In the last two posts in the “Unschooling Emotion” series, we argued for rethinking the goals and content of what is commonly referred to as social-emotional learning (SEL). First, we suggested that the goal of SEL has been narrowly framed in terms of student achievement and other “measurable” outcomes. Second, we argued that advocates of SEL conceive of social-emotional phenomena as discrete skills. This “skillsification,” we argued, drastically narrows and distorts our understanding of the social-emotional development of youth and the place of education in fostering well-being. In this post, we argue that this narrow thinking is maintained with a focus on adopting SEL programs — in lieu of articulating new frameworks for understanding the role of emotions in educational life.

Program vs framework

A mechanism that fosters this narrow goal and conception of social and emotional learning is the idea of a program. The scenario goes like this. Educators believe that students struggle to persevere in school, or understand their own and others’ emotions, so they decide to implement one of the hundreds of existing SEL programs. In essence, social and emotional development is assumed to be like an engineering problem.

Whether these programs are embedded in classroom practices (e.g., so-called SEL kernels) or explicit instruction about emotions, the idea is that by implementing a program — a set of standardized activities — students will demonstrate more social and emotional learning, and thus be more successful.

We argue that to truly foster social and emotional development that facilitates student well-being, we need a framework for understanding emotions and their role in education.

Treating social and emotional development as a program indicates a profound misunderstanding, where social and emotional development is treated as unrelated to the daily teaching, learning and socialization experiences of students. The fact is, everything that happens in a school is relevant to social and emotional development. As we often emphasize when working with our clients, well-being is not another initiative — it arises from all that we think and do. Practically this means that social-emotional development is influenced by:

  • How school staff interact with students during class, in the hallway, in the lunchroom, and on their way to the bus, etc.;
  • How students interact with each other, in the classroom, in the hallway, and on the bus, etc.;
  • How school staff relate to different student personalities, needs and experiences.

All these relationships and interactions combine to foster or hinder the social-emotional development and thus overall well-being of students.

Despite the fact that most SEL advocates acknowledge relationships are a key factor influencing the social and emotional development of students, they nonetheless resort to thinking about such development in programmatic terms when attempting to help educators. We believe that “thinking like a program” is ill-suited to the goal of fostering student well-being.

What is a framework?

The above claims beg for a more detailed analysis of the distinction between a program and a framework. The word program refers to “a planned series of future events or performances.” For example, one receives a program upon entering the theater. However, there is another definition, which is associated with computers: “a series of coded software instructions to control the operation of a machine.” All too often, this definition describes how initiatives are typically approached in schools.

Why is this significant? Computers are closed systems. But schools are open systems. In open systems, you cannot program (reliably predict) a specified output based on specified inputs. You can, however, do this with software, computers, machines, and other engineering problems.

We can further differentiate between thinking in terms of a program and thinking in terms of a framework by focusing on the degree to which an effort emphasizes context-dependent understanding and a focus on organizational development.

Program Framework
Requires learning prescribed activities and steps Requires learning concepts and interrelationship among and between concepts
Assumes a set of standardized activities will achieve some predetermined result Assumes users must develop or customize activities based on a deep understanding of concepts and of specific contexts
Focuses on following prescribed sets of activities Focus on determining desired results to be achieved through customized activities
Emphasizes conformance to prescription by means of staff training; organizational development is unnecessary or incidental Emphasize understanding by means of organizational development and, subsequently, by means of staff development and training

Taken from the Schlechty Center.

The first column describes many if not most SEL programs: the mandating of standardized activities and results, with staff compliance secured through training. While we would argue that such thinking is not especially helpful in fostering quality curriculum, we believe it is especially ill-suited to help educators foster student (and staff!) well-being.

Needed is a framework for understanding the social and emotional development of youth, one that goes beyond narrow skills and instrumental goals. Such a framework emphasizes educator understanding, and application of that understanding to their context. This conceptual work is an important foundation for creating the conditions for both student and staff well-being. In the next series of essays, we outline key elements of our framework for promoting well-being in schools.