On Buzzwords in Education: SEL

Definitions for education

I recently read that folks don’t need more:

  • 10 Easy Steps to…
  • The 8 Things to Remember…
  • Top 5 Methods of…

I probably earned some additional smile-induced wrinkles while reading this. While I could, most likely, successfully feature many of these types of posts, I think they are a potential trap for me. My overarching goal of this blog (and my work in education) is to spark and support curiosity, dialogue, bold innovation driven by design thinking, and meaningful collaboration across constituencies that include parents and young people. This sparking and supporting is wrapped around the gargantuan task of educating our youth.

In the full scope of human endeavor we are hard-pressed to find anything as complex and dynamic as educating our young. As a big fan of apparently dichotomous global approaches, I am often torn between a) curiosity about humans (both individually and collectively) and b) systems thinking to enable replicable, efficient and valuable goals being our focus. If we peruse the definitions above, you see that I am not alone. I am unwilling to surrender definition #2, and all that it suggests, for the set of definitions in #1.

Education is rife with buzzwords and they are a pet-peeve of mine. We use them, I believe, in an effort to communicate efficiently while tricking ourselves into thinking this work we engage in is simple and will be accomplished if we but label it clearly. When I made the move to education, I was flabbergasted at the sheer volume of buzzwords and acronyms and have watched others exhibit the same reaction as new teachers and parents. One of these currently  ubiquitous buzzwords that is also an acronym, is social-emotional learning or SEL. It is used, as is usually the case in education, without regard for an operational definition to be sure all engaged in the conversation share its meaning. In addition, it is bandied about as if the very mention of it is adequate to allow us to make a claim that it is being focused on in a way that benefits our kiddos.


According to neuroscience, humans learn through emotional channels. This makes SEL not something we “do,” but the concept around which we are to organize our curiosity about the humans we are charged with educating AND as a means to make organizational decisions to develop frameworks that support widespread best practices. We can’t really be blamed for looking for a “clean” cause and effect relationship between “implementing SEL” and student results; the impetus for teachers comes from a place of caring. That said, looking for this A+B=C type of relationship with regards to the social-emotional learning of a diverse student population is a fool’s errand.

The difference between a “check-the-box” implementation of SEL and creating educational environments that effectively capitalize on how emotions govern substantive learning, begins with recognizing the multitude of SEL frameworks currently in use, their lack of consistent terminology, and their varied applications so that in each community we can make powerful choices for our unique constituencies to our greatest capacity.

The next series of posts will focus on delving into SEL, what it is, why it matters, and questions we need to explore to decide how to maximize meaningful results for our particular learning communities.

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