Harvard’s Global Education Innovation Initiative Conference Recap

Joan Cole Duffell

As leader of Committee for Children, a global nonprofit that strives to help the world’s children develop vital social-emotional skills through our evidence-based social-emotional learning (SEL) curriculum (the Second Step Program), I was excited to be invited to Harvard’s Global Education Innovation Initiative Conference (GEII) this past May. The Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) brought together researchers, practitioners, and thought leaders from all over the world who are working to bring twenty-first century skills to classrooms and beyond. I received my invitation to GEII when researchers at HGSE reached out to Committee for Children to let us know that we, along with a handful of other organizations, would be featured as case studies in an upcoming publication. The case studies focus on organizations influencing education on a large scale by using engaging, empowering pedagogy to teach twenty-first century competencies, values, and attitudes.

At the Harvard GEII summit, I was deeply gratified to witness a growing, worldwide demand for education practices that develop children’s SEL competencies and prepare them for the changing workplace. We heard from leaders representing a wide variety of disciplines—education, psychology, business, justice, and other fields—about the growing importance we are placing on noncognitive skills and attitudes such as teamwork, emotional maturity, social problem solving, empathy, and other interpersonal skills. A constant refrain throughout the conference was that, to the employers of today, these attributes are as important as proficiency in English and mathematics.

This is refreshing thinking.

In so many ways, education policy has been stuck in the manufacturing age, driving schools to turn out people who recite information and pass cognitive tests so they can work on a production line effectively. Meanwhile, business has moved at light speed into the information age. To put it bluntly: Education policy hasn’t kept up with the competency requirements of today’s work environments.

A good example is the empathy that’s needed when we’re creating well-designed products. It’s not just about coding a functional e-widget. Steve Jobs started this refocus at Apple, and now people increasingly want elegant solutions; so even software engineers need to be able to stand in the customer’s shoes today and feel how the end-user will respond to product design. This is a significant reason why social-emotional skills are so critical to modern workplaces.

Another reason is that twenty-first century work environments are all about cross-functional teaming, collaboration, and integrated design. They’re also about working with people remotely, and these diffused work settings put a higher premium on social-emotional competence than old-school work environments ever did: It takes more effort and skill to connect on a human level with someone when you’re not in the same room with them.

Social-emotional skills are absolutely essential for twenty-first century leaders, too.

More and more, we’re seeing that to be a successful boss these days, you simply can’t be bossy. You need to be collaborative and convivial. You need to sell ideas to your teams. You need to listen well. You need to be attentive to customers’ needs. You need to understand and internalize others’ perspectives. And you need to appreciate everyone’s problems and concerns and use that data to come up with win–win solutions. Just as significantly, it’s very difficult to demonstrate the cultural competence that’s required in the global marketplace today if you’re not imbued with social-emotional learning.

We now work with people from highly diverse backgrounds—and many of us interact with colleagues from just about every continent on a regular business basis. Indeed, almost every technology company is asking people from Silicon Valley or Seattle to team up with employees or contractors from Mumbai or Shanghai. Sometimes these people work together in the same physical space; and other times they’re solving difficult problems together in a web-based setting.

Multicultural environments present a wonderful and rich opportunity for learning, growth, and the development of substantive human relationships. But deeper relationships require sensitivity, empathy, social awareness, and an ability to imagine a completely different life experience from our own. When people who work in these environments possess these skills, collaboration can be magical and highly profitable; and when they lack these skills, collaboration can be disastrous with serious and negative bottom-line implications.

The big question we need to confront is whether current policy is allowing educators to prepare our children for today’s workplace, and for the future work environments we’ve yet to imagine. The sad truth is that many educators aren’t allowed the classroom time to teach much-needed social-emotional skills or to test kids for these competencies. Here in the United States, with the exception of just a few states, we don’t have policies that support schools in imparting these skills to children.

Yet smart educators know these social-emotional skills aren’t a nice-to-have frill or an extra add-on. Instead, they’re fundamental to a well-educated twenty-first century child’s future well-being. That’s why so many educators are teaching, advocating, and advancing social-emotional learning in spite of education policies.

Wouldn’t it be so much better if education policy truly reflected the necessity of social-emotional learning in our schools? Most states in the U.S. include SEL standards for early learning. But these standards often stop at or before the elementary-school level, and we need to address this oversight. More recently, CASEL (the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) has been working with state education offices to develop learning standards (sometimes called “benchmarks”) for SEL.

Perhaps most heartening to me at the GEII summit was the refrain we heard from national-level education ministers and policy makers around the world: that national policy makers are beginning to catch up to the need for establishing standards for social-emotional competencies in education. In the end, this is a preparation and prosperity issue—and we would do well -to listen to all the empathy-seeking employers out there who are clamoring for employees with social-emotional competency.