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.

Why Curiosity in the Middle: Part I

Why Curiosity in the Middle?

This post is a bit long, so I have broken it into three parts. Please bear with me, as it matters to me that my background is shared to make my sincerity clear. I am posting all three parts at once, so you may customize your experience.

Part I: Why Curiosity in the Middle-Before I Was a Teacher

One of my strongest traits has always been curiosity. Back in the old days, when I was growing up in the 60s, I frequently heard: “Curiosity killed the cat,” to which I often replied, under my breath, “But satisfaction brought him back.” My curiosity has truly always driven me and I have always staunchly refused to even attempt to reign it in.

Of all the things I’m curious about, humans have always topped the list. I grew up in a house full of boisterous kids lead by two parents with almost opposite ways of navigating the world; among their differences, one extroverted and quick to react, the other introverted with a great capacity to maintain calm at all times. I am the middle child, surrounded by brothers. I grew up in Southern California in a time before all of this technology and climate change. It was almost always 70 degrees and sunny and we were expected to be outside until it was dark, along with all of the other kids on our street. We were a wild and wonderful tribe and I was one of the younger kids, so I spent a lot of time studying the older kids to “see how it was done.” Studying how others acted and reacted, I was on the lookout for maximizing my opportunities and preparing to be in charge when the older ones went off to spend time with people beyond our street.

Early on, when I was about six, my mom’s friend needed a doctoral subject and I was it. This resulted in a great deal of attention paid to this middle child, which was great at the time! It also resulted in a detailed evaluation of my apparently unusual intellectual capacity (based on traditional IQ testing), which was a mixed bag. The weight adults placed upon this information and the expectations that were the outcome throughout my childhood and young adulthood, were the outcome that fed my natural curiosity. Why was this such a big deal? Why did adults use it as a blunt instrument when they were frustrated with me? How was I similar but different from my siblings and peers? Thus began my drive to satisfy my curiosity about humans, what makes us tick, and how we are both similar and different at the same time.

In my undergraduate work, I earned a degree in Developmental Psychology with an emphasis on cognition. I was disappointed both at how little we seemed to know about brains, and how people still judged me (and other young adults and adults) based on proclamations made when we were in elementary school about who we were as learners and people (aka a fixed mindset).

During my first career in marketing and communications, my curiosity served me well, as I continually utilized what I had learned about how people make decisions and developed new skills and practices in my chosen arena. Then, I became a mom of two amazing, and very different, little humans. Like Alice so simply said, I found people to be “Curioser and curioser!”

Why Curiosity in the Middle: Part II

Part II: Why Curiosity In the Middle -Becoming a Teacher

When I made the decision to make a career change and become a teacher, I decided to earn my Master’s in Teaching. I wanted to learn all I could about how other humans learn; I had become a relative expert on how my own brain works LOL. I was disappointed by how little neuroscience was incorporated into the coursework designed to teach us how humans learn; it didn’t seem that there was much progress in the ensuing decades between undergrad and this.

When I became a teacher, I anticipated focusing on teaching students to write well; I have always been a firm believer of the power of the written word. Then, I arrived to my first teaching job in a middle school in Chicago where 57 languages were spoken and was distressed at the high percentage of students who were not reading anywhere near grade level. I was immediately curious and began my journey down the rabbit hole of reading. I dug into reading research and spent lots of time with students, asking lots of questions about what was going on in their heads while they were reading. I asked myself and others lots of questions. I learned that reading proficiency is dramatically lower in English speaking countries – curious. I developed hypotheses (and instructional strategies), tried them, analyzed results with student reflection included, and repeated.

In 2006 my children were largely independent, I had survived cancer (the first of two times) and was curious about what I could learn about developing someone else’s reading abilities. It was my hope that based on legitimate neuroscience and cognitive science research, if I pursued my Ph.D., I would satisfy much of my curiosity. With the support of family and friends, I went for it. Through the process, I connected with the International Mind, Brain, and Education Society and some incredible scholars from Harvard; among these brilliant minds were Kurt Fischer, Mary-Helen Immordino-Yang, L.Todd Rose, and David H. Rose (more about them and their work in future posts). My curiosity fueled many long hours of doctoral work as I learned more and more about our marvelous, complex, dynamic and variable human brains and how we learn.

Along the way to earning my Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction focused on adolescent literacy, I was presented with an opportunity to move to Houston, Texas.  I was recruited to join the Monarch School and Institute, a place dedicated to serving individuals with neurological differences from Pre-K through adulthood. My curiosity won over my reluctance to move to Texas: I wondered what one could accomplish with and for some of the more neurologically complex people if one did not have to stay within the constraints of the state and public school bureaucracy. I was curious about which of those effective practices would be scalable and transferable to the public school domain, where most individuals with neurological differences are educated. I stayed five years, learning both from some incredible and fierce young adults about just how variable humans can be while still sharing so many basic human needs, and alongside other adults who were likewise fueled by curiosity about how best to serve these learners.

Why Curiosity in the Middle Part III

Part III: So, Why Curiosity In the Middle?

When the time came to take my curiosity back to the public sector, I chose the biggest school district in Texas. I was excited to play a role in serving a diverse student body. I confess to underestimating the depth and breadth of bureaucracy and the obstacles in place to thwart curiosity. While I am comfortable with the idea that the original intent of standardization of curriculum and instruction may have been born of a desire to ensure that all students are engaged in a worthy education, this is not what we see in practice. Sadly, I saw so many young people adversely affected by the utter lack of curiosity about what makes them tick and how to support them to leverage their strengths to grow and reach for their dreams. The focus was on accountability, and rigid consistency across classrooms and campuses.

My time in this huge public school district brought into sharp relief just how important curiosity about learners is if our goal is to support their learning and equitably educate all members of our society to reach their potential. The 21st Century is a new and dynamic world, but our public school frameworks were set in the 19th Century and have barely changed since then. If anything, the emphasis on standardized test scores has resulted in the misuse of noteworthy technology that could support and fuel previously unimaginable deep dives into that about which we are curious to instead make various versions of “worksheets” and one-size-fits -all educational tasks accessible in a variety of ways at all hours, all in service of the performance on standardized tests. It is not hard to “do the math” and realize that standardized tests are big business and easily monetized, whereas spurring and supporting authentic, creative inquiry and collaborative problem-solving following a design cycle is not as simply profitable.