Does Motivation Science have a place in conversations about Social-Emotional Learning?

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Does Motivation Science have a place in conversations about Social-Emotional Learning?

Authored by Katerina Schenke, PhD. Senior Researcher at CRESST|UCLA

Social-emotional learning or SEL has become the latest educational catch-phrase. SEL has been broadly defined as “non-cognitive” or “soft” skills, such as interest and engagement, and has been recognized by policy-makers and the broader public as a set of skills that contribute to student learning and lifetime success (Cunha & Heckman, 2008; Farrington, Roderick, Allensworth, Nagaoka, Keyes, Johnson, & Beechum, 2012). Although this packaging may be new, the idea that positive outcomes are related to so-called non-cognitive skills is not new to motivation researchers in Educational Psychology that have been studying the associations between such skills and important student outcomes for nearly a century.

More recently, SEL has taken center stage as a set of constructs that schools should be measuring and improving—with the ultimate goal of schools being environments that foster students’ SEL. School-wide surveys of students’ SEL (variously defined) have been developed and are administered on a yearly basis in many large school districts in the country (see CORE-PACE Partnership). Several states (namely, Kansas and Illinois) have even created standards for different grade bands for social emotional development. Companies, apps, games, interventions, and for-profit entities have all been established around the promise of increasing a child’s SEL (see for example the Daniel Tiger series by PBS KIDS or Singapore’s Kindville series). We have seen a proliferation around the measurement and intervention of SEL.

With no overarching consensus regarding how SEL is defined, does motivation from the perspective of Educational Psychology have a place in SEL? Such discussions are important if Educational Psychology wants to become a focal point in effecting changes in policy. Below, I attempt to make the case that SEL inherently contains definitions of common motivation theories and that Educational Psychologists working on motivation should be involved in policy discussions around SEL.

SEL: A rose by many names

SEL broadly describes the mental, behavioral, and self-control skills people use to achieve their goals (social and nonsocial; McKown, 2017). The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning—the leading player in the advancement of SEL—defines SEL as “the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary 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” (CASEL, 2005). The current publicized work around SEL was rooted in school-based prevention research primarily from the field of clinical psychology (see meta analysis by Durlak and colleagues, 2010). Because it was this clinical work that first popularized SEL in the mainstream media, many of the topics that became popular in this line of work dealt with constructs such as drug use and risky behavior. However, it is exactly the ill-defined nature of SEL that allows for a conceptual broadening, especially in the case of the clear conceptual overlap with motivation theory.

Take for example CASEL’s framework of SEL. CASEL described SEL as containing five core competencies: (1) self-management; (2) self-awareness; (3) social awareness; (4) relationship skills, and (5) responsible decision making. Self-management is defined by CASEL as “The ability to successfully regulate one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in different situations.” This is very similar to conceptualizations of self-regulated learning (see Pintrich & De Groot, 1990; Winne, 2001; Zimmerman, 1990 to name a few).

Take another example: The Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) and the CORE Districts launched the CORE-PACE Partnership, which was recently awarded $16 million by the Gates Foundation. Together, these CORE school districts (representing up to a million students in California) have been conducting yearly assessments since the 2014-2015 school year of students’ SEL defined by the following four constructs: (1) Growth mindset, (2) self-management; (3) self-efficacy; and (4) social awareness. The constructs of growth mindset and self-efficacy are directly called out as two important SEL constructs and originated in the Educational Psychological literature with work from Dweck and Bandura.

Why it matters?

There has been an incredible amount of funding dedicated towards SEL-related interventions and products. Last year, $640 million dollars were spent on products falling under the category of Social Emotional Learning. Title II funding under ESSA provides funds to support SEL development. U.S. K-12 public schools devoted a total of approximately $21–47 billion per year to SEL in terms of: (1) expenditure on SEL-related products and programs and (2) teacher time focused on SEL (figures come from a report by Transforming Education, 2017). The magnitude of these numbers is equivalent to several times over The National Science Foundation’s annual budget. Not being a part of policy conversations directly impacts us and at the same time, we are leaving money on the table.

While trying to attract funding for our work is a worthy cause for us to continue to do what we do, we should also be cognizant of the broader impact of our work. Specifically, I refer to the broader impact in the form of implications on policy. Backdoor conversations among scholars about the role of Educational Psychology in policy seem to suggest an effort to make our work more relevant to the broader public. Books like Dweck’s Mindset provide an important link to the popular press about the research we are doing, but we may also need to be more directly involved in large-scale efforts to measure and improve these at much larger scales such as district-or state-level.

SEL is the new academic achievement?

There has been a recent commitment to measuring SEL in schools on a yearly basis. As described above, CORE PACE’s collection of yearly surveys of 3rd through 12th grader’s SEL is quickly amounting to the richest dataset available on the topic. Questions about what analyses to run and what psychometrics techniques to use—whether it is the same analyses that are otherwise reserved for large-scale assessments of academic domains such as mathematics and English Language Arts—still need to be asked. Even more, now with over three years of repeated measures from the same students, the question of applying growth curve models or calculating student growth percentiles to these constructs needs to be asked. It is unclear whether different theoretical considerations need to be taken for SEL or if it is appropriate to apply the same techniques we otherwise reserve for large-scale standardized assessment. Content experts who have experience with theoretical and empirical roots of SEL-type skills should participate in conversations around this practice, especially given the very real implications for students, teachers, and schools.

Moving forward

Where does this leave us as a field? I do think motivation scholars can make important contributions to the study of SEL. That SEL appears to draw on or relate to motivation indicates we may have already made a theoretical contribution to SEL, but even this can be made more explicit in academic writing and to the broader public. However, where Educational Psychologists who study motivation can make an even larger contribution is in the policy conversations around SEL. Should SEL be measured in schools on a yearly basis? How should items measuring SEL be constructed and how should they be treated in a subsequent statistical analyses? What are the real questions we should be asking ourselves about children who are purportedly low on this construct? Should policy and practice decisions be made based on SEL indicators?

I applaud the ongoing commitment of teachers, policymakers and school district personnel in valuing these important skills. I just hope that enough care goes into taking the time to carefully consider the impact of continuous measurement of SEL on our students. Let’s not turn it into the new academic achievement.

About the author

Katerina Schenke, PhD is a Senior Researcher at CRESST|UCLA. Her research is on understanding how and under what circumstances students are motivated towards learning, how we can measure motivation and engagement through digital games, and how we can develop models of assessment that are informative to students and teachers. Katerina received her Ph.D. in 2015 from the University of California, Irvine, and B.A. from the University of California, Los Angeles in 2009 in psychology and German. She completed a postdoctoral position in psychometrics at UCLA in 2015-2016. In her spare time she is developing a game to help kids learn about causality and the digestive system, incorporating all of the lessons about motivation “goodness” from her work into her passion project.

Special thanks to Dr. Teya Rutherford, Dr. Erik Ruzek, and Dr. Elizabeth Kim for reading earlier versions of this work and giving invaluable feedback. Thank you.

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