Yes, but is it teachable?

A recent study (still just a pre-print) cited by supporters of “social-emotional learning” (SEL) reminds me of all the fanfare about “grit” (remember grit?) and of an old post of mine from Out In Left Field.

But first, a bit about this latest study, entitled “The Roles of Social-Emotional Skills in Students’ Academic and Life Success: A Multi-Informant, Multi-Cohort Perspective.” Its methodology appears rigorous: 

a multi-informant (self, teacher, and parent) and multi-cohort (ages 10 and 15 from Finland, N = 5,533) perspective to study the association between 15 social-emotional skills and 20 educational (e.g., school grades), social (e.g., relationships with teachers) psychological health (e.g., life satisfaction), and physical health outcomes (e.g., sleep trouble).

But what does it conclude?

Overall, Self-Control, Trust, Optimism, and Energy were found among the four most important skills for academic and life success.

I’m sorry, but these results–just like the earlier ones about “grit” and “growth mindsets”–are hardly surprising.

The bigger problem, however, is this: Every time a study shows that some non-academic factor X causes improvements in academic performance, people confuse “X causes improvements in academic performance” with “K12 classroom teachers should take time out of academics to teach X.”

The real questions are these:

1. Is X teachable?

2. Even if X is teachable, are K12 classrooms the place to teach it?

3. Even if K12 classroom teachers are qualified and able to teach X, should they? 

Any time spent on X, after all, is time not spent on academic instruction. And even if a student acquires superlative self-control, trust, optimism, and energy thanks to her classroom teachers, there’s only so far she will go in higher level math, science, or humanities if her academic instruction is even more crowded out than it already is with SEL lessons.

Modern Day Calvinisim, II: predicting grit

In the modern Edworld, the “Elected” are graced not with godliness, but with grit. It is they, the Grit-Graced, who will thrive in the world to come, the Brave New World of 21st Century Skills.

But who are these modern-day Elected? As it turns out, it’s just a matter of time before the Higher Powers of the Edworld will be able to tell us. As a recent article in Edweek reports:

The nation’s premiere federal testing program is poised to provide a critical window into how students’ motivation, mindset, and grit can affect their learning.

Evidence has been building for years that these so-called noncognitive factors play a role in whether children succeed both academically and socially. Now, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often dubbed the “nation’s report card,” is working to include measures of these factors in the background information collected with the tests beginning in 2017.

So important are these “non-cognitive factors” that, according to Chris Gabrieli, described in Edweek as “an adjunct lecturer with the Transforming Education project at Harvard Graduate School of Education and a co-founder of the National Center on Time and Learning in Boston,”

Teachers self-report spending 10 percent of their teaching time on noncognitive skills. That’s more time than students spend on any subject other than English and math—more than they spend on arts…

No matter that even Angela Duckworth, grit’s coiner-in-chief, has said publicly that no one knows how to teach grit:

Every day, parents and teachers ask me, “How do I build grit in kids? What do I do to teach kids a solid work ethic? How do I keep them motivated for the long run?” The honest answer is, I don’t know.

So let’s keep being honest.

And let’s see this gambit for what it really is: yet another instance of the Edworld (like so much of the autism world) taking the easiest course, and assessing what it doesn’t know how to teach instead of teaching what it does (or should), yes, know how to teach.

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