Adjusting the flag and baring the soul

By Andy Smart



This article responds to Audrey Bryan’s stimulating article, “From ‘the conscience of humanity’ to the conscious human brain: UNESCO’s embrace of social-emotional learning as a flag of convenience” (Compare, published online 18 October 2022). For Bryan, UNESCO’s strategy of using SEL (social and emotional learning) as a “flag of convenience” – what she calls “SEL for SDGs” – is a further example of UNESCO abandoning its original mission of societal improvement and world peace. This response describes how NISSEM indeed links SEL to progress towards the SDGs, in particular Target 4.7, but puts a different perspective on SEL, one that is less individualistic or “neuroliberal” in Bryan’s words: NISSEM bases its approach on pragmatically reflecting in textbooks and other educational materials the social and emotional dimensions of education in low- and middle-income country classrooms. The article also addresses other issues raised by Bryan, including the challenges of measuring SEL.


Audrey Bryan’s stimulating and provocative article, “From ‘the conscience of humanity’ to the conscious human brain: UNESCO’s embrace of social-emotional learning as a flag of convenience” offers a welcome opportunity to reflect on the first principles behind the formation of NISSEM, whose very name acknowledges, in the double ‘S’ of the acronym, the importance that we attach to social and emotional learning (SEL) and SDG Target 4.7.

According to Bryan’s critical dissection of the SEL “infrastructure” of “academic ‘gurus,’ celebrities, think tank coalitions, entrepreneurs, philanthropic funders, software companies, investment schemes, and international organisations,” NISSEM might be considered a think tank, or more realistically a “think box”, which seeks practical ways to embed SEL and Target 4.7 themes and values into everyday classroom experience in low-resource country contexts. By linking SEL and Target 4.7, as we do, we might be incriminated as advocates of “SEL for SDGs,” a slogan that troubles Bryan considerably.

Alongside her forensic analysis of SEL and its appeal to UNESCO, Bryan probes UNESCO’s role in global education policy-making, particularly in the lead up to, eventual passage, and follow-through of the global goal on education (SDG 4) and its targets. She notes UNESCO’s recent reprisal of its claim to leadership in the form of the Futures of Education report, Reimagining Our Futures Together: A New Social Contract for Education (2021), a response to the competing demands of an education sector agenda beset by emergent and urgent global challenges, including climate change, global pandemics, food insecurity, forced migration, the upending of peaceful relations, and the rise of authoritarian regimes.

Bryan sees developments and pronouncements on SEL by UNESCO institutes, mainly MGIEP and to a lesser extent IBE, as indicative of an institutional policy on education, a policy that to her represents a denial of what the organization once sought to promote – namely, societal improvement and world peace. She describes the new focus on SEL as a betrayal of the organization’s mandate as “the conscience of humanity” and, indeed, of the SDGs themselves: “For UNESCO, the fusion of SEL with the SDGs has the problematic effect of obscuring and foreclosing the very targets the SDGs seek to achieve.”

The act of obscuring and foreclosing might be read either as a result of UNESCO’s own intention or of its being kidnapped by alien forces. She adds that “‘SEL for SDGs’ distorts and undermines UNESCO’s status as the ‘conscience of humanity’ by diverting political energy away from the pursuit of global justice and equality and redirecting it towards a depoliticised, individualistic and neuroliberally-inflected ‘conscious human brain’ approach to ESD/GCED”.

Bryan excoriates UNESCO’s attachment to SEL as a “flag of convenience,” going as far as to advocate that it should dissociate itself from anything to do with SEL. The most pointed passage of the paper is perhaps where she concludes that “The perniciousness of SEL for those who are variously framed as ‘emotional suspects,’ problem citizens, irresponsible or inadequate parents, and/or as threats to social and economic progress makes it ill-suited as a framework for achieving SDG 4.7.”

So, in the face of this charge, which might implicate our own work, how do the two “S”’s of NISSEM hold up?

SEL is an extremely diverse field. However, its advocates and exponents are – or at least, might be expected to be – connected by a common concern and a belief in the importance of the social and the emotional, in terms both of the purposes and the practice of education. This common concern may be expressed in various ways. NISSEM would argue that the social in SEL is not only “learning to be social” but also refers to how learning in educational settings is itself inherently social. We would also see the social dimension as being linked – through the need for student agency and participation in the purpose and practice of education – to the pro-societal outcomes explicit in Target 4.7, which is our reason for connecting the two “S”’s.

Likewise, we would argue that the emotional is an essential precondition for learning in educational settings.

Partly in response to MGIEP’s 2020 publication Rethinking Learning, Bryan dwells at length on educational neuroscience and its links to personalized learning and EdTech. She has little time for a “decontextualised view of education which frames learning as neutral, transferrable processing of information that happens in the brain.” But educational neuroscience offers more than the lure of red meat to “neuroliberalism.” It also provides alternative ways of thinking about SEL and the role of the affective dimension in education. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, of the University of Southern California, whose work has contributed to our thinking in NISSEM, reminds us that “it is literally neurobiologically impossible to think deeply about things that you don’t care about.”

Yet movements for social or environmental change require building impetus among a critical mass of individuals.

We would agree with Bryan’s opposition to the framing of social ills and educational progress primarily in terms of the responsibility of the individual and their response to adversity. Resilience cannot be seen only as an innate or acquired attribute of the individual, but rather as being “framed less around individual strengths or weaknesses but instead sees resilience as the outcome of the extent to which an individual has experienced their social environment as one that supports trust, joint attention, and social learning.”[1]

We might also concur with some of the critics of the commercial marketization of mindfulness, such as those highlighted in Ronald Purser’s McMindfulness.[2]

But we might take issue with the extent to which Bryan bundles SEL with 21st century skills, emotional intelligence, and transversal skills. Unfortunately, some versions of 21st century skills focus only on teamwork for the workplace and collaboration for problem-solving, while omitting much that is valuable in personal life and in tackling societal issues. Transversal skills can be seen narrowly or can include wider concerns such as sustainable development, depending on the particular formulation. The concept of “transformative education” is relevant here, since it links personal learning to learning that will address 21st century societal and planetary challenges.

Bryan also argues that the wider international education community must engage with the clear tensions between education and measurement. In her view, SEL has been corrupted by an obsession with measurement, which she describes as being derived from the fields of economics and neuroscience. We would argue for appropriate uses of measurement, rather than no measurement at all. The search for measures of non-academic dimensions of education should be guided by how such measurements are to be used in practice. Measuring soft skills can be helpful formatively, but in the context of high stakes examinations, the measuring of values may force students to reflect social desirability bias.

Measuring soft skills in the context of international comparisons is tricky. Some associated cognitive aspects can be tested across cultures and contexts, such as the skill of detecting deliberate misinformation, but large-scale comparative assessment of most social, emotional and values-based dimensions of learning may be less appropriate. Not only are SEL measurements highly dependent on cultural context (NISSEM’s third volume of Global Briefs is dedicated to the theme of SEL in context[3]), but the very act of measuring the social dimensions of education jars with the notion of individual assessments: if SEL is a social construct, how might one measure it at the level of the individual?

Nevertheless, the challenge remains that the SDGs are a set of targets, and, as such, are intended to be measured. One might emphasize intended, rather than designed, to be measurable.

NISSEM aims to brings SEL and the SDGs together in a way that is more than a “flag of convenience,” as Bryan characterizes UNESCO’s advocacy of “SEL for SDGs.” They are connected because they combine to frame purpose and meaning in an education system: that is, the purpose of the student within the purpose of the system. They enable students, and teachers, to begin to engage with the messiness of the world – its complexity as well as its excitement – and so have the opportunity to respond.

In our view, embedding SEL in schooling is a valuable and viable strategy for low and middle-income curricula and pedagogy. SEL in the curriculum may include the dimensions of CASEL’s model, such as expressing and regulating emotions, which are valuable when linked to life skills. But we can also arrive at CASEL’s goal of responsible decision-making by a different route, one in which self-awareness, self-regulation and empathy are parts of classroom pedagogy and are, therefore, part of the social dimension of classroom education. Overall, NISSEM seeks ways to strengthen the explicit as well as implicit teaching and learning of social skills and values, including respect for diversity and the practicalities of appropriate assertiveness, negotiation and conflict resolution. We believe these can serve as a foundation for societal action and transformation via a truly multi-cultural, global process.

Our interest in teaching and learning materials as strategic conduits for the themes and values of Target 4.7 and the social and emotional dimensions of education is based on making the abstract concrete. Education being the discussion, development and diffusion of ideas in a more or less formal system, any new approaches and frameworks – whatever the context – must of necessity be of sufficient clarity and simplicity as to encourage their adoption and diffusion by the many practitioners in an education system. Textbooks and educational materials can help to provide this clarity.

For NISSEM, the often-overlooked textbook provides a different way of thinking about the social and the emotional dimensions of education in low- and middle-income countries. We are aware that our advocacy for improvement of textbooks may – ironically – suggest that we are wedded to the traditional chalk-and-talk approaches that are found in so many classrooms around the world. In fact, we believe that the opportunities for integrating the cognitive, the social, and the emotional dimensions of education are made more attainable once we acknowledge the systems and classroom conditions in which most teachers around the world go about their work. This includes embedding such dimensions into textbooks through content and a pedagogy that recognizes teacher agency as well as student agency, and which motivate students to address 21st-century societal and planetary challenges and build the life skills that they will need for fulfilment in their adolescent years and as adults.

The above reflections on Bryan’s paper have not taken into account the critical lens of the whole school setting, whether for high-, middle- or low-income contexts. SEL is not only what is taught in the classroom, it is how a school treats its teachers and students and how central government treats its teachers. It is about the conditions, as well as the purpose and practice of education, which are negotiated collaboratively.

Bryan’s paper offers much to think about. It certainly made us think. It raises the fundamental issues of what precisely we are talking about when we talk of SEL. In this lively and contested conversation, it is as important to be clear about what one is not saying as it is to be clear about what one is saying. For us in NISSEM, the link between SEL and the SDGs, in particular Target 4.7, is no “flag of convenience” but a framework for thinking about curriculum and pedagogy in low-resource contexts so as to better support those who live there to live in a fulfilled way.

[1] Fonagy, P., Campbell, C., Luyten, P. Attachment, Mentalizing and Trauma: Then (1992) and Now (2022). Brain Sci. 2023, 13, 459.

[2] Ronald Purser. (2019). McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality. Repeater. According to Purser, “The term ‘McMindfulness’ was coined by Miles Neale, a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist, who described ‘a feeding frenzy of spiritual practices that provide immediate nutrition but no long-term sustenance.’”


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