How Tech Is Taking Social-Emotional Learning out of Its Silo

Jul 06, 2019

When I started out as a high school teacher in the early 2000s, I was using a lot of technology designed for connection. It was the advent of SmartBoards and podcasts, voicethreads and vlogging. Yet even in the midst of all the excitement, I didn’t feel completely connected with my students.

It was only when I coupled tech with meaning—with my own pedagogical practices of mindfulness, attention and presence—that the social-emotional skills and the academic learning began to take off. I realized then what’s always been true: Meaningful, authentic learning is connected and interdisciplinary by nature, and communities thrive when there’s social care at the core.

No longer are social-emotional learning and edtech siloed, or even separate entities. In a way, you could say it’s all connected.

This year’s ISTE 2019 conference in Philadelphia marked nearly 20 years since I entered the education profession, and I’m seeing a tidal shift in the approach to integrating technology in learning. No longer are social-emotional learning and edtech siloed, or even separate entities. In a way, you could say it’s all connected.

The meaning behind connected learning, and human connection itself, is taking center stage, with technology being used as a means to facilitate, expand and empower the mind and voice of every learner­—student and teacher alike. Just as edtech is blending with our pedagogical practices, social-emotional learning, or SEL, is also being approached in a more holistic way. Our approach to learning is undergoing a necessary sea change, at a point when it seems all parts of the educational ecosystem—students, teachers, parents and administrators—desperately need it.

SEL is not a new topic, yet for years it’s been approached as its own separate entity, to be focused on in a discrete way, perhaps along with a separate mindfulness program. In my book “Mindful by Design,” I approach mindfulness from a designer’s lens, showing ways that mindfulness-related concepts, such as awareness, advancement and authenticity can be infused directly into daily content and teaching practices. In the same way, research shows that SEL is most effective when it’s made part of the daily curriculum, and a regular part of the way in which educators approach using technology.

It makes perfect sense, as true learning happens when we link the lesson to a context that feels real and when we practice interacting with others in a community. Using SEL, we begin to see that no student is an island.

The benefits don’t stop there. A meta-analysis of 213 school-based SEL programs involving over 270,000 students between Pre-K and high school not only linked these programs to boosts in attitudes and behavior but significant academic performance as well.

At ISTE, it was clear that the community we’re talking about spans the globe, and the ways that companies are taking SEL-infused tech to the next level are as vast as they are visionary.

In some cases, students play the heroes as they map their own journeys. Classcraft, for example, has built an engagement management system that promotes SEL through a game-based platform that blends physical and virtual learning. Weird Enough Productions gives you a chance to create stories where the superheroes and comics represent you and your world. (Or, in their words, “We tell stories that inspire people to embrace their quirks, and get hype about being themselves.”)

ClassCatalyst is a new tool that lets students log in how they’re feeling during a day, allowing a piece of SEL to be quantified and increasing chances for teachers to connect with students, no matter how busy the day. And Wabisabi Learning—whose motto is “Restore balance and energize the school day”—is a multifaceted community platform that captures evidence of learning, focuses on ways to approach formative assessments and offers portfolios that showcase creativity.

New Metrics for Success

People and organizations in the edtech space are focusing on student voice and expression, visible learning, storytelling and social and emotional learning—a critical part of education’s sea change

There’s so much development and growth in the SEL arena. But it often takes a bit of patience and determination to prioritize it and make the deeper connections using tech. And, perhaps part of the intimidation at first is the vagueness of the term “social-emotional learning” itself. As Voltaire said, “If you wish to converse with me, define your terms.” Those working with SEL often point to the definition from CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, which both defines the term and identifies five related competencies related to its definition that can be assessed and mastered: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making.

These skills, sometimes labeled as “soft skills,” have often been sidelined, especially in edtech arenas, in favor of the hard skills—think: coding—that are more easily measured and used for testing academic ability and growth. Fortunately, these labels are being reevaluated as we learn that they are inter-reliant in terms of looking at long term measures of success. Soft skills help build important qualities such as attention, motivation and positive mindset, which are among the many plastic attributes that can be cultivated for both teachers and students, to incredible effect.

In essence, society is starting to form new metrics for success, which include well-being. To that end, my experience at ISTE revealed people and organizations in the edtech space who are focusing on student voice and expression, visible learning, storytelling and social and emotional learning—a critical part of education’s sea change. From Adobe to Flipgrid, Mind Yeti to 3DBear, the legends and newcomers in edtech are innovating ways to amplify student voice, foster wellness and promote social learning across disciplines and cultures, with accessibility for all. These are big visions, and the timing is ripe for it.

The industry now realizes that technology, of course, can be a bridge, helping students and teachers to connect. It can even help us to connect with ourselves. It’s no longer the case that tech is competing with humans to build these skills, but rather is complementing our efforts. The question for edtech developers has become: How does SEL look when it’s built into technology as one of the core values in the design cycle of product development, with the user experience as top priority?

When I began to prioritize using elements of mindfulness and SEL in my teaching strategies, my classroom looked and felt different, though the content was the same. I didn’t announce any shifts, but my students could feel it. I was present, and the tech tools I used became intentional by design. Now, with even more powerful edtech developed with mindful values, teachers can take advantage of a precious resource—time—in order to be even more present and available to students we serve, as well as resilient and refreshed, with a better balance for ourselves.

When done right, this human-centric approach to edtech feels completely natural, as it should be. And, it’s already revolutionizing the education world in ways that have a ripple effect, inside out.


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