Social and Emotional Learning is once again (or still, depending on who's talking) a thing. Character education, values education, teaching students how to be Good People. It erupts every so often in the education system, just as the business world is sporadically hit with seminars and training sessions about How To Talk To Customers or How To Interact Productively with Other Carbon Based Life Forms (you can spot people who have had these trainings because when they talk to you, it will always be in the format "Why, [insert name here], I hear what you're saying. [Insert rough paraphrase of what you think/hope the person said].")
I pin the return of SEL on the rise of test-centered learning, on a rising tide of people looking around and saying, "Oh, yeah-- I suppose there is more to learning to be a grown-up human than just bubbling answers on a Big Standardized Test." That realization has dovetailed with the push from Data Overlords and Corporate Reformers to collect data on the pertinent personality traits of these future meat widgets. After all, when I send HR to plug into cradle to career pipeline, I don't just want to order up math and reading skills-- I want to know about soft skills like showing up on time, not upsetting customers, and obediently following orders (those are the soft skills, right?)
Even if we can get past that, we have to figure out how to teach SEL Stuff to students, and the approaches available are bizarre, as if aliens are setting up "How To Act Like a Human Being" classes. A large number of companies offer all manner of modules, including some with scripted lessons-- because nothing says "Learn To Be a Naturally Better Human" than listening to a teacher read from a script.
Maybe these program designers and the people who adopt them aren't overthinking this. Maybe I'm not thinking enough. But I would swear that the best way ton teach students to be decent human beings is to be a decent human being in your classroom, all day, every day.
I mean, here's a Summit school-- Zuckerberg's infamous education in a box program-- running a weekly class entitled "Habits, Community, and Culture (HCC) class, where students learn Habits of Success and develop social and emotional learning (SEL) skills." It seems like a swell idea and the folks in the photo are smiling, but all I can think is "What do they do the rest of the week?"
How do you take SEL "content" and separate it from everything else, when your character is first and foremost the "How" of conducting all the other business in your life? How can you possibly split your life up so that "be ethical" is over here and "conduct daily business" is over there? Trying to develop character separate from conducting all the business is like trying to develop a Southern accent separate from speaking. It's like trying to practice swimming far from any water.
You don't get rid of bullying by running bullying programs one hour a week. You get rid of bullying by running a school that never tolerates-- or models-- bullying ever. If for one hour a week you talk about how bullying is bad, but the rest of the week you run a classroom where it's understood that some people deserve to be punished or hurt or made to feel small, your bullying program is a huge waste of time.
If you spend an hour a week talking about how to be a decent person, and the rest of the week behaving like a lousy person, you're wasting that hour. And if you spend the week being decent people, what do you need that hour of class for?
I agree that there is one sign that SEL seems called for-- we are in a society moment right now where the idea of character is so debased and displaced that teaching seems like a thing we might need. But character is not a discrete element of your life, like math skills or playing the tuba or color coordinating your clothes. Character is how you do everything else. If your life is a wave, character is the water it moves through.
And yes, sadly, I admit that with so many adults lost, we increasingly need to help littles understand their own hearts and map their own emotions and connections to others.
If you want to teach your students to live with thoughtful character, then do so yourself, in front of them, out loud. If you want them to learn respect, live in your classroom with respect. If you want them to learn honesty, live honesty in front of them. If you want them to learn thoughtful, reflecting growth, then live that every day. Grab the moments when they come.
None of this comes in a program in a box with a script. When I worked summers in private industry, we used to make fun of courses like "How to pretend you care . about your employees" or "How to fake authenticity" (I may be paraphrasing course titles). Much of what's offered for SEL reminds me of those. You cannot fake it.
And for God's sake, don't implement these programs because they might improve test scores or make students more employable. You learn to be a better person, a person of character, because it makes your life better. Without character, decency, all those better qualities, a person could become rich and powerful, even rise to the highest position in a country, and still be miserable and unhappy, a blot on the surface of the planet.
What we call SEL is learning to be your best self, to become, to journey, to try to grasp what it means to be fully human in the world, to rise and advance in spirit. You should be doing that, too, and helping your students, showing your students. Profiteers and narrow policy makers have hollowed out so much of education. Don't let them take this, too.