Can We Row in the Same Direction for Our Kids on Social and Emotional Learning?

If you need convincing that educating and developing the whole child matters, look no further than the latest “war” over social and emotional learning (SEL), whose participants clearly could use a refresher on being whole adults. The very fact that education policy is a battlefield is so frustrating! Why did any of us get into this field? To improve the lives of children. So if we care about children, then how about engaging in communication and collaboration?
 
When the New York Times invited four education policy experts to debate social and emotional learning, words like “silly,” “indefensible,” and “lunacy” quickly came to the fore. In her stinging rejection of social and emotional learning, Diane Ravitch argues: “Teaching children to persevere…, to act courteously toward others…, is part of the everyday life of teaching and learning. SEL is not a separate subject.” Weaving these qualities into everyday school life is exactly what the social and emotional learning movement seeks to do. As lower school principal Courtney Smith explains, social and emotional learning assessment is demonstrably helpful to teachers wanting proactive methods for identifying and supporting at-risk students.
 
To argue that social and emotional learning judges the character of students to their detriment is to ignore how teachers and administrators are applying it. The black and white stance of its opponents — “sheer nonsense,” writes Ravitch, that “borders on lunacy” — tells me a lot about their priorities. Mockery may win an argument, (look at our Presidential debates), but it never advances knowledge. Social and emotional learning supporters readily concede that its measures need further refinement, and that it lives in conversation with other aspects of teaching — how refreshing! What they’re proposing is a “both/and” approach, and not “either/or.”
 
The simplest way to approach education policy is to make it black and white; my way is good, your way is bad. This is exactly what the whole child method teaches kids to overcome: the need to dominate a discussion instead of listening and learning. I have seen first-hand how the power of collaboration advances education. In Sacramento, when charter school and district teachers were invited to work together, an amazing thing happened: they found common ground centered on their common mission to provide an excellent education for children. Instead of enemies, they found allies.
 
Educating and developing children is hard work. It takes all of us rowing in the same direction. In his book, The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown recalls the nine young men who shocked the world at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. As he looked at his young crew on the dock one fall, Head Coach Al Ulbrickson wondered if his boys had the power, stamina, willpower, and intellectual capacity to master the technique of rowing. But most important of all, did each possess “the ability to disregard his own ambitions, to throw his ego over the gunwales, to leave it swelling in the wake of his shell, and to pull, not just for himself, not just for glory, but for the other boys in the boat.”

When we hurl insults and epithets at each other, we aren’t pulling in the same direction for our children. At the Stuart Foundation, we’re committed to always finding the harmony, balance, and rhythm, what rowers call “plenty of swift,” which leads to another way. Through establishing communication and trust, we can set an education course for our children that prepares them for college, careers, and life — what we call education’s North Star.

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