The Moral Implications of Social and Emotional Learning

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.

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.

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.

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.

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Frederick M. Hess

Frederick M. Hess

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.