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The good news: Social-emotional learning is hot. The bad news: Some of it is giving cognition a bad name.


In 2014, I ran a post by veteran educator Larry Ferlazzo about how social and emotional learning (SEL) — and its ancestor, character education — was being manipulated by some in the education world. He wrote then:

I am a big supporter of educators helping students develop many of the qualities highlighted in the concept of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) — perseverance (or “grit”); self-control; personal responsibility, etc.   I apply it regularly in my classroom, write in my blog about practical ideas on implementing SEL lessons in schools, and have even authored two books on the topic (and will have a third one published next year).
At the same time, I am concerned that many proponents of Social Emotional Learning might not be aware of the increasing danger to SEL of being “co-opted” by well-heeled and well-known groups and individuals, ranging from “school reformers” to columnists like The New York Times’ David Brooks,  and converted into a “Let Them Eat Character” strategy.   I fear those “Blame The Victim” efforts may  be used to distract from the importance of supplying needed financial resources to schools, providing  increased support to families by dealing with growing income and wealth inequality, and developing a comprehensive anti-poverty strategy.
“School reformers” in Los Angeles are using SEL terms (they even call their report, True Grit) to justify pushing performance pay for teachers and rewards for students, as well as advocating for an increased emphasis on being data-driven (instead of being data-informed) through the use of  ”dynamic data.”   KIPP schools use the destructive strategy of grading character traits.  And, in a column last month, David Brooks proclaimed that Social Emotional Learning and training “average” parents to become better ones  will take care of everything.

It’s 2019, and as SEL becomes increasingly popular, there are new concerns about the way it is interpreted. The following piece was written by Mike Rose, a highly respected research professor in the University of California at Los Angeles Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. And, interestingly enough, he wrote it after reading a new column by David Brooks of the New York Times about how students learn.

Rose is the author of books that include “The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker,” which demonstrated the heavy cognitive demands of blue-collar and service work and what it takes to do such work well, despite the tendency of many to underestimate and undervalue the intelligence involved in such work. His other books include “Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education,” “Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in Americaand “Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of Us.”

This post appeared on Rose’s blog, and he gave me permission to publish it.

The manipulation of social emotional learning

Teacher: We must teach emotional literacy to boys. Here’s what happened when I tried.

By Mike Rose

On January 17, 2019, the New York Times, in the person of one of the newspaper’s premier columnists, David Brooks, discovered social and emotional learning. In a column titled “Students Learn from People They Love,” Brooks summarizes some of the research that over the last few decades has gotten us to appreciate the role of emotion in learning and thus the importance of the quality of the relationship between teachers and their students. “We used to have this top-down notion that reason was on a teeter-totter with emotion,” writes Brooks. “If you wanted to be rational and think well, you had to suppress those primitive gremlins, the emotions.”

Brooks goes on to describe various studies in neuroscience that demonstrate the beneficial interrelationship between learning and emotion. He then asks: “How many recent ed reform trends have been about relationship building? . . . We focus on all the wrong things because we have an outmoded conception of how thinking really works.”

I monitored my own emotions as I read Mr. Brooks’ column. I was pleased to see someone with a politically conservative bent celebrating the importance of the teacher-student relationship, for in the past, many conservative commentators have decried what they've seen as the abandonment of academic content in education in favor of “softer,” more social and developmental goals and outcomes. And it was good to see someone with a national platform challenging the commonplace reductive dichotomy between reason and emotion.

But I also found myself thinking what I often think when reading about breakthrough educational research in neuroscience and other fields. In this case, do we need all these studies to demonstrate what any good teacher knows: that the nature and quality of the relationship between teachers and students matters? Thus do the wheels of education policy turn in our country.

More broadly I worry that as we pay needed attention to the full scope of a child’s being, we will inadvertently reinforce the false dichotomy between thought and emotion that Mr. Brooks decries.

Mr. Brooks concludes his column with “[t]he good news” that “the social and emotional learning movement has been steadily gaining strength.” He’s right. We have books, conferences, consultants, and a proliferation of Internet platforms dedicated to social and emotional learning, some of which, unfortunately, trade in simplified notions of the way the mind works.

As if to illustrate how easily we slip into reductive binaries about mental activity — this is a cultural danger in the West — Mr. Brooks concludes his column with praise for a practice mentioned in a new report from the Aspen Institute: “Some schools … do no academic instruction the first week. To start, everybody just gets to know one another.”

Why, I wonder, would we need to suspend instruction to get to know one another — unless anything academic is seen as antithetical to human relation and instruction is conceived in a narrow way? How did we arrive at the place where writing or doing science or talking about a painting or a song is viewed as incompatible with “getting to know one another?”

A few years back, I posted a blog exploring the shriveled notion of cognition that has resulted from the last two decades of education policy. I repost it here — with apologies for my tendency to repost. It’s just that some issues seem to appear and reappear with the regularity of the seasons.

The piece below, “Giving Cognition a Bad Name” (originally posted February 19, 2013) was written during a period of national enthusiasm for character education. As you read it, you can substitute the construct “social and emotional learning” for “character education” and get a sense of what concerns me today about some of the discussions of social and emotional learning.

Please understand, I am not at all disputing the importance of the social and emotional dimensions of teaching and learning; much of what I’ve written over the years has been an attempt to articulate and give texture to these aspects of classroom life. Rather, I’m trying to underscore the intricate interweave of thought and feeling when we teach and when we learn.


Giving Cognition a Bad Name

Cognition traditionally refers to a wide and rich range of mental processes, from memory and attention, to comprehending and using language, to solving a difficult problem in physics or choreography or living with someone.

But over the last few decades cognition has been reduced to a shadow of its former self. Under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, cognition in education policy has increasingly come to mean the skills measured by standardized tests of reading and mathematics. And as economists have gotten more involved in education, they’ve needed quantative measures of cognitive ability and academic achievement for their analytical models, so they’ve used I.Q. or other standardized test scores (like the Armed Forces Qualification Test or AFQT) as a proxy for intelligence or achievement. From the Latin cognoscere, to come to know, or cogito erqo sum, I think therefore I am, we’ve devolved to a few digits on the AFQT.

As if that were not enough, there is now emerging on a number of fronts — nicely summarized in Paul Tough’s new book “How Children Succeed” — a belief that our nation’s educational focus on cognition has been misguided. Rather than focusing our energies on the academic curriculum — or on academic intervention programs for the poor — we need to turn our attention to the development of qualities of character or personality like perseverance, self-monitoring, and flexibility. As much or more than the cognitive, the argument goes, it is these qualities that account for success in school and life.

It is healthy to be reminded about the fuller scope of education in our test- and grade-obsessed culture, and I must admit a guilty pleasure in watching someone as smart as Nobel laureate in economics, James Heckman (one of the advocates for character education) go after our current Department of Education’s reductive academic policies.

The importance of qualities like perseverance and flexibility are indisputable, but what concerns me is that the advocates for character accept without question the reductive notion of cognition that runs through our education policies, and by accepting it further affirm it. The problem is exacerbated by the aforementioned way economists carve up and define mental activity. If cognition is represented by scores on ability or achievement tests, then anything not captured in those scores — like the desired qualities of character — is, de facto, noncognitive. We’re now left with a pinched notion of cognition and a reductive dichotomy to boot.

This downplaying of the cognitive and the construction of the cognitive/non-cognitive binary will have some troubling implications for education, especially the education of the children of the poor.

To begin with, the labeling of character qualities as “noncognitive” misrepresents them — particularly if you use the truer, richer notion of cognition. Self-monitoring, for example, has to involve a consideration and analysis of one’s performance and mental state — a profoundly cognitive activity. Flexibility demands a weighing of options and decision-making. This is not just a problem of terminology, for if you don’t have an accurate description of something, how can you help people develop it, especially if you want to scale up your efforts?

Furthermore, these desired qualities are developed over time in settings and relationships that are meaningful to the participants, which most likely means that the settings and relationships will have significant cognitive content. Two of the classic preschool programs that have provided a research base for the character advocates — the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian Projects — were cognitively rich in imaginative play, language use, and activities that required thought and cooperation.

A very different example comes from a study I just completed observing community college occupational programs as varied as fashion and diesel technology. As students developed competence, they also became more committed to doing a job well, were better able to monitor and correct their performance, and improved their ability to communicate what they were doing and help others do it. You could be by inclination the most dogged or communicative person in the world, but if you don’t know what you’re doing with a garment or an engine, you’re tendencies won’t be realized in a meaningful way in the classroom or the workshop.

Also, we have to consider the consequences of this cognitive/ noncognitive binary in light of the history of American educational practice. We have a powerful tendency toward either/or policies — think of old math/new math or phonics/whole language. Given this tendency, we can predict a pendulum swing away from the academic and toward character education. And over the past fifty years attempts at character education as a distinct pursuit have not been particularly successful.

Finally, the focus of the current character education movement is on low-income children, and the cold, hard fact is that many poor kids are already getting terrible educations in the cognitive domain. There’s a stirring moment in Paul Tough’s book where a remarkable chess teacher decides she’s going to try to prepare one of her star pupils for an admissions test for New York’s selective high schools. What she found was that this stunningly bright boy had learned pitifully little academic knowledge during his eight years in school. It would be tragic to downplay a strong academic education for children like him.

By all means, let us take a hard look at our national obsession with tests and scores and grades, and let us think more generously about what kinds of people we want our schools to develop. Part of such reconsideration would include a reclaiming of the full meaning of cognition, a meaning that is robust and vitally intellectual, intimately connected to character and social development, and directed toward the creation of a better world.