by Barbara Michelman in the ASCD Policy Priorities | Summer 2015 | Volume 21 | Number 2 | http://bit.ly/1LyDvdY
29June2015 :: When asked what defines an excellent preK–12 educational experience, professional educators overwhelmingly provide an answer that goes well beyond academic achievement. Why, then, do the majority of district, state, and federal education policies prioritize annual assessment results over equally important factors, such as challenging and engaging curricula; strong social-emotional and physical health supports; moral and ethical development; and safe, supportive learning environments?
The commonly accepted—but narrow—definition of student "success" that centers on academic achievement dismisses research documenting life-long payoffs of a "whole child-centered" approach to teaching and learning that accounts for children's cognitive, social, emotional, physical, and ethical development. One subtle but significant challenge in shifting toward this expansive approach to education is that shareholders do not agree on the terms and definitions of the factors that make up a whole child framework. The same term can refer to similar—but different—concepts. Also, an educator's understanding of a term may differ from that of a policymaker, parent, or business leader.
To enable thoughtful, engaged conversation on issues that matter to educators, parents, communities, and students, we need clarity on key educational terms and philosophies, such as character education, school climate, social-emotional learning, and 21st century skills. The ability to speak with greater precision and cohesion would help diverse stakeholder groups create policies and support practices that address the multifaceted and individualized learning needs of each (whole) child, regardless of geographic location, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and mental or physical abilities.
Character.org's President and CEO Becky Sipos acknowledges the confusion around educational terms and their application: "Parents don't understand … policymakers don't know what to support. There are a lot of parallel tracks. How can we build the field so that there is public acceptance [as well as] demand … and to respect [all of] these as essential—not 'soft'—skills?"
National School Climate Center (NSCC) President Jonathan Cohen notes that consensus on both individual and shared terminology is an "important and worthwhile goal."
Cohen believes that "there are more similarities than there are differences" between these approaches, adding that it's "politically [and] strategically important to support each other's efforts in a 'coordinated, unified manner.'"
Greater agreement around educational outcomes leads to less importance being placed on the words used to describe them, said Helen Soule, executive director of the Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21). While acknowledging the confusion over different terms, she notes that "from a public perspective … I don't know that's the argument we ought to be having." Instead, Soule offers, we should focus on how to reach the best educational outcomes "whatever your definition is."
You Say "Whole Child," I Say ….
While terms such as whole child, social and emotional learning (SEL), character education, school climate, and 21st century skills may be hot topics right now, they have been around in some version for quite a while. As early as the 19th century, philosopher and academic John Dewey used language related to whole child concepts to describe the physical, social, emotional, and intellectual needs of students (Cohen, 2013). When ASCD launched its Whole Child Initiative during a time when high-stakes testing was becoming a disproportionate predictor of student success, the term "whole child" encompassed its vision for ensuring that each child, in each community, had the necessary educational supports and conditions for long-term development and success.
Our nation's founders wanted U.S. children to develop a moral foundation for implementing democratic principles—what we might refer to as a "character education." Shared values and character were integrated into the U.S. public school system. "The founding fathers did think of developing a virtuous citizenry inculcated in those civic values," Sipos says. "In order for the democracy to survive, we needed those shared values."
School climate is "something that educators have explicitly been researching for over 100 years," notes Cohen, "and SEL is something that I would suggest is several thousands of years old. Think of the Greeks and what they had written on the ancient sanctuary of the Oracle of Delphi: 'Know thyself.'"
While the ancient Greeks may have identified the need for social-emotional learning, we can trace its current context to risk prevention researchers who, in the 1970s and 1980s, began to delineate the specific social and emotional skills that support resilience in children.
"Within education and school-based programming, there were a bunch of different prevention and other movements all focused on positive youth development," said Roger Weissberg, board vice chair and chief knowledge officer for the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), describing the early 1990s when CASEL was established. "Schools were also at the time so focused on academics and academic performance. We said that it was important to think about the cognitive as well as social and emotional development of children. We decided that the social and emotional competence of kids was important as well as creating the social and emotional conditions for learning."
As the 20th century edged closer to completion, the business community began to publicly voice concerns over skills gaps among its new hires—skills such as collaboration, creativity, and problem solving that an increasingly global, interconnected, and innovative workforce needed. Companies began to consider these types of skills as educational "must haves" rather than "nice to haves," providing impetus for a comprehensive approach to a child's overall preK–12 education experience. This workforce development conversation created an opportunity for organizations such as P21 to elevate "21st century readiness" in policy conversations about redesigning education systems and individual learning experiences.
"Lumpers" vs. "Splitters"
The education community should seek agreement around the "good conditions to support kids' wholesome development and the skills that children need to learn" to become lifelong learners and successful adults, says Weissberg.
"I think it's important to have agreement around common outcomes, but the means by which you get there … I think there are a variety of different strategies," he added. "My hope is that we can have respect for recognizing there are different strategies and different frameworks that can fit together in some ways. Maybe we can talk about the active agreement on the ingredients—what makes programming effective."
Ultimately, Weissberg said, people join one of two different camps when it comes to terminology: "There are some people who are 'splitters' and some who are 'lumpers.' Lumpers look for commonalities and try to connect them and find synergies. Splitters look for differences, and say what's unique about an approach. In our country right now in education, we need to do a lot more 'lumping' and looking for the synergies."
Defining the What and How
Common threads connect such terms as whole child, character education, social-emotional learning, school climate, and 21st century skills. Certainly all establish that myriad factors—both inside and out of the academic environment—promote a student's long-term development and success. And yet, despite widespread agreement among educators on this vocabulary's importance in a child's overall educational experience, a persistent challenge exists in determining how best to incorporate it into the overall school setting and direct instruction. The difficulty in measuring the efficacy of each term on student outcomes, given our current limited assessment models, may be partly to blame. It's hard, say, for a standardized test to measure how safe and supported children feel in their education settings.
What follows is a shorthand definition of each of these terms, as defined by organizations such as ASCD, Character.org, CASEL, NSCC, and P21. Individual nuances are important, but more "lumping" than "splitting" appears to be occurring between each.
Whole Child: An education that ensures that "each child, in each school, in each community is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged," describes ASCD's whole child approach. With these tenets, ASCD hopes to change the conversation about education from a narrow focus on academic achievement to one that promotes the long-term development and success of children. Such an environment can help educators, families, community members, and policymakers move beyond a vision about educating the whole child to sustainable, collaborative action.
School Climate: The "quality and character of school life as it relates to norms and values, interpersonal relations and social interactions, and organizational processes and structures" describes the NSCC's definition of school climate. As they see it, "school climate sets the tone for all the learning and teaching done in the school environment and predicts a student's ability to learn and develop in healthy ways."
Social-Emotional Learning: The "process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions," is the definition of SEL according to CASEL. They note that "SEL programming assumes that the best learning emerges in the context of supportive relationships that make learning challenging, engaging, and meaningful."
Character Education: The phrase, "an educational movement that supports the social, emotional, and ethical development of students," articulates Character.org's use of this term. The organization defines it as "the proactive effort by schools, districts, communities, and states to help students develop important core ethical (recognizing what's right) and performance (doing what's right) values such as caring, honesty, diligence, fairness, fortitude, responsibility, grit, creativity, critical thinking, and respect for self and others." Through character education, "students learn how to be their best selves and how to do their best work while making school a place where students and educators feel comfortable and able to work."
21st Century Skills: Abilities that enable students to "actively engage in their education and directly apply their content knowledge through collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity," is how P21 defines this term. As detailed in P21's Framework for 21st Century Learning, these skills include digital, media, and information literacy to evaluate content and use technology effectively; life and career competencies such as flexibility, time and project management, and self-direction; cultural awareness; leadership; and responsibility. According to P21, these skills "are essential in enabling students to leave school prepared for success in college, careers, and citizenship in a global and interconnected world."
True Grit … or True Resilience … or True Perseverance
Ambiguity with educational terms certainly doesn't end with the five concepts listed above. More specific or granular terms—many of which are related to the above approaches—are often used interchangeably, despite nuanced differences, or as stand-ins for broader educational concepts.
Nonacademic, noncognitive, soft skills, and people skills are terms that educators and researchers use to describe vital attributes for students to succeed in higher education, inside the workforce, and across society. These terms are often used in conjunction with 21st century skills such as collaboration, creativity, team building, and innovation, which can overlap with social-emotional learning skills. Typical standardized achievement tests lack the capability to measure most of these skills. But widespread agreement exists on the need to incorporate them into a student's educational experience, especially when preparing today's students for tomorrow's workforce.
The challenge in these skills being universally accepted as integral components to a whole child education, however, is in dispelling their negative connotations. For example, prefacing a term with "non" or "soft" mistakenly implies that it's not important to achievement.
Terms such as grit, resilience, and perseverance provide an even more granular example of the skills mentioned earlier. And too, these terms seem to be used interchangeably or their definitions overlap each other, often in very subtle ways. These terms certainly have received their share of recent attention, in part from the popularity of Paul Tough's 2013 book (How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character) as well as the research of individuals such as Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist. Each trait is a component of learning approaches and educational programs that seek to develop life-long skills and attributes in students.
Resilience has been described as the ability of students to bounce back from adversity or a quality exhibited by those who thrive despite coming from at-risk environments (Perkins-Gough, 2013), while grit has been explained as sticking with a goal over the long term despite obstacles (Edutopia, 2014). The term perseverance often describes a student's tendency to complete their work thoroughly and on time, to the best of their ability despite obstacles or level of challenge. Skills such as staying focused on a goal, regardless of distractions or challenges; prioritizing higher pursuits while delaying gratification; and exhibiting self-control seem to weave in and out of such definitions.
Stakeholders often use adjectives such as well-rounded, holistic, and student-centered to describe programmatic approaches to supporting the whole child. While we should not consider these approaches as substitutes for whole child–centered teaching and learning, they certainly serve as important components inside a whole child framework.
According to many, a well-rounded education expands "core academic subjects" to include English language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, foreign languages, physical education, art, music, civics, government, economics, geography, and health education. In this learning environment, students receive enriched learning experiences as well as extracurricular activities.
A holistic education helps students find identity and purpose in life through connections to their communities, nature, and humanitarian values. This model values not only academic success but also students' ability to learn about themselves, healthy relationships, social responsibility, and compassion.
The term student-centered learning can refer to a variety of educational programs, learning experiences, instructional approaches, and academic support strategies that address the distinct learning needs, interests, aspirations, or cultural backgrounds of individual students and groups of students. This term describes forms of instruction that allow students to lead learning activities, participate actively in discussions, design their own learning projects, explore topics that interest them, and contribute to the design of their own course of study.
Terms such as community schools, wrap-around services, and full-service schools often describe partnerships between schools and local, community-based service providers that support the academic, physical, mental, social, and emotional development of students, their families, and the community. Services that support student's academic success may be offered at or near the school building, and can include primary, mental, and dental health care; family engagement, including adult education; preschool learning; academic enrichment; expanded afterschool or summer programming; mentoring; postsecondary education; and career options awareness.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Today's educators strive to balance the complex learning needs of their students to ensure measurable academic achievement as well as help them build solid foundations for career and life success. But policymakers who "want to see the 'magic research study'" make their work more difficult, said Sipos.
"We say, 'think crock pot, not microwave.' You've got to put all of this stuff together," she added. "This is hard work, but it's valuable work. And I want it to be respected among policymakers and the community."
"Everyone should be familiar with the terms and concepts used to support a whole child education," said ASCD Policy Director David Griffith. "There are no right or wrong terms, but it would help if we could use a common framework. We hurt ourselves by fostering confusion across parents, policymakers, and business and community leaders. The goal is for everyone to support learning and achievement beyond academic performance."
Cohen says that his first goal is to educate the whole child, "whatever label is used"—and that his second goal is to support the "whole village—school, parents, guardians—working together."
Education, he added, is a "continuous process of learning and development, both instructionally and systemically. I'm in favor of doing anything that's within a continuous process of learning and development."
"We want people to be thoughtful about the education they provide, and offer the resources and supports for them to do it well," said Weissberg. "I want people talking, communicating with each other about the paradigms that guide their work. What that's going to lead to in terms of language? I guess we'll find out."
"Bringing in all stakeholders is key," Sipos said. "We all implement together. It's not one more thing on the plate. It is the plate."