Context Matters

Educating the whole child means, in our 21st century, creating the conditions for social-emotional learning (SEL). Often, in my experience, out of a love of children and a desire to build resilient, compassionate learners, SEL is moved out of the classroom context into pastoral care environments, especially in independent or international schools. Private schools seeking to prove a value addition may lean on advisory or pastoral care programs within the school day from this desire to serve each child’s need and to most easily package their whole child approach.

In fact, I wonder if schools that chose to promote their SEL within the classroom approaches might spur a revolt among their community by a perceived dilution of academic rigor or contact time? Seems possible. If we love educating for “The Big Five” personality traits (or the positive factors while mitigating those which may form obstacles to success, like “neuroticism”, through “grit” activities, etc.), we may change our minds quickly if we catch a whiff of time away from math instruction.

Here lie some of the inherent tensions and contradictions within schools – the tension between doing something important well and searching for a place to do a little of something important because it seems important to do or the contradictions between what we do and how we do it.

Trusting relationships provide the foundation for learning. One of my past professors described Vygotsky’s concept of the “More Knowledgeable Other” (MKO) guiding a learner through the Zone of Proximal Development as the definition of care in education. Many online guides to Vygotsky quickly point out that the MKO need not be a person, but could be an electronic tutor or the like. That’s true, but the student needs to trust the source – its knowledge and its raison d’être to aid the learner. In my opinion, research by another former professor, Dr. Anastasiya Lipnevich, that shows college students improved faster when rubric feedback was perceived as coming from a computer than from a professor suggests how distrust or the perception of disinterested or cursory grading renders feedback worthless more than it suggests electronic grading has value.

In short, we learn from one another in rich, safe contexts when we do real things – or do tasks in academic environments in which we trust each other and care about the outcome. The same is true of SEL. We learn positive behaviors from models who we trust and care about, and the only people from whom we can receive and integrate feedback on our bad behaviors are those we care about and trust.

The key point is that all behaviors must arise in an authentic context if we are to learn from them. School and classrooms may be arbitrary, but like fiat currencies, they are the coin of the realm. What are we to do? The gold standard should be real, authentic, meaningful environments in which we engage together in shared journeys of learning and discovery, but sometimes, paper money has value, too. It’s easier to carry. It scales.

SEL in arbitrary environments, like an advisory in which no authentic or contextually meaningful tasks are engaged in together, proves a hollow enterprise, often something like an online activity to uncover our strengths or a team building activity to highlight “grit”. These context-free activities demand an exceptionally talented teacher to maintain student interest and focus, or at least an exceptionally agreeable teacher (#BigFive).

I can’t do it. And I question any claims that building a marshmallow tower together once per year provides sticky learning on the nature of one’s own character. Relationship building and social emotional learning stand as essential pillars of a complete education, but should occur in the context of nothing less arbitrary as a classroom, to say nothing of other domains of school, like sports fields or service work. This learning is too important to fake.

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