SEL (“Social-Emotional Learning”) has become popular, but we must go deeper. Education occurs only when social-emotional and cognitive learning occur at the same time. Academics must occur in the context of SEC learning.
One day. Alicia, lead teacher of the Leaping Lizards, a class of three teachers and 24 preschoolers, noticed that one of her four-year-olds, Tjaard, was showing signs of being ready to read. He would come into the classroom each morning and sound out words on the morning message board. She got him a few beginner reader books to see what he could read. Tjaard became really excited after he read his very first book and read it over and over and over again. She had him take it home and read it to his mom and dad. The next day he came to school very excited and announced that his parents were surprised. Alicia encouraged Tjaard to read the book to his friends. After he read it to his buddies she noticed that some of his buddies who would be going to kindergarten next year were a little surprised that Tjaard, who was younger, knew how to read before them.
Before long they were having Tjaard read them a book every morning; from him they learned how to memorize what each page says, and then they “read” to other children as well. Before long there was a reading frenzy going on in the class!
A school that educates is a school where cognitive, academic, social, emotional learning are entwined. In some schools, for instance, every class has a “buddy class.” Fourth graders might read to second graders. Seventh graders teach math to fifth graders.
FIRST AND FIFTH GRADERS ARE AMAZINGLY GOOD AT DETERMINING FACT FROM FICTION
In one school, first and fifth graders do projects together—like a letter-writing campaign, in which buddies send each other letters telling their buddy three facts about themselves and asking them three questions. Or they play a game in which one person says two facts and one fictional thing about themselves and the rest of the group must guess what is fiction. Both first and fifth graders are amazingly good at determining fact from fiction. They also use a wide variety of strategies, both verbal and non-verbal, to fool the others.
These kinds of moments can occur in a school all day long, 180 days a year. Great teachers have shown that there are thousands of ways. Consider the educational objectives: not just reading and writing, but many higher-order thinking skills, the full development of the whole child in ways that work for all children whatever their particular strengths and weaknesses. Better for the adults, too, right?
Connecting with other human beings is the thing. Research on happiness shows that relationships are the secret to healthier, happier, longer lives.
From bacteria to ants to trees to primates, successful life is a communal enterprise. Humans especially, were not designed to go it alone. Homo sapiens got smarter by learning how to collaborate and be valuable to each other. A school can be the optimal vehicle for continuing to get smarter. In fact, our children and our society are at risk if schools don’t see Social-Emotional-Cognitive Learning as one thing and the WHOLE thing.
Okay. Fine, if we have nice kids and nice teachers. But what if some of the kids are not nice, or some of the teachers are mean or socially dysfunctional, or what if…
This is where each one of us must keep building our competence. The real test of a learning community is not No Conflict, but the degree to which everyone embraces the fact that we are all different and therefore, must get good at turning conflict into creativity and collaboration. Alicia, Tsaard and his buddies showed us that the apparent tragic flaw in humans is really just bad habits and lack of practice.
Teaching children to ask questions and to engage in conversation in a thoughtful and constructive way…that’s the missing link between the humans of today and the humans of tomorrow.
We have to change our language. These are not “soft, non-cognitive” skills. They are hard and highly cognitive. We should not try to add SEL to our schools. We need to say that SEC Learning is the very business of school. It is, also, the secret of a longer, happier life.