Social and Emotional Skills in Academics

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By Kevin Hawkins

Mainstream schools, for historical reasons as well as somewhat self-serving societal demands, traditionally focus on cultivating a very limited range of skills and competencies in their students. But if we want to support the growth and maturation of balanced young people in a world of increasingly complex and pressing challenges, then we have to offer them educational experiences that effectively promote a balanced range of human capacities. For too long now we have overlooked the social and emotional skills that can help provide this crucial balance, alongside the more analytical and critical academic skills.

Central to the mission of any institution concerned with the growth of young people must be the need ‘to understand ourselves, to understand others and to understand the environment and systems within which we live and operate’. * The importance of developing the affective skills cannot continue to be ignored at a time when we desperately need to learn to be more able to care for ourselves, for each other and for our endangered planet.

Programs like the IBO PYP, MYP and DP have a conceptual base that goes far beyond traditional, narrow academic confines and they aim to support the development of a more well-rounded student. But conceptual aims and the reality of everyday schooling do not always align, and when push comes to shove it takes a strong commitment to those underlying deeper values to authentically deliver a genuinely balanced approach.  As a teacher and school principal, I often grappled with the issue of how to reflect and promote affective skills through assessment processes. How can we effectively incorporate a wider range of skills in our assessments beyond simply narrow academic metrics? How can we give students greater ownership of their development?  We worked hard to produce feedback processes and even report cards that raise the profile of non-academic skills, reduce the focus on numbers or letters and gave equal weight to subject skills and study skills.  This was no easy journey and necessitated some deep reflection, for teachers, students and parents.  Despite a growing recognition in society and in the workplace of the importance of  ‘soft’ skills, our school processes have not yet caught up with understanding the importance, that – for life, work and learning –  ‘How we are’ is at the least of equal value to ‘What we do’.

I take great encouragement from seeing the emergence of the Tracker App tool because of the way it aims to support students in recording and monitoring their skills development in the Approaches To Learning.   I watch with curiosity to see how it is being applied by students, teachers and schools and how it might play a part in helping promote greater balance in education.

This app offers the potential to be able to map progress as a learner over time in areas that include social-emotional skills and helps emphasise an understanding that how and where I progress is fundamentally down to me and my personal approaches to learning.   Overall this app should work wellfor schools moving towards greater student ownership of assessment processes, for example with student-led conferences. Using their logged data as a starting point for conversations with parents and teachers about what they have achieved and where they need to focus nextcan provide students with a more tangible foundation in areas that have till now been more challenging to reflect on.  

There is now greater recognition of the importance of metacognitive skills in learning.  The ability to honestly self-assess Where are my strengths as a learner? and What do I need to focus on now? are key elements of metacognitive growth. Above all, these and other similar initiatives help undermine the traditional dependence amongst teachers, students and parents on extrinsic judgments and rewards, putting the focus instead on a more intrinsic understanding and valuing of the learner’s experience and perspective.

In this regard, the inclusion of mindfulness as a desirable trait to foster in the ATL self-management skills cluster is very welcome because mindfulness training can support moves to value more directly the experiences and perspectives of the learner in education.  Moreover, training in mindful awareness can effectively and pragmatically support the development of a whole range of affective skills.

As the tracker app continues to evolve in response to student, teacher and school feedback, effectiveness and accessibility of the app will also, I expect, continue to evolve. I understand that initial student feedback has included requests for greater ‘gamification’ and to incorporate rewards such as badges and medals within the process.  It remains to be seen if such extrinsic rewards undermine or enhance the intrinsic value of understanding myself as a learner that the app has been designed to support.  It certainly is no easy task to move education away from deeply ingrained, grade-focused conditioning, but I believe the growth of affective skills focused processes that encourage student ownership, is a significant step in the right direction.

* See “Triple Focus – A New Approach to Education” by Daniel Goleman and Peter Senge

Kevin Hawkins  is co-founder of MindWell, which supports educational communities in developing wellbeing through mindfulness and social-emotional learning and he has been a lead consultant to the International Baccalaureate Organisation on SEL. He is a facilitator for the evidence-based CARE program for teachers (Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Educators) and a Senior Trainer for the Mindfulness in Schools Project’s  “.b”  program for students.  Kevin is a regular speaker, writer and presenter on the topics of mindfulness, wellbeing and social-emotional learning in education.  His book on mindfulness in education, Mindful Teacher, Mindful School, Improving Wellbeing in teaching and learning, was published by SAGE in July 2017.

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