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Social-Emotional Learning Movement

Early this year, the Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development published a report called “A Nation at Hope”. This report calls for social-emotional learning integration in schools across the country. It is founded in scientific research as well as the experience of teachers, parents, and students. From the introduction of the report, “An analysis of more than 200 studies of programs that teach students social and emotional skills found that these efforts significantly improved student behavior, feelings about school, and most importantly achievement, and made schools safer.” According to The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), social-emotional learning is “the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” Around the same time as the publishing of “A Nation at Hope”, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an article called “Students Learn From People They Love: Putting relationship quality at the center of education.” Brooks cites personal experience as well as a breadth of research from prominent cognitive scientists like Antonio Damasio, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Patricia Kuhl, and Suzanne Dikker, to illustrate the necessity of emotional relationships in learning.

Personalized Learning Trend

With a big push for social-emotional learning backed by research and experience, it is worth delving into the other big push in education. Lately, “personalized learning” has been all over education news. Personalized learning is now the number one education technology priority in the United States, largely due to immense funding coming from both the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as well as the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative alone is expected to contribute hundreds of millions of dollars per year towards this cause. But what is personalized learning? And is it actually helping the schools that implement it?

These are complicated questions to answer. Personalized learning is often used to describe a learning software, sometimes integrated with artificial intelligence, that allows students to customize and move through subject material at their own pace, gauging their progress along the way. Under this definition, personalized learning has received much resistance from parents, students, and even teachers. Summit Learning, now one of the most widespread personalized learning softwares, was largely developed by Facebook software engineers and is free for schools to use. Implementation of Summit Learning over the past four years has resulted in student walkouts, protests, parents pulling their children out of school, and direct letter writing to Mark Zuckerberg with concerns about data privacy, too much screen time, lack of interaction with their peers and teachers, and inability to promote creative work or critical thinking skills.

According to Edutopia, an education resource working in tandem with Lucas Education Research under the George Lucas Foundation, this narrow definition of personalized learning “harms the idea’s reputation—and more importantly, fails to improve student achievement.” Experienced teacher Andrew Miller lays out three myths about personalized learning in a recent Edutopia article. The myths are as follows: 1) “Technology is the key component of personalized instruction”, 2) “Students predominantly do independent work”, and 3) “Personalized learning is basically students moving at their own pace.” Miller combats these misconceptions about personalized learning, arguing that: 1) technology doesn’t have to be at the centerpiece; teachers still play a critical role as instructor, mentor, coach, and facilitator to student learning by promoting student collaboration and making efforts to engage students in their learning, 2) students must work together collaboratively with their peers, exploring ways to learn and obtain information, often requiring collaboration with experts outside of the classroom, and 3) personalized learning is not simply self-paced learning through a set program, but rather an approach to learning that can look many different ways; a key part of personalized learning is students connecting with their passions and being designers of their own learning process.

So, does personalized learning work? It can, if done properly. Circling back to the call for social-emotional learning, it is important to remember that software itself cannot provide a complete and successful personalized learning experience. Knowing your students seems to be the first and most important step in a successful approach to personalized learning. A blended-learning model implemented in some high schools in Washington D.C. shows how taking the time to know your students can help inform a successful classroom approach. The learning model has many elements of a personalized learning approach such as a self-paced element, technology integration, a strong teacher-student relationship, and collaboration with peers. Would this same method work for every classroom across the country? No, but it does provide some meaningful insights. Pay attention to the needs of the class and get creative to adjust the structure of teaching and learning in a way that will best support the students. Provide opportunities for human connection and collaboration.

Waldorf Intersections

While personalized learning software will not be found in a Waldorf program, social-emotional learning is a foundation of Waldorf education. Waldorf schools are known for their welcoming and inclusive environment. Teachers are trained to recognize the unique individual and encourage each student to realize their full potential. Students have the same teacher from 1st through 8th Grade, which fosters a strong student-teacher bond built on mutual trust and respect. This practice is commonly known to the education community as “looping” and is one of the Aspen Institute’s recommended ways to build support structures in schools.

Another recommendation from the Aspen Institute is to rid schools of exclusionary disciplinary action that pushes students out of the classroom instead of bringing them back in. A Waldorf class is something like a family. If a mother in a family does not get along with her son during a certain time, she does not consider resigning or replacing him with another child. Rather, she looks at the situation and sees what can be done to improve the relationship. In other words, the adult assumes responsibility and tries to change. This same approach is expected of the Waldorf teacher in a difficult situation. In almost every case she must ask herself: “How can I change so that the relationship becomes more positive?”

In order for the Waldorf curriculum to be successful, it requires support at home. Parents are the first teachers and most significant adults in their children’s lives. When parents to strive to understand the principles of Waldorf education and create a home environment that supports what is taking place at school, the whole educational experience is strengthened. According to the Aspen Institute, “The social, emotional, and cognitive growth of children begins with the family…When schools and community organizations actively engage all families, they strengthen the learning environments across homes, schools, and other out-of-school-time settings.” Students & families of Waldorf education are fortunate to be united behind a common vision and philosophy that supports the growth and development of each individual student.

Boulder Valley Waldorf School’s vision is to educate children for the whole of life, using the curriculum and educational principles of Waldorf Education, so they become confident individuals, capable of making free choices, able to realize their full potential, and inspired to make a difference in the world. Coincidentally, this vision echos a similar sentiment as a student that is quoted in “A Nation at Hope” Aspen Institute report, “Success in school should not be defined just by our test scores … but also by the ability to think for ourselves, work with others, and contribute to our communities.”



“A Student-Centered Model of Blended Learning.” Edutopia, George Lucas Educational Foundation, 9 May 2019, www.edutopia.org/video/student-centered-model-blended-learning.

Bowles, Nellie. “Silicon Valley Came to Kansas Schools. That Started a Rebellion.” The New York Times, 21 Apr. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/04/21/technology/silicon-valley-kansas-schools.html.

Brooks, David. Students Learn From People They Love. The New York Times, 18 Jan. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/01/17/opinion/learning-emotion-education.html.

“From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope.” The Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, 14 Feb. 2019, nationathope.org/report-from-the-nation/.

Kamenetz, Anya, et al. “The Future Of Learning? Well, It’s Personal.” All Things Considered, NPR, 16 Nov. 2018, www.npr.org/2018/11/16/657895964/the-future-of-learning-well-it-s-personal.

Miller, Andrew. “3 Myths of Personalized Learning.” Edutopia, George Lucas Educational Foundation, 20 Feb. 2019, www.edutopia.org/article/3-myths-personalized-learning.

Schaffhauser, Dian. “Personalized Learning Top Priority for Tech Usage in K–12.” THE Journal, 13 Aug. 2018, thejournal.com/articles/2018/08/13/personalized-learning-top-priority-for-tech-usage-in-k12.aspx.

Strauss, Valerie. “Students Protest Zuckerberg-Backed Digital Learning Program and Ask Him: ‘What Gives You This Right?’.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 17 Nov. 2018, www.washingtonpost.com/education/2018/11/17/students-protest-zuckerberg-backed-digital-learning-program-ask-him-what-gives-you-this-right/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.ff79f7be4e80.

“What Is SEL?” CASEL, casel.org/what-is-sel/.