Sometimes “eureka moments” come in that strangest places.  Two days ago, one unexpectedly arrived at a student-led conference.  The format of the conferences was slightly adjusted from the year previous.  After the students were finished explaining three areas of learning, three goals would be set. The student, parents and teacher would all set one goal based on their reflections on the term.

Having parents involved in goals-setting paid off in ways that I didn’t anticipate. In one particular conference, a parent hesitated before setting a goal for her son (let’s call him Jack).  She reluctantly added that she could only think of two areas that didn’t really relate to school.  I urged her on by telling her that it didn’t matter if they were school specific.  Her first goal was about Jack living peacefully with his younger sister.  He was always bickering with her and he needed to show more maturity and patience.  The second, suggested better eating and sleeping patterns for next term.  Jack was frequently staying up late and eating too much junk food before bedtime.  This was causing morning grogginess and making him miss breakfast on school days. 

Before the conferences, I had written out my report card comments for each of the students but hadn’t yet published them for the parents to see.  Jack’s comment communicated two areas for improvement that paralleled the two areas his mother brought up.  One was attentiveness during class, I mentioned that he seemed tired and his lack of attentiveness regularly left him confused about instructions in class. The other was constant bickering and joking with other students that distracted him during independent work times.  What first seemed like unrelated behaviours in different contexts were actually linked.  Relational patterns at home mimicked those at school and bad sleep habits at home minimized his focus during class.    

My “Ah ha” moment in this situation wasn’t the link between home and school.  Every teacher repeatedly observes direct links between the home and classroom as they get to know their students.  The surprise was how often views of education in our society exclude or minimize social and emotional learning.  Why do we compartmentalize social and emotional learning and pretend that it is a non-academic skill that doesn’t influence academic areas? 

Schools modelled on factories

Ken Robinson elegantly explains one answer in his TED Talk called, Changing Educational Paradigms. 

 He shows how our current system of education was modelled on the interests and in the image of industrialism. The result is that schools today are still organized along factory lines.  Examples of the factory influences that persist in school are ringing bells, grouping children into batches based on their “manufacturing date,” separating curriculum into separate subjects and standardized testing.  

Further, Robinson argues that the current educational system is also structured on an enlightenment view of the intelligence.  Knowledge of the classics and deductive reasoning were the primary marks of an intelligence in this period.  The educational system was built for compliance to this narrowly defined type of intelligence.  Consequently, the western world was split into two types of people, the academic and non-academic.  As it turned out, most people, who didn’t happen to be good at those few valued skills were ostracized by the system.   

Factory thinking persists

Robinson’s explanation, of what I’ll call, factory education and intelligence, continue to be very deeply embedded in how we think about education.  I think it is one of the reasons that we minimized social and emotional learning (SEL) in our schools.  Examples of this are everywhere in my teaching experience.  Over the last few years, our Middle School has developed house teams across our school to build relationships between students from grades 6-8.  Every student, teacher and educational assistant in the school is divided into four houses team. Each is associated with a colour and an animal–almost like the house system in Harry Potter.  A couple of times throughout the year, we have full days of school that are dedicated to house activities.  These are jam-packed, fun days, full of activities that help students forge relationships with one another.  The response of the school community to this initiative was mixed. Some students fully embraced the day–turning up in the team colours–excited for a day of competition.  Others decided to stay home because we weren’t doing any “work” at school.  The message from the latter group of students seemed clear, building relationships with students wasn’t what school was for.  School was exclusively for “academics.”

The factory view of intelligence also explains why many parents in our school communities wrongly diagnosis their children’s learning struggles.  For example, take the parent who sees their child’s difficulty with math skills and automatically concludes that enrolling them in Kumon is the solution. Kumon may help their student, and I certainly think this program does occasionally help children learn.  However, linear connections between lack of academic skill and additional practice questions often misses the true problem because of a dumbed-down view of human intelligence.  In this type of scenario, considering SEL type questions is just as important, if not more important, than considering the skills themselves.  For example, a parent in this situation might ask:

  • What are my child’s beliefs about math? Does he/she think they are good or poor at math? Why? Are their experiences or people that are perpetuating these beliefs?
  • What is my child’s level of confidence in math?  How could I boost this confidence level?
  • Does my child understand the purpose of learning this particular skill math?
  • Would it be more motivating to try this skill in a real situation?

Education for the head and heart

These kinds of social and emotional realities have a huge effect on student learning and academic performance.  The research to support these connections is well documented. Students who are more self-aware and confident about their learning capacities try harder and persist in the face of challenges (Aronson, 2002; cited in Durlak et al., 2011; Dweck, Walton, & Cohen, 2014).   According to a 2011 meta-analysis of 213 studies involving more than 270,000 students, those who participated in evidence-based SEL programs showed an 11 percentile-point gain in academic achievement compared to students who did not participate in SEL programs.  

UBC professor, Kimberly Schonert-Reichl who is a leading expert on SEL, also makes a connection between academic performance and the implementation of social and emotional learning programs in schools. 

In the video above, Schonert-Reichl also references the CASEL organization who have documented similar studies.  Another helpful place to reference SEL research on this point is Vanessa Vega’s article for Edutopia updated with the current research in June 2017.  Her summary of the current research makes Schonert-Reichl’s same point.  Human intelligence involves the whole person-including their emotional life, beliefs, and past experiences.  

That is not to say that academic achieve legitimizes SEL programs.  The development of SEL dispositions and competencies are connected to a greater vision of human flourishing that stands on their own merits. However, showing that SEL development influences academic performance proves that our enlightenment views of intelligence are too simplistic.  When education ignores the heart of the learners to focus on their heads both suffer.   No friendships in “the factory,” means less learning. 

To move our school culture away from the factory model, we need a new paradigm to think about learning.  We also need a different metaphor for thinking about schools and how we define intelligence.  Robinson gives us an alternative picture in his TED talk called, How to Escape Death Valley.  He reminds us that “…education is not a mechanical system, it is a human system. It’s about people.”  Robinson suggests that we should think about schools as organic, living environments that need to be nurtured.  At about 16:25, in the video below, Robinson compares schools to a dormant garden that need to be tended and nurtured in order to grow.  This metaphor is infused with incredible hope for the future. As teachers tend and care for their students, they will flourish.    

I would like to encourage you to take a few minutes to listen to Robinson’s whole talk.  It’s one of my personal favourites. I would also love to read any of your thoughts on these ideas in the comments below. 

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