Open Inquiry Initiative: The Intellectually Honest Case for Social and Emotional Learning
By failing to address legitimate criticisms, SEL advocates risk becoming culture war casualties
This is the first piece in a new series called the Open Inquiry Initiative, in which a group of scholars will discuss a wide range of topics relating to free speech, viewpoint diversity and academic freedom.
If you’ve been paying any attention to the culture wars occurring within K-12 education, you’ve most likely heard of social and emotional learning (SEL) as a main flashpoint and probably heard something about its connection to critical race theory. You undoubtedly know of Ron DeSantis, the “anti-woke” governor who has opposed SEL in Florida schools. Christopher Rufo, the architect of the anti-critical race theory movement, accuses SEL of being “a delivery mechanism for radical pedagogies such as critical race theory and gender deconstructionism.” Various similar pedagogies that go beyond just race are increasingly categorized as critical social justice (CSJ). Rufo and DeSantis represent one side—the one that wants to uproot all forms of CSJ from American schools.
On the other side are SEL proponents, who typically defend SEL by arguing that Rufo and crew either misunderstand SEL or deliberately mischaracterize it for political gain. This side also claims to fight for providing kids with essential “noncognitive” skills to navigate life. This is typically done through instructional practices that are either implemented during certain times of the school day or integrated within academic subjects.
As an SEL supporter myself, the “misunderstanding” argument was my initial approach too, and I still believe that there’s a lot of truth to it. But if we want SEL to be taken seriously, we need to be willing to seriously respond to its critics’ arguments, not simply dismiss them as misunderstandings or lies. People feel disrespected or gaslit with a nothing-to-see-here approach. Being honest also requires us to acknowledge the exceedingly obvious fact that there are real efforts in the SEL world to merge it with CSJ. But ultimately, SEL as a whole should not be judged on these newer and less common varieties.
Opponents of SEL in education say it has been overtaken by CSJ—but what is the “traditional SEL” that was allegedly overtaken? I refer to it as skills-based SEL, which prioritizes the development of social-emotional competencies. For example, one of the most common skills-based SEL frameworks was developed by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, the largest SEL advocacy organization. This model focuses on five social-emotional competencies consisting of self-management, self-awareness, perspective-taking, relationships and decision-making.
Similarly, the Harvard-based Explore SEL website details 31 other mostly skills-based frameworks. And there are many school programs that fall into the skills category, with some popular ones being 4Rs, Second Step, Responsive Classroom and RULER. A common theme among these approaches is that they’re based on a universal premise. That is, they assume that certain psychosocial phenomena are common across individuals and groups and that certain socioemotional skills are universally valuable.
The “universal” nature of skills-based SEL doesn’t mean that it can’t be group focused, however. For example, the Becoming a Man (BAM) program is a rites-of-passage-style program for 7th- to 12th-grade boys that serves mostly Black and Latino students. It primarily aims to reduce the risks of incarceration and violence, which are the most serious problems facing the Black community; homicide is the leading cause of death for Black males aged 1 to 44. While not advertised as an SEL program, BAM clearly falls in the skills-based SEL camp, in that “students learn and practice impulse control, emotional self-regulation, recognition of social cues and interpreting intentions of others.” And rigorous studies find that BAM is very good at instilling these skills, as evidenced by a 50% reduction in violent-crime arrests and an increased graduation rate of nearly 20% among Chicago participants.
Critical Social Justice SEL
In their book “Is Everyone Really Equal?,” Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo describe CSJ as referring to:
[S]pecific theoretical perspectives that recognize that society is stratified (i.e. divided and unequal) in significant and far-reaching ways along social group lines that include race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. Critical social justice recognizes inequality as deeply embedded in the fabric of society (i.e. as structural) and actively seeks to change this.
CSJ’s emphasis on social groups means that
Those who claim to be for social justice, must be engaged in self-reflection about their own socialization into these groups and must strategically act from that awareness in ways that challenge social injustice.
Importantly, CSJ differs from liberal notions of social justice that British author Helen Pluckrose defines as being focused on “freedom, individuality and equality of opportunity.”
The CSJ class of SEL, therefore, includes those approaches that prioritize group disparities and focus on concepts such as power dynamics, privilege, empowerment, group identity affirmation and response to the legacy of historical injustices. This form of SEL covers a wide terrain. On one end, there are approaches that use an “equity lens” to focus on identifying and reducing disparities between groups. On the other end, some approaches push for explicitly centering aspects of identity, such as race, and aim to liberate students from oppression.
Transformative SEL is a model that has received a great deal of attention from SEL advocates and critics alike, and it contains elements of both skills-based and CSJ SEL. Its developers refer to it as “a process whereby young people and adults build strong, respectful, and lasting relationships that facilitate co-learning to critically examine root causes of inequity, and to develop collaborative solutions that lead to personal, community, and societal well-being.” An example of this model is Facing History & Ourselves, whose mission is to “[use] lessons of history to challenge teachers and their students to stand up to bigotry and hate.” A recent randomized controlled trial found this program to improve prosocial behavior, among other outcomes.
The SEL approaches most aligned with CSJ are focused on anti-racism. Anti-racist SEL is characterized by two core assumptions: Racial disparities are mostly or entirely due to racism, and race consciousness is preferable over race-neutral approaches, which are heavily criticized as naïve at best and white supremacist at worse. Accordingly, anti-racist SEL approaches often aim to center, uplift and celebrate Black and brown students and liberate them from white supremacy. Anti-racists also urge political activism, which for some means abolishing or reimagining schools.
SEL opponents have argued that over the past several years, skills-based SEL has morphed into political indoctrination of impressionable minds into “a deeply divisive ideology of race essentialism.” Or, as cultural critic James Lindsay put it, it’s a method of “politically grooming the perspective of students into a Marxist mindset, including to become activists.” So the crux of their argument is that students are being force-fed political viewpoints as truth and that this causes divisiveness in schools and society. It’s this core point that SEL advocates like myself need to deal with.
Therefore, in response, we should do away with one of the most common counterpoints that goes something like, “CRT is a legal studies theory only taught in higher education; it’s not taught in K-12 schools.” Critics aren’t complaining about teaching the theory of CSJ. They’re complaining about the tenets of CSJ being implemented in schools. We can start being more honest in our response by clarifying the different classes of SEL and their associated evidence.
Earlier this year, psychologist Mark T. Greenberg produced a report on the effects of SEL in schools, where he summarized the evidence from 12 meta-analyses, most of which relied on rigorous methodology using randomized or other controlled comparisons. These meta-analyses cover primarily skills-based SEL. He concluded, “The current evidence supports school and district adoption of evidence-based SEL programs and activities to improve students’ social, emotional, and academic success.” I agree.
Econometric analyses also point to SEL’s societal benefits. A 2015 study involving six evidence-based skills-based SEL programs found an average return of $11, the monetary value of the programs’ benefits, for every $1 spent across these programs. So the evidence on skills-based SEL largely demonstrates that it benefits kids’ social-emotional and academic success and provides economic value to society.
As Greenberg notes, though, transformative SEL approaches do not yet have the evidence base to determine their effectiveness. This is not so much a criticism of transformative SEL as it is a statement about where it is in its development. However, a multi-institution research team is currently exploring this effectiveness question by building on the most recent SEL meta-analysis. This is a good thing, given transformative SEL’s growing popularity in schools.
I’ve observed three main SEL claims by anti-racist advocates: (1) Without anti-racism, SEL is ineffective for students of color; (2) SEL and anti-racism can enhance each other’s goals and (3) without anti-racism, SEL advances white supremacy. Any of these claims may be true, but the problem is that no one really knows. Further, I see no signal in the data that traditional skills-based SEL implemented in predominantly Black and brown schools is harmful, as the third claim suggests.
Some anti-racist advocates might be tempted to cite related research on diversity, equity and inclusion and anti-bias trainings, but these trainings have mostly been found to be ineffective or harmful. Even the effectiveness of prejudice-reduction strategies, which have a long history of study in psychology, does not support widespread adoption of these strategies. So the anti-racist claims need to be rolled back until evidence arrives to support them.
Is Critical Social Justice Bad for SEL?
If a primary goal of SEL is to teach important generalizable life skills to students, there is good reason to believe that certain modern SEL approaches are counterproductive, as critics claim. Namely, some approaches overemphasize identity and difference at the expense of universal human experiences and skills that transcend identity. It’s important to acknowledge this. I fully understand the aversion to the term “universal.” However, while focusing on the universal can diminish individual or group needs, it can also build connections across difference. The answer lies in finding the right balance and guarding against swings to extremes. Concepts such as targeted universalism, which combines universal goals with targeted methods to achieve those goals, may be a useful guiding framework for striking the right balance.
Personally, I’m open to the value of transformative SEL. While I’m rooted in the skills-based SEL camp, I do see some value in transformative SEL’s focus on collaborative efforts to improve social conditions. This is similar to service learning, which can teach youth valuable lessons about how to create meaningful change. The trick is to do this without saturating it in political ideology.
I’m far more skeptical of the value of approaches on the identity-specific end of the CSJ spectrum, such as anti-racism, that aim to center certain identity groups based on assumptions of oppression by virtue of their identities alone. This minimizes important intragroup diversity along dimensions such as class and narrows the emphasis of SEL content to race. SEL absolutely needs to be able to speak to cultural differences, but it’s just not clear how anti-racist approaches are likely to benefit vulnerable kids or how they can be viable in diverse settings. However, Chloé Valdary’s Theory of Enchantment is a workplace anti-racist approach that is aligned with universal principles because of its focus on humanist values and ideological diversity. So ultimately, what programs do is more important than what they call themselves.
The Intellectually Honest Case for SEL
The response to SEL critics should begin with recognizing the validity of some of their concerns by acknowledging that SEL has recently expanded to include a range of approaches that go beyond its initial focus on skills development. These newer approaches can be very diverse, and some do in fact contain elements of CSJ or are even strongly aligned with it. But as a whole, SEL is far from political indoctrination. Ideology-neutral skills-based SEL is still the predominant approach in schools and has very strong research supporting its adoption. Also, some elements within newer approaches such as transformative SEL may be useful for enhancing skills-based SEL. We just don’t know yet, and we should demand more study of these approaches using methods designed to reduce researcher bias.
Ultimately, SEL advocates will have to decide how much they want to defend approaches at the far end of the CSJ spectrum. Doing so will likely result in the end of SEL as we know it, something CSJ advocates would welcome and skills-based proponents would lament.
One thing all SEL advocates should agree on is ensuring that claims and advocacy scale with the evidence. That is, the more evidence there is supporting SEL approaches, the more we should push for their use. When we lack evidence, we can talk of approaches being “promising,” but not “effective.”
The current culture war poses an existential threat to SEL. SEL is worth fighting for, but we can’t win by denying obvious realities, strawmanning its opposition or using ad hominem attacks. Not only are these approaches antithetical to SEL itself, they are telltale signs of a side with a weak position. SEL, skills-based SEL in particular, has the stronger hand. We should act like it by addressing the criticism head-on.