• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Friday 12th June, 2009

Keep calm – think – the “stop light man” cometh

When policy makers consider other people’s children they think about problems. When they think about their own children, they concentrate on competencies. This much was evident from a series of presentations to UK legislators, policy makers and practitioners by the distinguished US educationalist and psychologist Roger Weissberg.Traveling between the House of Commons, a conference of school principals in Birmingham and seminars with Northern Ireland policy makers, this week, he asked his audiences what they wanted for their children when they grew up. A clear pattern emerged. People did not necessarily want their children to be expert at calculus; they wanted them to be compassionate, sympathetic and in possession of a host of other social and emotional aptitudes.But by the same criteria, most schools do not teach children the things they most need in adulthood. Society may be producing cleverer children, but self-awareness, self-management, relationships skills, social awareness and responsible decision making do not figure on the curriculum of the average school.Weissberg is President of the Collaborative for Academic and Social and Emotional Learning, CASEL, an important vehicle for practical solutions to the lack of sensibility in modern education. CASEL lists over 20 proven models, all of them underpinned by a simple and effective logic.“People used to call me the ‘stop light’ man” Weissberg explained at one of his destinations, pulling from his wallet a bundle of card traffic signals. “You can call it a meta-cognitive model, but in essence the idea is to get people to stop and calm down – the red light; then think - the amber light, and then go ahead and do something – the green light. If a kid learned nothing else you would want them to learn that. How many problems in society stem from people acting without thinking?”The idea was not quite as simple as that to convey, he said. But one hour a week in primary school using a well tested curriculum properly evaluated would do the job.He repeated a short sequence of messages at each meeting. It was generally acknowledged that social and emotional skills were intertwined with cognitive skills, he began. Educationalists who persisted with the proposition that one excluded the other were offering a false choice.There were several effective ways to enhance social and emotional skills, and much was known about what did not work.The evidence on the role of school principals and teachers was overwhelming. Innovation in schools worked when it was backed by academic staff. Leadership was critical. Children learned more social and emotional skills when they were taught by teachers.The clinching argument was about the impact on child well-being. Proven curricula, properly implemented, not only improved children’s emotional health, but also boosted academic performance.He referred to a systematic review completed with Joseph Durlak and reported in Prevention Action last year. They looked at 700 experimental studies involving 270,000 children. Conduct disorders were reduced by 10% per cent and emotional disorders by 9%. More dramatically, the curricula drove up academic performance by 11%. And these effects were felt by all of the children in a school. [See: Backing for the basics of self-reliance?.]

Pull the weeds before planting the flowers

He described as the highlight of his week in the UK a visit to Greet primary school in Birmingham, where he heard about the plethora of programs available to children. But it had left with a sense of unease: like too many sweets, too many initiatives might turn out to be unhealthy.The UK government has been promoting a Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning framework (SEAL). There is also Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) whose aim is to provide young people with a foundation for adult life. Birmingham City Council has begun an experiment involving 60 primary schools to test the added value of a proven social and emotional curriculum, PATHS.The list put Weissberg in mind of a 2006 paper by the President of the US Center for Performance Assessment in Englewood, Colorado, Douglas Reeves: “Fortunately, there is an answer to initiative fatigue, and that is the commonsense of the gardener,” he wrote. “The strategic leader must have a ‘garden party’ to pull the weeds before planting the flowers.” “There may a need for some gardening here” Weissberg said. “Ask a head teacher to list all the programs he or she has been asked to introduce in the last couple of years. And then ask how many of the programs have been stopped or died on the vine. We like to plant but we don’t like to prune. It can all get a bit much.”He ended his lecture tour in Belfast in Northern Ireland on Tuesday with a reminder of the high stakes in education. He signed off with a quotation from Franklin D Roosevelt. “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”See:Reeves D “Leading to change: Pull the weeds before you plant the flowers.” Educational Leadership, 64(1), pp 89–90.Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. (2005) The Illinois edition of safe and sound: An educational leader’s guide to evidence-based social and emotional learning programs

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