Roundtable: the social network

How can edtech support the vital field of social and emotional learning (SEL) in schools? Steve Wright polls five SEL experts


Dr Leila Walker PhD Chief product officer and co-founder, Persona – life skills for teens and beyond

Dr Michael Wigelsworth Course director, BSc Education Psychology, Manchester Institute of Education

Dr Jonathan Doherty, Senior lecturer, education, Leeds Trinity University

Dr Aleisha Clarke, Head, What Works, Child Mental Health and Wellbeing, Early Intervention Foundation

Phil Birchinall Senior director of Immersive Content, Discovery Education

Q. Can you briefly define SEL and outline your sense of its importance in UK education?

Dr Michael Wigelsworth: Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is the process by which children and young people develop and learn a broad range of social, emotional and behavioural skills.

The potential for SEL is well-established; it’s seen as a foundation for healthy development, as it’s associated with later-life outcomes extending into adulthood, such as success in the labour market, decreased criminal violence and drug use, and later protection against mental health difficulties.

Schools are central in this process, given (among other things) their universal access to pupils, and the opportunities to integrate effective SEL into existing curricula.

Dr Jonathan Doherty: More than ever in the current pandemic, SEL is vital for children today. It promotes emotional literacy and equips them with the skills they need to lead healthy, happy lives. Learning SEL skills has a host of benefits for children, both inside and outside of the classroom.

It teaches children how to be successful learners; research tells us that focusing on the social and emotional aspects of learning improves academic attainment. It also improves attendance and behaviour.

In social terms, meanwhile, children benefiting from SEL make better friendships, deal with conflict better, and learn skills to solve problems. They learn about themselves and each other, and develop important skills such as self-regulation and resilience.

Dr Aleisha Clarke: SEL refers to the process through which children learn 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. There are a range of other terms that schools use to describe SEL – including supporting children’s mental health and wellbeing; character education; bullying prevention; life skills; behaviour management; personal development; and spiritual, moral, social and cultural development (SMSC).

There’s extensive evidence on the positive impact of programmes aimed at enhancing children and young people’s social and emotional skills on a range of short- and long-term outcomes. The research indicates that high-quality programmes can have a significant positive impact on children and young people’s social and emotional skills; attitudes, behaviour and relationship with peers; emotional health; levels of bullying; and academic achievement.

These programmes can be particularly important for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, who tend to have weaker SEL skills than their peers. There is also evidence that the benefits of SEL extend to teachers and the environment, with US studies showing improvements in classroom climate, job satisfaction and relationships with children.

Phil Birchinall: We know, when we design content for schools, that there are several factors that will drive its use and success.

Firstly, there is the clear requirement that it responds to the current agenda through the curriculum or other initiatives. For me, SEL is the route through which true learning happens. Anyone familiar with Seymour Papert’s 1980 book Mindstorms, which advocated computing education in schools, will know that ‘constructivism’ was central to the introduction of education technology further amplified by social constructivism, where learning happens through collaboration combined with social context and prior knowledge.

The missing component is merely the addition of the emotional backdrop to this scenario. Simply put, SEL takes constructivism and folds-in reality through the relatable lenses of emotions.

Dr Leila Walker: The Education Endowment Fund provides a working definition for SEL: it “seeks to improve pupils’ interaction with others and self-management of emotions, rather than focusing directly on the academic or cognitive elements of learning.”

SEL has morphed over the years, largely due to changes in government policy. For many of us, the Every Child Matters policy (2003–2010) was SEL’s heyday. The policy listed five key principles: be healthy; stay safe; enjoy and achieve; make a positive contribution; achieve economic wellbeing. Accordingly, this policy was seen as an important deliverable: one that should have a clear, whole-school approach, where every interaction with a child included elements of the policy. This approach prevented SEL being siloed into traditionally less-resourced, less-valued PSHE lessons.

The Ofsted 2019 Framework offers a ray of light for a return to SEL being valued across the school community. The new framework puts less emphasis on data such as academic results, and more on how those results were achieved.

However, until we get the first signs that schools are being rewarded for putting wellbeing ahead of academic grades, changes may not be fully realised.

“In short, SEL edtech can provide the self-directed, personalised learning journey required for students to gain this knowledge and grow as individuals” – Dr Leila Walker

Q. What sorts of soft skills are SEL tools particularly effective at advancing?

JD: Really important life skills! These include being able to regulate emotions; managing stress; cooperating with others; self-awareness; building self-confidence; impulse control; and responsible decision-making.

MW: There are many different terms used to describe a loose constellation of attributes and behaviours, but SEL can be defined by five key competencies: self-awareness (identifying emotions, self-perception, self-confidence); self-management (impulse control, stress management, self-discipline, organisational skills); social awareness (perspective taking, empathy/sympathy, respect for others); relationship skills (communication, teamwork); and decision-making (identifying problems, analysing solutions, ethical responsibility).

AC: SEL programmes have been shown to be effective in improving children’s social and emotional skills; including, for example, emotional identification, emotional regulation, coping skills, relationship skills, communication skills and behaviour skills. They have also been shown to enhance young people’s academic achievement, with results from a meta-analysis of SEL interventions indicating an 11% gain in academic achievement among students who received SEL interventions.

LW: Preparing young people for successful lives – both personally and professionally – is difficult. Pre-COVID, a typical student spent 95% or more of their direct learning time in school, with 5% or less coming from trips or work experiences. The rest of the time, students are limited (or, in some cases, fortunate) in their access to ‘real-life’ situations that will help them gain invaluable soft skills, often cited as prerequisites for a successful life and career.

SEL tools, such as KidConnect, are capable of bringing real-life experience into the classroom.

The capability to provide digitally played scenarios with social, learning and even workplace contexts, is one possible way of evening up this social divide. Once you provide some context, soft skills – communication, open-mindedness, self-control – start to become more relevant and meaningful to the student.

However, providing these real-life scenarios to all students, regardless of school or family circumstance, is not the only advantage to be gained. Such digital scenarios can also be a fun, safe space for students to practise and develop soft skills. For example, students who are more introverted may be able to use safe digital spaces to level off the perceived advantage an extrovert may have over them in a work situation, as explained, in The Tech Advocate (Nov-20): “e-Learning allows introverts to practise skills that will be applicable to the workforce. These life-skills can help students become more comfortable with facing new situations. Extroverts may embrace change and become excited about new experiences; introverts, on the other hand, can experience extreme anxiety about the unknown.”

PB: The production of immersive content is all about finding ways to reach beyond the learning itself. Teachers are not merely knowledge-delivery systems; in order to make knowledge relevant, they must make it memorable, relatable and, if possible, personal.

For example, when teaching history and the ongoing displacement of populations through political upheaval and warfare, there are opportunities to go way beyond the facts. We can introduce empathy, take an alternative viewpoint. This has a further significant impact in that it can help students think critically and reach their own conclusions.

VR experiences such as The Key are astonishingly powerful. To be taken through a storyline and presented with the ending (no spoilers!) often leaves people speechless. At the end, it’s impossible to ignore the impact this has on your view of the refugee experience. It is visceral. Why? Because your emotions have been stimulated and your brain tells you that you have enjoyed a shared experience (albeit in a small way) with those displaced people.

Q. Which technologies – AI, games and apps – are strongest at supporting SEL?

LW: A range of technologies and applications can enhance SEL. Engagement through contextualisation and gamification is a major example. Without context, learning is stripped of all meaning. Technologies such as VR/AR can bring an array of real-life scenarios into the classroom. When done well, gamification has a proven track record in retaining users’ attention and motivation. Using a series of activities to problem-solve for a motivational gain is now moving from gaming into education (an example is SuperBetter).

When it comes to improving inclusiveness and accessibility, technologies enable a multi-sensory approach, with the student able to pick and choose the additional support they require – for example, text-to-speech or animation. Web applications easily accessed with any browser on any device level off variable access to learning resources and activities that might, otherwise, be restricted to those with more advantageous education or family circumstances. The opportunities afforded to some students for work experience is one such area that sees social divide causing disadvantage.

Finally, edtech can enhance student agency – a key step towards improved employability – through personalised learning. AI and machine learning are already proving powerful tools in providing personalised learning journeys for young people, using previous data to determine the best next steps for a student, and learning from previous students’ successful learning journeys. This personalisation supports a student in becoming independent in their learning, in school and in preparation for future employment.

MW: We recently completed a major review of the individual activities used to teach SEL across a dozen of the most successful programmes (2,814 individual activities!). We concluded that a range of active and responsive approaches were associated with successful programmes – especially when there were opportunities for learning to be contextualised to children’s own experiences. Central to the current approach is the teacher as a person who can bring the SEL curriculum to life.

We did not observe any current approaches that utilised AI or responsive apps, although we did note the use of multimedia such as videos.

PB: As a producer of immersive content (augmented, virtual and mixed reality), I know that students react very strongly when they are presented with a disruptive experience – by which I mean something that runs counter to the everyday.

When we present students with, say, the surface of the moon in full-scale AR in front of them, along with the sounds, language and sense of wonder, it pulls them from the everyday into another world. At that point, their minds are open not only to knowledge but to the shared (social) experience that this brings, and their reactions are intense (emotions), which in turn drives home the concepts or knowledge that this is wrapped up in.

All of this takes special design and construction but, when it’s done well, students (and teachers) always speak of the learning as an event, something that happened and that stays with them, rather than simply recalling facts.

JD: Technology offers so much potential here, and complements more traditional pedagogies very well.

Tablets and handheld devices such as digital textbooks offer students greater interaction with learning materials. Interactive, connected display boards can easily take the place of whiteboards in classrooms. Having students write blogs is very useful for teachers’ diagnostic assessment. Apps, social media platforms and texting all allow students to stay connected to peers.

For example, the game-based platform Classcraft blends physical and virtual learning. Weird Enough Productions creates stories where the superheroes and comics represent them and their world, and Class Catalyst lets students log in and record how they are feeling throughout the day.

“Simply put, SEL takes constructivism and folds in reality through the relatable lenses of emotions” – Phil Birchinall

Q. Can SEL edtech tools help students identify their own strengths and weaknesses, rather than the teacher alone driving development?

LW: Aristotle said that “knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom”. Understanding ‘self’ is the precursor for successful interactions with our friends, family, teachers and future work colleagues. Until we know ourselves, then extend that idea to better understanding other people, we cannot know how best to communicate and behave in any given situation. Knowing ourselves and how others see us allows us to learn how to adapt in order to achieve best outcomes for ourselves and others.

SEL tools that use algorithms to provide individuals with character insights, personality strengths and growth areas are growing in popularity, as teachers and schools gain a better understanding of the links between understanding self and others, development of soft skills, and wellbeing. One example is Persona Life Skills.

In short, SEL edtech can provide the self-directed, personalised learning journey required for students to gain this knowledge and grow as individuals.

PB: This isn’t something that we design into immersive content. However, we do want to challenge students, through strong narratives, to reflect on their own perceptions of concepts and, through emotional reactions to scenarios, to better understand themselves.

Q. How can schools use SEL tech to align with the government’s revamped compulsory PSHE curriculum, which now includes a ‘relationships and sex education’ segment relating to physical and mental health, wellbeing, safeguarding and the formation of healthy relationships?

LW: Underpinning all of the PSHE/health and relationships (RSE) curriculum is the need for students to make better-informed decisions on an array of life scenarios they may face.

This starts with a student understanding the concepts of ‘self’ and ‘others’, and applying this knowledge to various scenarios so they can foresee different outcomes, depending on how they decide to communicate or behave. The use of AI/ML and algorithms can provide students with personalised information about themselves, about others, and about how others perceive them – the latter being the most pertinent with regards to outcomes.

From an understanding of self and others, SEL tools that provide gamified learning experiences (bringing difficult PSHE topics into the classroom in a fun and engaging way), make the experience memorable, and help to foster lifelong learning. One such example is Curio.

MW: There is a strong argument that SEL should be used as a complement to existing school approaches, rather than as a competition – and that it should be present not only in explicit teaching, but also in the school’s values, documentation, whole-school approaches, etc. In this respect, SEL aligns with a number of school priorities, including PHSE.

JD: I think this is the area of the curriculum in schools that most benefits from SEL. Most curriculum content is based around the five pillars of 1) self-awareness and understanding of moods and behaviour; 2) empathy to see one’s actions from another’s perspective; 3) managing feelings and acknowledging situations which may trigger different emotions; 4) motivation; and 5) social skills such as getting along with others, forming and maintaining friendships. SEL tech allows this to be a cross-curricular approach and/or something at the core of the PSHE curriculum.

AC: Digital technologies have the potential to be powerful supplements to existing SEL instruction. Some game-based learning solutions often promote core social and emotional skills such as problem-solving, communication skills, positive peer interaction and metacognition. Other evidence-based interventions have developed online games to supplement the skills being taught as part of their curriculum – for example, the KIVA anti-bullying intervention.

Digital technologies also have an important role to play in connecting schools with parents, so that the latter are familiar with the skills being taught in school and can reinforce the teaching of these skills at home.

Digital resources can also address barriers in relation to access to professional development for teachers: online courses and webinars training teachers in the new RSE curriculum have the potential to advance teachers’ SEL skills.

PB: We know, through our creation of an entire health and relationships resource, that there is a definite requirement for children to be better able to discern the viewpoints of others and to understand and embrace what’s different about each other (as well as what’s the same, despite those apparent differences).

Immersive content really has the power to do this and is something we are continually exploring. How can we exploit the power behind this technology, to not only immerse learners but also reveal the actual reality of social scenarios? Going forward, we are looking at the development of experiences that allow students to collaborate and learn socially via immersive technology – anywhere in school, the community or around the globe.

“Students with particular needs will benefit immensely from SEL. It teaches them self control and how to express feelings with words” – Dr Jonathan Doherty

Q. Many reports state that SEL edtech is particularly beneficial for SEND students – how so?

LW: Enabling wider accessibility is a game-changer for improved pedagogy for SEND students in SEL – via edtech such as text-to-speech, to support those with lower oral, visual or literacy skills; video/animations, which can add a multi-sensory layer for visual and kinaesthetic learners; VR/AR, which bring real-life scenarios into the classroom; and AI and machine learning, in which algorithms can be applied to enable personalised learning journeys across the ability spectrum.

PB: Immersive content has huge potential to assist in SEND environments. The reality is that, while the word ‘immersive’ sounds like an enveloping technology, it can also be an isolating one. We know that we can cut out the clutter and expose learners to environments that allow them to experience emotions and social interactions in highly controlled ways. This allows them to experiment with outcomes and with their own actions, being able to process feedback in a safe environment. We have also observed that students can find it easier to interact and express remotely with avatars – again, in more closed environments. There is much work yet to be done in this area.

JD: In many primary schools, SEL is not a standalone subject, but one embedded through the curriculum and in school life. It encompasses areas such as emotional literacy, social skills and personal development. These are essential for all students – but vital, in particular, for SEND students.

Students with particular needs will benefit immensely from SEL. It teaches them self-control, and how to express feelings with words. It promotes important listening skills. It teaches students how to keep safe and how to ask for help. And, most importantly for SEND students, it helps them develop a positive sense of themselves. In short, students with strong SEL skills do better in school – and in life.

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