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Emotions belong in education and its institutions - How do you feel about that?

July 26, 2022

Here is a question or two for you. To what extent would you agree with the following statements:

A: Humans are social and emotional beings

B: Education has a responsibility to help us develop the social and emotional aspects of who we are

How many of us are still figuring out how to be ourselves? To drop the mask, to be ok with things, to identify the things we want to change about ourselves and understand where they came from? How many of us wished we had had more support in learning to be more compassionate to ourselves, more empathetic with others, more able to regulate our self talk or emotional states, and more skilled in navigating the triggers of difficult discussions?

Parents do the best they can, of course, but there is no way of really measuring, supporting or ensuring consistency of approach in the way they support the social and emotional development of their children. That will require a greater level of societal awareness and so it has to start, like all things, from education. The approach which addresses this gap is generally called Social Emotional Learning (SEL).

Emotion is the dark matter of learning

Remember when scientists started talking about dark matter? It was, and is, fascinating. That there is a force in the universe we can only discern from what it does, by its presence, but not by direct observation, feels kind of like the emotional component of learning. Learning is emotional, from how and why we pay attention, to how we construct memory, to how we see ourselves as learners, is all an emotional construct. Neuroscience and psychology have been increasingly clamouring for us to really internalize that, and we are starting to see that emotion is the driving force behind so much in our learning environments.

Emotion comes into the social aspect of learning too in a big way. Maslow nailed it when he talked about "belonging" as a fundamental human need. We are complex social beings, and when we feel rejected by our peers, that can have a major impact. Not only on learning, but on the way we express that rejection in more extreme terms. Hatred, bullying and violence all have, according to a growing body of research, a causal connection to rejection and the fear of being excluded.

Not developing the skills to understand and regulate our emotions, or to empathise and collaborate with others, is closely linked to how we do in later life, from graduation and employment prospects, financial stability, physical and mental wellbeing among others. So yes, pretty important.

We have focused for so long on attainment, grades, memorization, control and the rest of the Victorian Schoolhouse industrial education model, that we forgot for a time the simple humanity of learning. Thankfully, we are really taking steps to recognise the importance of emotion and social adaption in learning.

How can you "teach" this stuff?

Well, you can't, or at least, not really. There is a big change underway as we start to mainstream things like sustainability and SEL in learning, and deeper more complex competences, such as anticipatory thinking or complex problem-solving. This new stuff does not work in lectures and PowerPoint presentations. Learners of all ages need to be in control, so it is relevant to them, created by them, owned by them.

We are born with an innate capacity for social connection, and we need that to really develop higher-order cognitive skills such as we will surely need in the volatile world ahead of us. Getting this social connection does not happen when interactions are only with the teacher, or sculpted into a lesson plan where we follow a pre-determined pathway.

Learning occurs with social interaction. We learn how others think and see the world, what we might offer them and they us, and that there are so many ways to approach problems or respond to situations. We see ourselves changing in response and understand the plasticity of our states, moving away from fixed mindsets to growth mindsets. Education simply has to embed these opportunities, train its educators to support the learners in their reflective understanding, and build SEL around them as they go.

Discussions, immersive and adaptive technology, peer to peer learning, community activities, individual reflection and journaling; there are so many ways to create space for SEL.

SEL as a framework

SEL has three dimensions:

Cognitive: e.g. planning and organising, persevering, focusing and setting goals

Social and interpersonal: e.g. resolving conflicts, respecting others, self-advocating and demonstrating agency

Emotional: e.g. recognising, understanding and managing our emotions, empathy for others, dealing with stress and frustration

As an adult reading this, what do you think? If you have ever said "I wish we had learned this in school" did it involve the kind of things on this list? Is there anything here you are still developing yourself? Of course, we are, and we are always a work in progress, but imagine having a head start in this as a young person. Imagine the impact on your life.

Being able to recognise and manage negative self talk, and flip that to more positive and grounding input. Being able to accept and acknowledge others perspectives without taking them personally and entering a reactive state. Being able to value diversity of though and approach in collaborative problem-solving, and to hone the skill of reflection to breed clarity and good decision-making. This is the stuff that executive coaches make careers out of helping adults develop, but imagine we could do the heavier lifting ourselves.

The socio-emotional institution

We are in education marketing and recruitment, as you likely are, and we can surely see how appealing this is to parents and older learners. Making SEL a key priority in all levels of learning will help bring institutions into a new century of socially responsible, self-aware and compassionate changemakers. Teaching needs to change, accreditation needs to change and all the rest of it, but is it too idealistic to imagine a culturally sensitive SEL framework embedded in primary to tertiary education? 

It must be a whole-institution approach. This is not something that can rest on the goodwill of committed teachers. When we talk to parents of primary and secondary learners about supporting SEL, when we bring in our teachers and administration staff to the conversation and training, when we embed it in the way we communicate internally and externally, and when it runs as a thread throughout our learning, we become something new.

Everyone can benefit from this, and focusing only on SEL in the classroom is a missed opportunity. Everything from student work experience to campus HR and marketing can involve SEL principles and frameworks in their decision-making and strategizing. You can also develop your own curriculum around SEL principles, such as the Kindness Curriculum project in the UK.

At NEO Academy, we consider the impact of our decisions on our team. We embed reflective and socio-emotional thinking in all of our professional training, and we navigate our community as listeners and connectors. Our strategy is based around lifting each other up, supporting what we value, and being the change we want to see. At least we try, even if we don't always get it right the first time.

The time of the Clint-Eastwood cowboy approach to leadership is as dead as the genre. We can and should show our emotions, share understanding of them, put in the work that requires, and push for more of this in education as a right, not a privilege. If you feel the same way and want to showcase what you are doing for learners and your community, let us help you tell your story and bring in others to share the journey.

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