Down in Anaheim, Calif., this year’s ASCD conference (March 25-27) kicked off with some much-needed levity: an improv show courtesy of the comedy troupe Wavelength. But while there were some easy targets—chief among them, the incoming Secretary of Education—those satirized often looked a lot like the people in the audience: a digital specialist who believes there’s an adaptive diagnostic for everything; a superintendent obsessed with virtual reality; a neurotic teacher overwhelmed by edtech: “My kindergartener told me she was flickring,” she tells her onstage therapist, “so I sent her to the nurse!”
However, despite the laughs, the performance reflected a tension present throughout the conference. While many of the present educators seemed to embrace blended learning as not only inevitable but necessary, an anxiety around technology—and a nagging suspicion that something is missing from the conversation—made itself known.
For many in attendance, social-emotional learning (SEL), or students ability to recognize and manage emotions and build healthy relationships, seemed to be that missing piece. Throughout the conference, panelists and attendants spoke of the importance of “whole child” education and the need for schools to prioritize developing SEL skills.
But while SEL skills were touted as critical to student success, the focus on academics—and quality digital resources—remained central. It raised the question: how exactly should schools balance blended and social-emotional learning in the 21st century classroom?
“There’s no line anymore”
For many in the education field, addressing SEL in schools is a non-negotiable. That is certainly the case for Alex Kajitani, the 2009 California Teacher of the Year, who lead a session on “Creating a Culture of Compassion” at the conference.
Kajitani believes teaching SEL skills is not only necessary for serving the whole child, but for preparing him or her for the modern workplace. He shared his takeaways from talking to HR managers, listing the top three qualities companies are looking for in employees: workers who 1) show up on time, 2) can work on a team, and 3) have empathy.
“There’s no line anymore between SEL and 21st century skills,” Kajitani explains. “SEL is the core of what companies want.”
Kajitani believes the profusion of technology does not lessen the need to address social-emotional learning—rather, it increases its urgency. "Now, more than ever, social-emotional learning is inextricably linked to technology use,” he explains. “While it is vitally important that our students develop good self-awareness and relationship skills so that they can work face-to-face in teams, it is critically important to be aware of how they are presenting themselves online.”
As the world continues to globalize, he predicts this will become even more essential. “Technology has now enabled students to build relationships with others across the country, on a global level,” he explains. “The ability to solve conflict with others has never been so vitally important.”
Schools making it work
For a couple of educators attending ASCD, tech and SEL go hand-in-hand.
Jammie Mays, the intervention coordinator at Thrive Public Schools in San Diego, says blended and social-emotional learning are equally embedded into Thrive’s model. Students at the school spend roughly a third of a day developing SEL skills: participating in restorative and community circles, collaborating on projects, and practicing self-reflection. And for another two hours, learning is done online, through interactive, tech‐based learning programs such as Think Through Math, Lexia, and Reading Plus.
For Mays, the SEL component of Thrive is a natural response to the amount of time spent behind screens. “A lot of emotions go into being online for a lot of the day,” she says. “SEL instruction—talking to peers, sharing feelings—that allows for a break and an opportunity for students to express themselves. I see it as a support for blended learning.”
Laura Gadza, an 8th grade ELA who’s been paperless for the last 12 years, also sees the benefit of balancing edtech with SEL. In fact for Gadza, technology plays a necessary role in her middle school students’ social-emotional development. “Taking away a kid’s access to technology is like taking away part of their identity,” she explains. “It invalidates something important to who they are, like cutting off an arm.” She says her class remains interactive and collaborative while still allowing students to express themselves through a medium they feel comfortable with: the internet.
Gadza also sees technology as playing a role in fostering healthy parent-teacher relationships. “A lot of parents struggle with mistrust of schools, especially those who’ve had negative experiences with the system themselves. Technology allows for full transparency.” She says she updates grades daily so parents have access, and allows families to call or text as needed. “Whether they use it or not, everything is there for them.”
Wait, will technology make SEL integration worse?
Despite many schools’ willingness to embrace both edtech and a SEL curriculum, some educators remain concerned technology is corroding students’ social-emotional awareness. This is the case for Devon Almeida, a fourth grade teacher from Massachusetts. Almeida was at the conference representing Write Brain World, a decidedly old-school curriculum which lets students create books by hand. For her, the shift towards blended learning can come at a price.
“I believe students are losing face-to-face time,” she says confidently, “and that’s not a good thing. Communication skills are sacrificed to a screen.” In her classroom, she prefers programs that force students to collaborate verbally rather than through online messaging. “We need to get back to the basics of sitting and talking with a team.”
Other educators are more ambivalent about blended learning, like Alison Brown, Assistant Principal at Green Dot Public Schools. She says the school has a SEL focus, and uses technology only where it seems most necessary. “For certain kids,” she says, “tech adds engagement, but it’s not one-size-fits-all.”
It's true. Ultimately, children are individuals, like those who teach them. Some may feel technology is a necessary part of their identity, others may grow frustrated by spending time behind a screen. But as members of the 21st century, we all need to learn to adapt to the changes around us. And regardless of a school’s model, strong SEL support is a necessary piece of that equation.