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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

The old is new: Character returns as SEL

U.S. schoolchildren once were told to emulate “Honest” Abe Lincoln and George Washington, who ” could not tell a lie.”

Traditional virtues like “character, decency, perseverance, responsibility, and citizenship,” now known as “persistence,” “grit” and “noncognitive skills,” have been “rebranded as ‘social and emotional’ learning (SEL),” writes Rick Hess. He offers advice for SEL advocates.

First, “be clear about what the ‘it’ is,” he writes.

If it’s frank talk about the importance of honesty, respect, and a willingness to accept responsibility, I’m all in. If it’s instructional techniques intended to boost learning, that’s fine.

But it can’t be “whatever is most rhetorically convenient at the moment,” Hess writes. “I’ll hear that it’s about motivating students and anti-bullying and ‘inclusion’ and a recipe for higher graduation rates and ‘restorative justice’ . . . with the ‘it’ sometimes morphing in the course of a single sentence.”

In addition, “don’t oversell the research,” which isn’t as clear as some claim it is, or promise incredible savings, he advises.

SEL advocates are trying to avoid the mistakes that undermined Common Core standards, Hess writes.  But they may not appreciate “the way parents can get ornery when distant muckety-mucks dream up grand plans to remake their children’s schools . . . and shape children’s character and emotional well-being.”

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