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Is the SEL petting a guinea pig? It’s time to call out the charlatans


I recently got a marketing pitch for Pets in the classroom grant program. Now the cool pets have gathered. They have been with us since time immemorial and I am a fan of all manner of bunnies, hamsters, guinea pigs and the occasional reptile. But I marveled at my timely PR hack: “As students’ need for social and emotional support increases, teachers are turning to classroom favorites.”

The press release touts “an increase in grant applications for the 2022-23 academic year, awarding 15,500 grants in two short months.” This announced“As evidenced by research and affirmed by teachers, pets in the classroom are a much-needed resource for students who experience anxiety, difficulty concentrating, self-control issues, or simply need a friend.”

The teachers’ comments were impressive with their excessive passion. In a press release, one teacher enthused: “Two students I tested this year had an easier time holding and petting guinea pigs while they completed their assessments.” She added that “a group of 5th graders is coming[s] before school and during breaks to spend time with the guinea pigs. This group, whether they know it or not, is developing social skills.’

There were also some great survey results. A survey A study of teachers in the US and Canada by Pets in the Classroom found that “interaction with pets in the classroom” led 98 percent of teachers to report increases in “empathy and compassion,” “student accountability,” and “student engagement.” » I would encourage readers to check the results of the survey and related studies. I think it’s fair to say that the evidence offered wouldn’t stand up to an intelligent 8th grader.

Listen, aside from the bullying, there’s an even more important point here. As much as I was skeptically on some practices and pedagogies related to SEL, i sympathetic basically, and I wish SEL would avoid the sad fate of so many well-intentioned educational acronyms. Whatever one may think of the promise of pets in the classroom, I doubt that petting a guinea pig or feeding a bunny develops the social-emotional learning skills that proponents emphasize—things like persistence or executive function. From that perspective, things like this should be a big, flashing warning sign.

A few years ago, in an essay titled “What Social and Emotional Learning Needs for Success and Survival“, Checker Finn and I observed: “Given the raft of vitriol being peddled by consultants, providers, pedagogues, and many others in the name of SEL (and more), it is important to develop markers that will help serious educators and curious parents know what’s above the bar and what’s not.”

Well, that’s the kind of crap we had in mind. In fact, those who remember more can recall how publishers and merchants rushed the brand everything how “Common Core compatibility” (including some really stupid worksheets and, sorry, textbooks) was one of the forces that helped push parents away and poison the well for Common Core.

“The question,” Checker and I asked, “is what honest defense attorneys are willing to do when it comes to flagging fraud, identifying charlatans, [and] calling out practices that lack evidence.” Leadership involves not only explaining what SEL should be, but also what it is not. Checker and I noted that this means doing the uncomfortable work of “challenging those , who display questionable goods under the SEL banner.”

And I can tell you that the Pets in the Classroom grant program is far from the only offer I’ve received recently. As blogger Ed Week, a Forbes depositor, an Education Further editor, and such, I get a lot of pitches. And I think it’s fair to say that I’m probably getting some shady “SEL-aligned” renditions every day.

If the more serious fans can’t stop the charlatans from selling their wares under the SEL shingle, the whole enterprise is in trouble. Indeed, as Checker and I noted, “If the SEL does veer toward the laid-back and corny, history suggests it will likely have a relatively short shelf life, much like the self-esteem fad of the 1980s.”

When 19,000 grants are awarded under the SEL banner to help students visit the guinea pigs during the breaks, it’s fair to say the stakes are high. The question is what more responsible SEL leaders are willing to do about it.

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