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International Perspectives on Social and Emotional Learning | SELConnections

Saskia Traill

Saskia Traill is Vice President for Policy and Research at ExpandED Schools. This blog is part of our SELConnections blog series, where we explore social and emotional learning.

SELConnectionsIf you could drop in on an English lesson in a secondary school in Shanghai, China, what might you see? I had the opportunity to visit Shanghai Ganquan Foreign Language Middle School this month as part of a cross-city working group organized by the Asia Society that focused on 21st-century competencies. In this English class, attentive students worked diligently and productively. Their respect for their teacher was evident in the way they answered her questions and in their absolute silence while she spoke. As uniformed students filed out, a few stayed behind to clean up the room afterwards, a regular part of school culture.

Secondary school students at Shanghai Guanquan Foreign Language Middle School participate in an English lesson.

The lesson included time for verb conjugation and careful reading of English text, as one might expect in a foreign language class. In the last activity, however, the teacher asked students to discuss in pairs how they approach overcoming difficulties, like the characters in the story. Shanghai leaders later explained that discussions of empathy, character and morals are common across classrooms, regardless of academic content.

The cities represented in the convening – Denver, Hiroshima, New York, Seattle, Seoul, Shanghai and Singapore – have common goals and struggles. Denver Public Schools has an explicit goal to support the development of the whole child. Andrea Soonachan from the New York City Department of Education noted their College and Career Readiness Benchmarks, which include academic and personal behaviors for all students. Asian cities place emphasis on character or moral development. The Singapore Ministry of Education offers a Framework for 21st-century competencies, with "core values" at the center, and describes their goal as “a good sense of self-awareness, a sound moral compass, and the necessary skills and knowledge to take on challenges of the future.”

The author (left) with Christina Russell from Policy Studies Associates, outside the famous Jing-An temple in Shanghai.

Similarly, recognizing high academic performance but low motivation and happiness among students, the Superintendent of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education articulated a new vision, reprinted on every business card and translated in English as: "Innovative education towards the future for the happiness of all." Key indicators of success? "Classrooms full of questions" and "schools with friendships."

We agreed that an educator’s commitment to social-emotional development and a culture of support and innovation are critical to making lasting change among the teaching core. Despite different levels of teaching loads across countries (in some Asian cities represented, teachers teach two to three hours per day, leaving time for collaboration and preparation), all agreed that developing the whole child should not be viewed as an added burden to teachers, but woven into existing lessons and activities. School culture and expectations, and young people's responsibilities outside of academic coursework, are critical levers. (For example, Japanese students often prepare, serve and clean up after lunch for their fellow students).

We also agreed that lack of strong measurement shouldn't hold back strong practice of building these competencies. It will take political will to set a vision for education that goes beyond academics and connects to our values as a society. And, we will need technical supports at the school and classroom level, as well as systemic shifts, to build an infrastructure for change.


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