Social and Emotional Learning from an International Perspective

Mark Tucker, writing for the Top Performers blog, recently weighed in on a discussion about the value of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) by providing an international perspective. Excerpts from his piece appear below:

One of the things that has really impressed us about the schools serving very vulnerable children in East Asia is their strategy for dealing with students who all too often grow up in circumstances that teach them not to trust adults—any adults.  These kids often come to school fearful and unwilling to engage.  In places like Hong Kong and Singapore, the faculties of such schools embrace the motto: ‘First the Heart, Then the Head.’  They know they cannot reach these young people in order to engage them in learning until they first do what they need to do to earn their trust.  The faculty in these schools will go to court if they have to intercede on the student’s behalf with a judge, buy them lunch if they cannot afford one on their own, stay in school until 8:00 or 8:30 p.m. if the student has no safe place to go.

The impressive thing about the schools I am describing is that they are uncompromising on the standards they set for student achievement.  But, at the same time, they will work, sometimes for years, to build the social and emotional foundation on which the student’s cognitive development will then be built.  If a student comes to school believing that no adult can be trusted, the futures available to more fortunate children will forever be denied to them and a life of crime is better than no life at all.

Here’s what Singapore’s Ministry of Education has posted on its web site about the goals Singapore has for its students:

The person who is schooled in the Singapore Education system embodies the Desired Outcomes of Education. He has a good sense of self-awareness, a sound moral compass, and the necessary skills and knowledge to take on challenges of the future. He is responsible to his family, community and nation. He appreciates the beauty of the world around him, possesses a healthy mind and body, and has a zest for life. In sum, he is

  • a confident person who has a strong sense of right and wrong, is adaptable and resilient, knows himself, is discerning in judgment, thinks independently and critically, and communicates effectively;
  • a self-directed learner who takes responsibility for his own learning, who questions, reflects and perseveres in the pursuit of learning;
  • an active contributor who is able to work effectively in teams, exercises initiative, takes calculated risks, is innovative and strives for excellence; and,
  • a concerned citizen who is rooted to Singapore, has a strong civic consciousness, is informed, and takes an active role in bettering the lives of others around him.

I invite you to read this statement of goals and ask yourself, what do you not agree with?  What is missing?  What is new and what is as old as the hills?  Which goals have always been there for everyone and which are goals that used to be only for a small elite?  Please note that only one of these goals—”communicates effectively”—says a thing about learning anything in particular or to a particular standard. Yet Singapore has consistently been at or very near the summit of the PISA and TIMSS league tables year after year.  Clearly, Singapore places great value on cognitive development.  So, when it comes right down to it, Singapore puts its money on a set of goals for students that speaks directly to some old-time virtues like perseverance, morality, civic consciousness (and by implication patriotism), taking initiative, excellence and responsibility.


For the entire post, see: