Social emotional learning is likely to be strongly influenced by culture, but global variation has yet to be captured because much of the research on this topic has come only from Western countries. When researchers attempt to measure social emotional competencies in different contexts, they often make untested assumptions about the applicability of Western behaviors and values in those contexts. Matthew Jukes, a Fellow in International Education at RTI International, has recently developed and evaluated an assessment tool of social emotional learning in Tanzania. We sat down with him to learn more about this assessment, how it is used, and what implications it has for broader research in the early childhood development field.
Your most recent study focused on social emotional learning in Tanzania. What drew you to this topic? What does the literature tell us about social emotional learning, particularly in low- and middle-income countries?
This study combines a few research strands I’ve been interested in for a while. I’ve had a long-standing interest in non-academic or non-cognitive abilities, such as practical intelligence or emotional intelligence. Much of my work has focused on measuring non-academic abilities in Africa, and considering how culture influences how these abilities develop or are valued. Many years ago, I looked at which traits people in The Gambia value for their kids. What I found was that they valued traits like kindness and cooperation more than cognitive abilities. Interestingly, we found that village kids who spent a few months living in the city were less cooperative but had better cognitive skills than the kids who stayed in the village. This is one study that has fueled my interest in the role of culture and environment in shaping children’s abilities.
More recently, we’ve seen studies showing that non-academic skills can be improved through programmatic interventions and they are important for educational achievement. This is what the evidence tells us, but it also makes sense intuitively. Our personal experience tells us that, for example, a degree of self-control helps us to achieve more. We all recognize this and it made a difference in our individual education experiences, but it’s only in recent years that such non-academic skills have been recognized and developed explicitly within international and domestic education programs.
What did your study find regarding how teachers and parents in Tanzania view these traits in young children, and what do you think that tells us?
One thing we learned is that both parents and teachers in Tanzania think that it’s important for children to develop social responsibility. Social responsibility includes elements of obedience and respect, discipline, and attentive listening. Social responsibility is not well represented in the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) framework — the most widely used reference point for understanding SEL — or in the current body of (largely Western) research.
Subsistence agricultural communities are found all around the world, and we should pay attention to their values. The work of Joe Heinrich, for example, shows that it is the Western industrialized communities — not the subsistence farmers — who are the exception in the spectrum of human behavior.
When we shifted the conversation to education, teachers still talk of the importance of obedience and respect, but also of curiosity and self-confidence, and how these are helpful in the classroom. These are skills that are not particularly valuable in village life or for economic activities within rural areas. While respect and obedience are important for productivity on the family farm, curiosity is only valued by those who see how it applies to education, and the kinds of employment that education allows you to pursue.
What do these findings tell us about how SEL is different, as well as how it should be assessed differently, in non-Western contexts?
For one, it tells us that we can’t go into new contexts with a finalized list of the things we want to measure. We need to understand that what people value may differ, and be open to measuring new social and emotional skills. Even among the skills we already had on our list, there are subtle differences in the way things are interpreted. For example, we see confidence and curiosity as two different things, but respondents in Tanzania view them as intertwined in many ways. You need confidence to ask the question, but curiosity to want to know the information you’re hoping to gain through the question. But it’s not always the case that the views of local participants are a better guide to what we should measure than the academic literature from elsewhere. It is unlikely that parents in Tanzanian villages would explicitly discuss emotional regulation as a key aspect of children’s development. However, our analysis of parental ratings of children’s behaviors tell us that this is an implicit category parents value. It’s clearly an important aspect of child behavior in rural Tanzania, and it’s something the literature from Western countries also highlights.
One of the findings of your study was a correlation between parent education, SEL, and curiosity. Why do you think this was, and what implications does it have?
We found that parents who go further in their education have children who are perceived as more curious. The relationship between education and curiosity is there at an individual level, but also at a societal level as formal education spreads and economic activity shifts. In subsistence agriculture, you become wealthy through having more land and more children. Productivity is assured by having a large family of group-oriented, cooperative, and obedient children who will work on your farm alongside you. Conversely, in cities where commerce dominates, cognitive skills are important and worth investing in, and you see more focus on individual abilities, including competencies such as curiosity and confidence. This becomes the norm for what a society values over time, and explains the differences we found between rural and urban values.
What are the broad implications for this study in terms of social emotional learning and adult-child relationships in non-Western contexts?
I don’t think we have thought enough about whether teaching methods advocated for in African classrooms are optimal for children’s competencies and the way they interact with adults. Historically, the experience of children learning in African villages is focused on working quietly and obediently alongside your parents, copying what they do, participating in what they do, and being corrected where you go wrong. There is little verbal instruction, but it is highly participatory. However, quiet obedient copying is much less participatory in a classroom where you have 60 or more children and one authority figure providing the instruction. That teacher can’t guide each child individually, and the kind of active, verbal participation that promotes learning is not the cultural norm.
So, there may be a mismatch between teaching methods used and the culture of adult-child interaction. From what I’ve found through my work at RTI, teachers struggle when classroom activities require children to be active participants, either because children won’t respond or teachers think they won’t respond. There are two approaches to addressing this mismatch. The first is to develop the competencies of children so that existing teaching methods are more effective. I’ve seen many programs around the world — from preschool to secondary school — that have had success in building student confidence by encouraging their participation. Self-confidence improves pretty quickly if you get students to talk and engage in role play and active methods. Such programs could be required in rural Tanzania, and similar contexts, to develop children’s confidence and active participation in order to learn the basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic more effectively.
The second approach to addressing the mismatch is to adapt teaching methods to be suitable and appropriate to the culture and competencies of the children. Many teaching methods devised for rural areas are derived from experience in the West, or they’re devised by urban dwelling national staff. We could think more critically about the existing culture of teacher-child interaction to help make teaching methods more effective, for example, by gently scaffolding child participation in class. Julian Huxley, the first director of UNESCO, spoke about the “dual mandate of education,” and said that “education should be adapted to the local environment of time and place, and yet give the opportunity of transcending that environment.” I think that holds true for social emotional learning — you need to meet children where they are, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help them aspire to skills that will serve them well in urban environments and a modern globalized world.
What are next steps for this study, and future studies on this topic?
A major aim of this work was to improve the assessment of SEL competencies in different contexts. Few measurement efforts start from scratch and try to understand how social emotional competencies are valued in each context before they try and assess them.
This study emphasizes the importance of listening to the things that participant communities value, rather than just starting with your own ideas, or concepts from international literature. Our study also points to some ways in which assessments can combine learning from participant communities as well as from the literature.
Our next step is to test our hypothesis that confident and curious students do better in school, by applying the SEL instrument to a larger sample of students. My guess is that the hypothesis might prove to be correct, but there are bound to be surprises along the way because so little existing research has addressed these issues in Africa. It’s somewhat uncharted territory, and we won’t know until we do the research. We also found large variation in children’s ability to control their emotions, and we want to test how this relates to student achievement. Finally, we want to explore the idea that teaching methods are not ideally matched to the culture of student-teacher interactions.
It’s fairly clear to us Westerners that curiosity and confidence are important for education, but what does that mean in a context where respect and obedience are highly valued?
We want to continue to explore what curiosity and confidence look like in different cultures and how they relate to educational outcomes. We also continue to think about how pedagogy can help develop social emotional competencies to make students more confident and curious, and what cultural differences exist when we try and do that. Are there subtle ways these activities can be tweaked to make both students and teachers more comfortable?