘Very similar levels of cognitive skills to regular high-school graduates, but poorer social and emotional skills.’ When analysing their social and emotional skills, the study found they had more in common with school dropouts than graduates. It was also discovered that a lack of SEL regularly correlated with undesirable life outcomes – such as an increased chance of unemployment, divorce, bad health, imprisonment and violent and criminal behavior.

Identifying core development skills

The core development skills also have a direct effect on employment success, despite intelligence long being considered the most valuable indicator for success. The study revealed that extraversion is the best predictor of leadership outcomes while traits of open-mindedness (a skill that combines creativity, curiosity and tolerance) drive lifelong learning and have a direct correlation with academic achievement. The study found emotional stability skills (skills that combine stress resistance, emotional control and optimism) are found to be the most predictive of mental health and have positive relationships with task performance and organisational citizenship, whereas the antithesis of emotional stability – hostility – has a negative effect on both.
Education systems – and the school leaders and managers who guide them – have, traditionally, viewed these through a narrow lens and focused on the literacy and numeracy sides of education. However, with the information now available, it’s becoming apparent that cognitive and social and emotional skills are necessary for a truly successful life, effective school environment and better outcomes for pupils.

Social and emotional skills

Social and emotional skills are said to be indicators of how well a person adjusts to his or her environment, how well they adapt to change and, ultimately, how successful she or he will be in life. In fact, core development skills such as conscientiousness, extraversion, emotional stability, openness and agreeableness can be equally, or even more, important than cognitive skills in determining future employment. Despite these skills being related to consequential life outcomes, many schools struggle to find effective ways to prioritise, teach and assess social and emotional skills.
The OECD states that subjective well-being can be defined as ‘having a positive mental state’; when reviewing the impact of SEL on adolescents the results, which mirror findings from adult samples, indicate more ties between SEL skills and life satisfaction than between cognitive skills and life satisfaction by nearly 10%. Emotional stability appears to be the most relevant of the top SEL skills that correlate to life satisfaction, with consciousness and extraversion showing relevance in job and life satisfaction.

Developing a contemporary curriculum

Teachers, administrators and school leaders need to recognise this and change to a modernised curriculum, especially as the results of incorporating SEL practices are highly positive. By implementing a pedagogy that incorporates and values social and emotional skills society will work towards building a community of better, more adaptable, open-minded and well-rounded citizens. The skills that relate to helping a person achieve a higher-quality life can be incorporated into collaborative, team-focused lessons in the classroom; some of these skills include empathy, trust, tolerance, emotional control, persistence and adaptability. Any teacher can activate and develop these skills in students by creating activities that involve learners working collaboratively in the classroom.
The brilliance of the OECD research is that it lights a fire and is an instigator of thought, conversation and action. There are specific goals which this study hopes to achieve – specifically, shifting gears in policy to focus on, not only cognitive skill development, but also on the development of the whole child. Now, directing attention to SEL needs to be translated into practice; it’s all about creating citizens who are better able to contribute to society.
Despite widespread access to education in most parts of the world, today’s children have massive variability in their skills. This may reflect the context and environment in which they grow up but, in many cases, school may be the only place where any deficiencies in a child’s self-development can be addressed before they become an active member of society.
Education leaders must seek more opportunities to encourage SEL in students and teachers. As parents, educators and policymakers learn about the power of SEL strategies, and their proven success, the relevance and urgency of implementing of SEL increases. As the education world collaborates on this transition, and shares best practices for modernizing their pedagogies to incorporate SEL, we will forge a more well-rounded education system and produce more socially responsible and aware citizens who will be better-prepared to work together to create better communities, nations and ultimately, a better world.

About the author
Jane Ashworth is UK MD of SMART Technologies – which develops simple and intuitive classroom technology solutions. SMART Technologies’ software and interactive technologies that enable natural collaboration, helping every student and teacher discover and develop their greatness. 
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