The Moral Implications of Social and Emotional Learning

I’ve hosted a number of sessions about social and emotional learning (SEL) over the past six months, and one question that’s repeatedly come up is whether SEL is ultimately an attempt to repackage traditional virtues in therapeutic, pedagogical garb so that they’ll pass muster with bureaucrats, academics, and reformers uncomfortable with moralizing or religion. The concern is that, by ignoring the degree to which SEL is indebted to moral and faith traditions, advocates risk creating an ineffectual dogma that’s off-putting to Americans who take their faith seriously.

Well, in an analysis released last week, the University of Arkansas’s inimitable Jay Greene took a much-needed—but remarkably rare—look at the moral and religious implications of social and emotional learning. This is part of a larger AEI effort to anticipate some of the perils that may await the sensible, popular push to have schools take seriously kids’ social and emotional well-being, and to sketch strategies for negotiating these pitfalls.

Here’s how Greene describes the need for SEL and its links to traditional morality and religion:

A growing number of advocacy groups, educators, and families are concerned that something important is missing from modern public education… In particular, they believe schools can and should play a central role in helping students develop… things such as impulse control, self-efficacy, empathy, teamwork, and problem-solving. The backers of SEL are entirely right… My concern is that they are likely to fall far short if they fail to acknowledge the moral and religious roots of SEL, do not consider its history and how past efforts have managed to succeed, and attempt to reinvent those past efforts from scratch on a technocratic foundation that is at odds with what allows SEL to be effective.

What’s it take for SEL to be effective? Greene argues that SEL’s moral and ethical dimensions are essential, and that efforts to downplay those or set them aside are likely to render SEL ineffective. As he puts it,

Moral and religious ideas are inherent in SEL, which is why they have always been connected. To the extent that… [SEL initiatives] are going to amount to anything more than empty phrases, they require the meat of concrete examples to be added to their dry bone of abstractions. Those concrete examples inevitably raise moral and religious issues. For example, if diligence or grit is part of self-management (or temperance), it would only be desirable to promote it if students were diligent in pursuit of a valuable end. Being gritty in one’s ruthless ambition to dominate others would not generally be seen as praiseworthy. This trait is only good as part of a greater moral whole.

In other words, morality provides an essential framework for bringing SEL to life. But Greene contends that there’s also another reason that morality and religion are intrinsic to effective SEL. He says:

When teaching SEL, the biggest challenge lies in motivating students to internalize what they are being taught… Religion helps students understand why they should be concerned with others, why they should exert effort, and why they should be honest, punctual, and diligent. Religion is not the only source of personal mission or respect for the dignity of others, but it is clearly the most widespread and longest-standing… To abandon morality and religion when trying to teach SEL is to abandon almost every established instructional tool at our disposal.

All this raises the question as to why morality and religion receded to the background when it comes to character education or SEL. There are a number of answers, but Greene hypothesizes, “The formation of much larger public school districts increased the heterogeneity of values and religious traditions within districts, often making character education too contentious and dissuading schools from taking the political risks of engaging in it… [while] more muscular state and federal initiatives have reduced the likelihood that schools would attend to character education.”

Given all this, what are the implications for those seeking to make SEL deliver on its promise? Greene offers four suggestions, but perhaps the most significant—and most likely to be contentious—is that we should:

Accept that SEL goals involve questions of morality, which in turn are embedded in religious traditions… Doing so will wipe some of the flaky, New Age feeling away from SEL and allow it to draw support from a broad section of the country that is legitimately concerned with the values that their children are learning. This would mean encouraging communities to illustrate abstract SEL concepts with concrete moral examples and models that are meaningful within their context. These moral examples and models will vary, but they could invoke the Good Samaritan in some communities, Hillel in others, and Rosa Parks in yet others.

I understand all too well that Greene’s analysis does not reflect how many SEL champions see things. I get that. But these champions need to recognize that SEL, like so many other educational improvement efforts led by cosmopolitan funders, education professors, and advocates, may be hampered by their shared biases when it comes to matters of morality and faith. Whatever their personal reaction to Greene’s thesis, I hope SEL advocates appreciate that Greene has brilliantly articulated the intuitions that underlie how many Americans will ultimately react to and make sense of the SEL push.

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor at Education Next.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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