“Countries worldwide strive for education systems that prepare young people for life, work and happy lives, and inspire them to contribute actively to their communities. However, change is not happening fast or widely enough to meet these aims or to help societies rise to the challenges of the Sustainable Development Goals.”

The opening quote is from a Statement published by Salzburg Global Seminar on 20 March 2019 to coincide with the International Day of Happiness. The Statement was an output from one of an ongoing series of programs organized by Salzburg Global Seminar that have focused on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) as the essential reform topic of our time and one which is relevant to all education systems.  

Social and emotional skills or life skills are key human capabilities that allow individuals to manage their emotions, develop social and self-awareness, and work collaboratively with others in achieving their goals. For example, these include skills around empathy, critical thinking, resilience, communication, and teamworking. There is no universal SEL skills framework as various cultures attribute different levels of importance to different skills. What is increasingly widely accepted though is that these skills are crucial for the well-being and success of every child and for the future of our societies and economies.

A reform to tackle education’s toughest challenges

In response to some of education’s most pressing concerns today, there is a compelling and multi-faceted demand side argument for social and emotional learning programs, which extends across economic development, health and well-being, community cohesion, social justice and improved education attainment for all young people. To cite a handful of examples:

● There is a close correlation between the kinds of skills and competencies that SEL programs help young people develop and those that are needed for rapidly evolving economies and the digital revolution - skills for jobs that won’t be automated in the near future.

● Social and emotional skills are also a key part of the response to the growing mental health crisis affecting young people worldwide. By 2030, according to the World Health Organization, depression is expected to be the leading cause of the global burden of disease. Depressive disorders often begin at a young age and there is a growing evidence base that shows SEL as an important tool for mental health promotion in young people.

● Social and emotional skills are essential for meeting the challenges of the Sustainable Development Goals. Astronauts talk about the Overview Effect that occurs when they see the earth from above and return with a sense of a planetary society. Empathy, which almost all SEL programs help young people develop, is key to realizing a similar phenomenon on the earth.

● SEL interventions have been used for several years as a core component of programs designed to build social cohesion before, during and after conflict. As societies around the world become more fluid and fragmented, there is a real need for a much wider application of SEL in helping young people feel confident in their own identities and vested in their communities.

● Programs focused on SEL have shown to help reduce the achievement gap within school groups and improve academic attainment for all young people, especially for those who are growing up in adverse circumstances or living in crises and emergencies.

While the previous industrial era demanded that nations provide one-size-fits-all mass education, the current digital revolution demands personalized, holistic education that will prepare humans to identify and develop their own talent, competencies and emotions to thrive in a world driven by machines and technology.

While the previous industrial era demanded that nations provide one-size-fits-all mass education, the current digital revolution demands personalized, holistic education that will prepare humans to identify and develop their own talent, competencies and emotions to thrive in a world driven by machines and technology.

The role of Social and Emotional Learning in bridging the learning gap globally

As the world is rapidly moving from capitalism to talentism, education systems globally are under pressure to prepare young people to fulfill the demands of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the needs of our more complex societies. While the previous industrial era demanded that nations provide one-size-fits-all mass education, the current digital revolution demands personalized, holistic education that will prepare humans to identify and develop their own talent, competencies and emotions to thrive in a world driven by machines and technology.

Some national or regional education systems including those in Mexico, Delhi and Finland have recognized this need and commenced to introduce system-wide SEL reforms. One of the encouraging aspects of SEL as a global education reform movement is witnessing as much innovation from the global south such as the reforms in Delhi as from the global north such as CASEL in the United States or the pioneering methods of Finland. However, when considering the global landscape, it’s only a handful of systems that have taken the initiative, and there’s a strong urgency for others to follow their lead. As the 2018 World Development Report stresses, education today is no longer transforming into learning, and the world is primed for reimagining education to make learning more accessible and relevant for everyone.

SEL fosters critical emotional intelligence and offers a foundation for young people to develop essential competencies and some of the most sought-after and versatile skill sets for future workforce and society. Given that SEL can also be deployed across many learning ecosystems, both by integrating into existing school curriculums and through outside-classroom environments, it becomes a powerful tool to help leapfrog inequality for the millions of young people who have been left behind by current education systems.

Educate Lanka: a practical example from Sri Lanka

Educate Lanka - a non-profit social enterprise - was founded with the aim to help address the critical gaps of Sri Lanka’s education system. While Sri Lanka has benefited from its universal access to education by achieving an adult literacy rate of nearly 92% and almost 100% primary and secondary student enrollment in schooling, the country continues to face the challenge of meeting the demands of the changing global economy; thus, falling well short of prosperity and development potential. These gaps have resulted today in nearly 50% of students completing their education without employable skills. The country has also experienced a decades-long armed conflict and a number of communal tensions during the 70 years since independence. Evidently, holding one of the highest literacy rates in the world has not been effective in tackling these challenges.

To address these learning gaps, Educate Lanka has developed a blended approach that uniquely integrates technology and social-private partnerships to offer children and youth, especially those who are from socioeconomically marginalized contexts, with a parallel pathway of learning that equips them with the competencies overlooked by the formal education. For far too long, social and emotional learning and life skills have been considered optional and perceived peripheral to the main academic curriculum in Sri Lanka. Through its pathway of outside the classroom learning, Educate Lanka works to shift this balance so that SEL, along with other 21st century learning, becomes the foundation of education upon which students are able to build their theoretical knowledge and expertise so that they are better prepared to excel not just academically, but more holistically in work and life as well. By democratizing access to these relevant learning opportunities, Sri Lanka’s young generation would be equipped with the tools needed to take the country toward sustainable social and economic development, peace, and stability. Having implemented its SEL interventions across all demographics throughout the country, Educate Lanka is poised to scale and replicate its innovations in collaboration with policymakers and the global community.

A new global movement: Karanga

With a view to further advance the SEL agenda internationally and help build a global community of committed policymakers, researchers and practitioners, we both are proud to have helped initiate a new Global Alliance for Social Emotional Learning and Life Skills named Karanga. Karanga means a call out in welcome in the Maori language of New Zealand, and although this alliance is still in its infancy, we already have some major players involved, including ETS, Microsoft, Qatar Foundation International, the Learning Economy, CASEL, Harvard, World Innovation Summit for Education, the European Network for Social Emotional Competency, The Learner First as well as Salzburg Global Seminar and Educate Lanka.

At its heart, Karanga’s core vision is to help create “a thriving world where all learners are enabled with the skills to succeed in school, work, and life.” New insights and breakthroughs around the measurement, assessment, evaluation and recognition of social and emotional skills will be crucial in realizing this vision, so we would like to invite you to join the global movement and register your interest at www.karanga.org.

By better connecting the growing movement of educators, schools, districts, and policymakers working deliberately to teach and embed social and emotional learning into all learning environments, we can create and accelerate our collective impact. And these skills will enable us all to deliver on education’s promise for every learner.

Manjula Dissanayake
Manjula Dissanayake, an investment banker turned social entrepreneur, is the Founding Executive Director of Educate Lanka Foundation.
Dominic Regester
Dominic Regester is Program Director at Salzburg Global Seminar and Executive Committee Member, Karanga.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.