Peruse an education-focused magazine or website these days and you’re likely to come across a reference to Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). As with so many recent education trends (e.g., personalized learning, universal design for learning, etc.) proponents of the movement can be guilty of purporting to provide a “magic bullet.”
Frederick Hess, director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute and executive director of Education Next, advised SEL proponents based on his experience with education fads. The advice is worth noting as schools are always doing the work of forming student’s character—whether or not they acknowledge and plan for it.
Hess is appreciative of the contributions that SEL has made to raise awareness of this fact to policymakers, educators, and reformers. He says, “we’re now enthusiastically rediscovering that schools are actually supposed to tend to other important stuff too—things like character, decency, perseverance, responsibility, and citizenship.”
Hess notes that commendable as this shift is, SEL advocates have had to be careful of the fact that using such language can seem stale, so he explains, “these traditional virtues have been retro-fitted with cool new names (like ‘persistence,’ ‘grit,’ and ‘non-cognitive skills’), rebranded as ‘social and emotional’ learning (SEL), and packaged with earnest white papers, outsized university initiatives, and excited TED Talks.”
Unfortunately, the desire to be different things to different practitioners has caused there to be some muddling of terms. What Hess calls “opacity” threatens to make SEL, “[S]eem like it’s everything and anything—whatever is most rhetorically convenient at the moment . . . [and] this makes it tough to discern whether and why the idea of the moment is actually likely to help.”
To combat this, Hess suggests that advocates make it clear “what the ‘it’ is.” He also provides one piece of advice for SEL that is particularly salient to any discussion of character formation: “SEL advocates need to concede that this stuff invites discussion of ‘ideology.’”
He is right that SEL invites discussion of ideology: What is the ideal to which we are pointed? On this topic, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture founder James Davison Hunter offers a modest proposal in The Death of Character: “[P]erhaps the most we can do is to create greater space in our social life (and not just in private life) for what remains of our wide-ranging and diverse moral communities to be renewed and to renew.”
He continues, “[I]t is precisely these kinds of social worlds, defined by a clear and intelligible understanding of public and private good mediated consistently through integrated social networks of adult authority, that moral instruction has its most enduring effects on young people.”
The Character Formation Project is one example of a program that doesn’t shy away from ideals, but has built a narrative library of historical figures who have embodied the ideals to which they are committed. If SEL champions can learn how to state those ideals, and provide rich historical and literary examples, they will contribute to Hunter’s vision of renewed moral communities.