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What Should Schools Be Doing About Social-Emotional Learning?

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “Hard Thinking on Soft Skills” by Grover “Russ” Whitehurst in a Brookings Evidence Speaks paper, March 24, 2016,
In this Brookings Evidence Speaks paper, Grover “Russ” Whitehurst takes a critical look at the “soft skills” being embraced by many U.S. schools. The ESSA provision that states must include at least one non-academic measure in their accountability plans has opened the door to social-emotional learning as one measure of school success. One consortium of California districts has proposed giving 40 percent weight to this domain, including a component with students’ self-assessments of growth mindset, self-efficacy, self-management, and social awareness. “Surely soft skills are important and schools have an important role in shaping them,” says Whitehurst. “But the reality is that research on soft skills is soft.” Here are his main concerns:
• Vague definitions – Social-emotional competencies include character, virtue, personal qualities, emotional intelligence, non-cognitive skills, and 21st-century skills – everything from completing homework to optimism, grit, social awareness, and a growth mindset. “The complexities and challenges for schools and educators of including such disparate behaviors, thoughts, and dispositions into the overarching grab bag of soft skills are large,” says Whitehurst. “Schools that try to do everything are likely to accomplish nothing well. Thus, the first challenge for soft skills education reform is a coherent answer to the question: What are we talking about and trying to influence?”
Whitehurst believes that right now, we don’t have enough clarity on what exactly it means, for example, for a student to engage in “responsible decision making” – and how that looks different for a second grader and a high-school senior. “Without specificity at the level of what students need to learn and examples of how to teach it, there is no clear path to the development of curriculum and instructional practices, teacher training, or meaningful assessment and accountability.” Therefore, Whitehurst concludes, it’s “premature and unhelpful for educators to define a school’s mission, select its curriculum and programs, measure its success, and be held accountable for something as amorphous as the various synonyms for soft skills.”
• Distinguishing traits from behaviors – For the last 100 years, psychologists have been trying to understand human personality, and their efforts closely parallel the current work on social-emotional skills, including the desire to define broad patterns of human behavior through questionnaire data and the goal of identifying individual differences that predict later outcomes. The difference is that after a century of research, psychologists pretty much agree on the so-called Big Five OCEAN personality traits:
- Openness to experience;
- Conscientiousness;
- Extraversion;
- Agreeableness;
- Neuroticism.
Psychologists also agree that each of these is (a) dimensional – that is, a person can be high or low or somewhere in between on each one; (b) statistically unique – that is, an individual’s placement on one trait doesn’t predict placement on any of the others; and (c) each trait doesn’t predict specific behaviors in particular situations but a tendency to respond in similar ways in a wide range of circumstances.
The research on soft skills is relatively new, so it’s not surprising that there isn’t a strong consensus – in fact, says Whitehurst, there’s “a Tower of Babel when it comes to constructs and measures.” But there are some parallels with the Big Five – for example, in the Chicago Consortium’s description of social skills, cooperation and empathy are similar to Agreeableness, assertion is similar to Extraversion, and responsibility is similar to Conscientiousness. And some social-emotional learning programs have used the Big Five traits in developing their questionnaires.
The problem, says Whitehurst, is that OCEAN personality traits and most of those being used in current social-emotional learning programs are “highly heritable.” Studies of identical twins reared together and apart have shown that between 40 and 50 percent of the variance in OCEAN personality traits is due to genes, whereas only 7 percent is due to environment.
Can schools implementing social-emotional learning programs change these deeply embedded personality traits? This is an empirical question, says Whitehurst, but the results from a rigorous study of the KIPP charter schools are not encouraging. Along with academic achievement, KIPP is strongly committed to and seriously invested in improving students’ character, which the organization sees as crucial in its own right and a pathway to students’ future success. The study showed that KIPP schools have been successful at improving students’ math and reading achievement, but on 12 social-emotional skills, students did markedly better on only one – collaboration with peers.
The theory of action underpinning social-emotional learning programs in schools is that (a) soft skills are causally linked to students’ academic and life achievement; (b) schools can affect soft skills through curriculum, school climate, and focused training; and (c) the school’s impact on soft skills leads to improved student outcomes in other domains, including academic achievement. The KIPP study and others like it suggest that almost all the social-emotional skills measured are very resistant to change – or at least that schools haven’t yet figured out how to change them.
• Accountability – Whitehurst says there are many unanswered questions on the validity of indicators of social-emotional skills; on separating the value-add of schools from factors outside the school; on isolating the impact of individual teachers; on identifying the kind of training needed to improve teachers’ skills at strengthening their students’ soft skills; on the relationship of proxy measures (like suspensions) and questionnaire items (like a student’s response to a question about mindset); and on the way disruptive students with low social-emotional skills affect the students around them.
“We are at the very beginning of understanding what educators should be doing in schools to advance students’ soft skills, how the outcomes of those efforts can be measured, and who should be held responsible for what, and how,” Whitehurst concludes. Given all that, here are his recommendations for how to proceed:
- Focus on improving student behavior, not personality traits and dispositions. “Encourage and reward students for persistence and hard work rather than trying to increase their grit,” he says. “Provide opportunities for students to learn to work productively with others instead of focusing on their development of cooperation and empathy. Instead of trying to increase students’ conscientiousness, provide task-relevant instruction on how to manage time and complete assignments, and meaningful consequences for doing so. Arrange classroom instruction and other school-based activities so that all students can experience success and growth based on their work rather than trying to get students to see themselves as self-efficacious or to have a growth mindset.”
- Develop, communicate clearly, and provide learning opportunities and meaningful consequences for observance of rules and expectations for respectful social interactions.
- Use measures of soft skills that are naturally occurring and useful as feedback at the classroom and individual level.
- Focus on students who are significantly off-track in their social-emotional behavior or self-management skills.
- Pay particular attention to teachers, coaches, and other adults in the school who have a track record of problems with interpersonal interactions with students.
- Put in place systematic ways to learn from and improve the reform efforts.

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