Does Social and Emotional Learning Belong in School?

By Peter Greene | Twitter: @palan57 | Originally Published on Curmudgucation | 2018 | Peter Greene is the author of Curmudgucation: What Fresh Hell | Syndication made possible through Patreon

By Peter Greene

Experts Agree Social-Emotional Learning Matters, and Are Plotting Roadmap of How To Do It..” 

That’s the headline at EdWeek, and only half of it is non-scary and unobjectionable.

Because there’s no question that social-emotional learning (SEL) is an important part of the growth of any human being. I am not being simply snarky when I say that we can look around right now and see the damaging effects of adults whose SEL was either stunted, twisted, or non-existent. We know that employers want what we used to call “soft skills,” and we know that finding your way toward being fully human in the world has a whole lot to do with emotional maturity and the ability to deal with other human beings in a healthy manner.

So I’m not going to argue for a moment that SEL is not important. It is. Hugely.

But it does not automatically follow that SEL belongs in the classroom as a formal, codified piece of the program. Here are the reasons to come to a full, thoughtful stop before implementing any such program or policy.

Doing it for the right reason

Referring to the work of The Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development,  the EdWeek article notes “social-emotional learning strategies center on research that has linked the development of skills like building healthy peer relationships and responsible decisionmaking to success inside and outside the classroom.”

Nope. If you are doing SEL because you think it’s going to get students better grades and better jobs, then you are doing it wrong. While SEL may well pay off in those areas, the very essence of learning to be a better human being is about things above and beyond getting a reward. Otherwise we’re talking about being kind to others because it might help you get your way, or being polite and attentive to the person you’re dating because it might get them to put out. Your goal influences what you’re really doing, and what you’re really doing is mimicking human social and emotional behavior in order to gain a benefit, which at best makes you a phony and at worst makes you a sociopath.

Students need to learn the SEL stuff because it will make them better human beings, better spouses, better neighbors, and better citizens. The world is better with more good people in it; it is not better with more jerks and sociopaths.

Defining the Qualities

Back at the beginning of my career, I worked with a team with whom I clashed, mostly because their idea of a Good Student was one who was compliant and obedient, whereas I preferred those who were feisty and independent. I can’t imagine what would happen if we had to work together to write social and emotional learning goals.

So who will decide what a good SEL quality is? Who will decide things like what a “positive sense of community” looks like, or what a proper approach to relationships with others might be. Every time the subject of SEL comes up, folks go straight for the low-hanging fruit like “Students should not bully each other.” But that barely scratches the surface. Who is going to decide what the proper way to be part of community is, or how to properly manage friendships, or how (and when) to question authority, or to what degree a person should subsume their own concerns to the Good of the Many?  As human beings, we have devoted centuries to battles between different moral, ethical and political systems trying to address what the “correct” social and emotional rules should be. Who exactly thinks they are prepared to codify all of that for K-12 students?

What yardstick will we possibly use?

Of course, if SEL is to become part of the accountability landscape, we’ll need assessments.

We’ve already got folks who think they can measure “grit,” and the whiz kids at NWEA scored an actual grant to continue their study which posits they can “read” social-emotional skills in students based on how fast those students answer multiple-choice questions on the MAP test. The notion that standardized bubble testing methods can be used to measure the character of a child is one of those So Ridiculous I Can’t Believe Anyone Is Discussing It With a Straight Face things, but it’s happening. Schools are doing it. I’m getting reports from parts of the country that SEL measures are being used as a significant part of student’ grades– and yet there is not one shred of evidence that anyone has developed an assessment of SEL stuff that I any more accurate than boiling eyes of newt under a full moon.

And THAT eye or newt baloney is over and above the problem (see previous point) that those test manufacturers have decided what qualities of character the students are supposed to have.

Possibly even worse — in many cases the SEL units will come folded into the whole computer-driven personalized [sic] software, meaning that we will be treated to the spectacle of computers teaching young humans how to be better humans.

Massive school overreach

From the EdWeek piece, here’s Dr. James Comer, a professor of child psychiatry at Yale University Child Study Center (and part of the above commission):

“When I started, I remember being told that the parents will raise them and we will teach them,” Comer said. “We’ve come a long way now in understanding that child rearing begins at home, but that it has to be complemented every step of the way and that all of the institutions along the development pathway have to be involved… I think we are making that progress, but it’s terribly complicated and we have to learn and grow and be flexible along the way.” 

So, does “complemented” mean that your school’s SEL program is going to reflect the values you put forth at home?

Because this is how Outcome-Based Education shot itself in the face back in the nineties. Schools sais, “As part of the new OBE, we will be teaching your children to reflect the proper values,” and parents across the country replied, “The hell you will.”

How do SEL advocates anticipate handling the first parent-teacher conference in which Mrs. Teamommy wants to know why her child got a low grade because the test showed the child didn’t have the proper respect for authority, or displayed insufficient grit, or failed the self-esteem quiz. Will “respect and honor gay marriage” be on the final? And if a dominant culture sets the rules for what SE qualities are “desirable,” what happens to students of the non-dominant culture?

And not just school overreach– what about that data?

The assessment of SEL, particularly as it is tied into personalized [sic} computer-managed mass-customized learning, would be a huge gold mine of data. I’m not sure we can overstate just how huge it would be. Profiles of student academic skills, both on the individual and macro level are attractive and valuable, but collecting what amounts to complex psych profiles of millions of students is hugely valuable to corporations, and even governments. This is the kind of marketing and PR shaping information that companies spend billions of dollars for now, and this would be rawer, deeper, richer, and track an entire generation from childhood.

On the individual level, it’s scary. BlobCorp’s HR department says, “We need to hire fifty people who are good with math, fair readers, don’t question authority, and just generally function well as drones. Pull up the spreadsheet and find me those fifty people.” (If we’re not careful, they’ll be able to add “and who are not likely to develop health problems.”)

On the macro level, it’s scary. BlobCorp can consult the data to craft its messaging, to find the marketing that would most help them sell widgets. And of course it would be awesome for politicians as well, who could use the data to both get elected and to keep the drones in line. For a government with even the slightest totalitarian tendencies, this kind of data mine would be more valuable than an army of jackbooted thugs. And once the population is measured, next those people in power can decide where they want to nudge the people next.

We know how this goes. The people to whom this kind of data is so valuable will not hesitate to help fund it and push it, while at the same time doing their best to shape it so that the SEL programs suit their needs, and not the needs of students.

But but but but but but…

Don’t we already teach SE skills? In fact, aren’t most of the “This Teacher Changed My Life” stories in the universe really centered on how a teacher helped the storyteller gain SE insights and growth? Don’t some cranks (like the writer of this blog) belittle and decry standards-based education precisely because it has overlooked SEL? In short, isn’t this not only part of what we do, but one of the most important parts of what we do?

Yes, we do this, and yes, it’s important. But there is a huge difference between bringing SEL into the classroom in an organic, human manner, and instituting it as required (and assessed curriculum).

First, I’d argue that bringing SEL in formally is just about the least effective way to handle it.

Second, requiring students to comply with the curriculum leads to another host of issues (including some listed above). The traditional organic method comes with its own buffers. Students can gravitate toward teachers who best reflect their own beliefs, their own location on the journey, and simply ignore the rest. If you think your algebra teacher is a selfish prick, you can navigate that as you wish (itself an SEL skill) without worrying about your grade resting on it. In fact, traditionally we’d consider it hugely unprofessional to make a student’s grade rest on the teacher’s opinion of the student as a human being. IOW, I may think a student in my class is a jerk, and I may even try to nudge her away from being a jerk, but at the end of the day, it would be unprofessional of me to drop her grade because of her jerkiness.

Making SEL a mandatory, assessed part of the program simply coerces compliance. It runs the risk of creating a backwards effect by teaching students that social-emotional skills are just empty actions that one imitates to earn a reward, and not an authentic part of being human.

At its best

SEL is essential. It is important. It has always been with us under flowery descriptors like “learning how to be fully human in the world” or “becoming your best self” or more mundane labels like “learning to get along with others” or even just “growing up.” Teachers, because they are the non-parental adults who spend the most time with children, have always been instrumental in this process. And it has always been bad for the society and the culture as a whole when some folks fail to grow up into healthy, functioning human beings.

The body of literature is huge, encompassing humanity’s greatest philosophers, the great religions, even the half-decent self-help gurus. There is even some scientific literature to throw into the mix (take a quick look at what’s out there about Emotional Intelligence).

And education reform, under the guidance of technocrats and data worshippers, has pushed us steadily away from the social and emotional dimensions that are a critical part of the growth and development of every young human.

And yet, though all that is true, none of it makes formally incorporating SEL into the classroom a good idea.

At its worst

Extending the bad ideas of technocratic data-driven education to SEL is exactly backwards. It’s insanely backwards, like someone who decides “I am going to marry that beautiful stranger over there, and here is my ten step plan to make it happen.” SEL happens within an authentic human relationship; as with all other education, pretending you can design a system that will deliver the learning without developing the relationship is just a snare and a delusion.

In fact, it’s worse than a snare and a delusion.

In 1984, Big Brother wasn’t just watching and gathering and collecting all the information. Big Brother was also crafting and controlling, using all manner of techniques to instill the proper values in His citizens, teaching them to interact socially and emotionally in the correct way.

SEL at its worst is about emotionally engineering humans. It’s about imposing someone else’s values on a vulnerable human being, essentially stripping that human of their autonomy and will. And worse, from re-education camps to certain cults, we know that it can be done. Because the power and wealth attached to such a massive endeavor are so great, the entire business is guaranteed to be warped and twisted by those who stand to profit. At its worst, we are talking about crafting human beings to order and harvesting both them and their data in the service of those with power. We are talking about pushing them to be the people that someone else thinks they should be. This is not just bad policy, inappropriate pedagogy, or culturally toxic– this is evil.


It would nice to be able to say something clear and definitive– “SEL is always a sign that Something Evil is afoot,” or “Don’t let paranoia carry you away on this stuff.” But once again the answer is that we have to pay close attention and speak out when we need to. Big Brother always watches; so must we.

Related: Garn Press Education Books

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