The Puggle: June 2020 edition

As you, our global colleagues, have no doubt seen, it has been a turbulent few weeks in the United States. All of us at Echidna Giving share in the collective anguish and rage at the senseless killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Aubrey Ahmad, and countless other Black Americans. We stand in solidarity with all those across the U.S. and around the world fighting for racial and social justice. Systemic racism and misogyny stem from the same roots, so we vow to work in concert with all others who envision a world free from the violence perpetrated by racism and patriarchy. We are hopeful given the attention, the sustained effort, the participation of young and old, black, white and brown, straight and LGBTQ community, men and women, and most unusual – the leadership in corporate America. All but seven of the 50 largest companies in America made statements supporting racial justice. We are not naive. We recognize that converting this momentary collective outrage into action, policy and lasting cultural change is a long way from realty, but it gives us hope.  

As we engage in important conversations around police brutality and systemic racism in the U.S., we are also grappling with the reality that Black and Brown communities have been more heavily impacted in the U.S. by COVID-19. The demographic data collected by the COVID Racial Tracker, a joint project of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center and the COVID Tracking Project, shows African-American deaths from COVID-19 are nearly two times greater than would be expected based on their share of the population. These double pandemics of racism and COVID-19 are deeply rooted in systemic injustices. We believe that education has to be part of the long-term solution both in the U.S. and in the geographies where we support and partner with our grantees. Only two percent of recovery funds are directed toward education, according to Lisbett Steer, Director of the Education Commission, speaking at the Education Disrupted, Education Reimagined WISE (World Innovation Summit for Education) 2020 conference. 

Given this anemic funding and attention on education, despite being a critical component of rebuilding a healthy and inclusive economy, we find ourselves, along with many others in the international education sector, struggling with understanding if we should focus on strengthening distance learning initiatives or exploring how best to reopen schools. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused the largest global crisis in education in recent times with approximately 67% of the world’s children are still out of school. We know the immediate cost of COVID-19 school closures is a loss of learning. EduView, from UNICEF, provides a global snapshot of how COVID-19 is affecting children’s learning. However, when children lose out on education, they lose out on future opportunities — including economic benefits, such as additional earnings — with far-reaching consequences. A team of researchers at The Brookings Institute estimates the world could lose as much as $10 trillion over the coming generation as a result of school closures today.

Focusing on the reopening of schools safely is a paramount concern. As UNESCO states “When and how to reopen schools is one of the toughest and most sensitive decisions on political agendas today. Schools are not only places of learning. They provide social protection, nutrition, health and emotional support that are a life security for the most disadvantaged, and this applies in all countries, from low to high income”. The UNESCO Framework for Reopening Schools offers guidance, advising decision-makers to consider how learning and wellbeing can best be supported in each country’s context while taking into consideration health and safety. Insights for Education, which provides resources for evidence-informed decision-making and implementation in education, is tracking facts and insights from country experiences of reopening schools. Their advice is to assume prolonged and/or repeated closures and to permanently strengthen distance learning and teaching in parallel while preparing for reopening.

In discussions around reimagining the future of education, given recent events, increasing volatility, and pace of change one important theme continues to be raised: resilience in the face of rapid change and crisis. Resilience, or the ability to recover quickly from difficulties, many believe will be increasingly needed in our children, teachers, administrators, parents and institutions. For some time our work in supporting life skills and mindsets in our adolescent portfolio at Echidna Giving, has included resilience as a core socio-emotional skill. As we think about building our education system back, hopefully better and stronger, we believe understanding the socio-emotional skills component of education warrants further research and understanding. How can we better prepare young people to manage economic, social, health, and environmental shocks and the general pace of change?

One important resource to help in delving deeper into this topic is The Ecological Approaches to Social Emotional Learning (EASEL) Lab, led by Dr. Stephanie Jones of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which explores the effects of high-quality social-emotional interventions on the development and achievement of children, youth, teachers, parents, and communities. One key project of the EASEL Lab is the The Taxonomy Project, which seeks to create greater precision and transparency in the field of social emotional learning (SEL) and to facilitate more effective translation between research and practice. The complex and conflicting terminology used in the field can make it difficult to sort through and compare all the information out there to determine which approach works best for your context, setting, and goals. Without a way to make sense of the terminology, it becomes easy to misinterpret, over-generalize, or overlook the science that links evidence to strategies, and strategies to measurement and evaluation. Echidna Givings’ funding expanded the project to include a larger set of international frameworks used globally or in specific regions, countries, and contexts around the world. 

The project uses a rigorous coding system to identify whether and how specific SEL skills and other “non-academic” constructs are related to one another across different frameworks. The system is designed to preserve the integrity of each framework without obscuring nuances in meaning or links to evidence. Looking at frameworks is one way to learn more about how skills and competencies are defined by different stakeholders in the field. A framework can be understood as an organizing system, or blueprint, that distills and communicates the kind of knowledge, skills, and attitudes you should expect to see in children and youth, and when you should expect to see them across development. There are many frameworks to choose from, and although they are similar and overlapping in some ways, they are not all the same. Frameworks tend to vary considerably in their scope and structure; the extent to which they address issues of development, context, and diversity; and in which skills they emphasize and the terms they use to describe them.

We at Echidna are encouraging the use of the Taxonomy Project to enable those doing work in the field to both identify common ground and to see what is distinct within any particular framework, in order to make informed decisions about their approach to SEL. The tools and resources can be found on the Explore SEL website. Specific tools and resources include:

In expanding the scope of the Taxonomy Project beyond the United States, we hope to support the international education ecosystem by generating a more accurate, transparent, and comprehensive reflection of these skills and competencies from a global perspective, enabling global actors to more effectively define, discuss, promote, and assess the skills and competencies that are most important to their contexts.

So, what can we learn about international frameworks using the Explore SEL tools? Using the Compare Domains bar graph tool on the Explore SEL website, you can see that there is considerable variability between international frameworks in their relative emphasis on the different skill domains. For example, some frameworks include skills across all six domains, like the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) SEL Framework, whereas others have a more targeted focus on a smaller set of domains, like the MELQO framework, which focuses primarily on cognitive, emotion, and social skills, and includes little focus on the other skill domains.

Using the Compare Frameworks tree comparison tool also provides interesting insights. We can more directly compare specific frameworks, looking at where there is overlap between the skills and competencies they include, regardless of how they are labeled or named. The size of these connections (i.e., the lines between terms or boxes) depends on the number of overlapping codes that each term received. The thicker the line, the more related the terms. 

As an illustrative sample, below we compare the USAID YouthPower Action Key Soft Skills for Cross-Sectoral Outcomes framework (for adolescents and young adults) and the LEGO Foundation’s Skills for Holistic Development framework (for young children). Although the two frameworks use different terminology and focus on different ages, the tool enables users to see where the terms within them are related. For example, you can see here that the definition of “social skills” put forth by the LEGO Foundation framework is related to the definition “social skills” used in the YouthPower Action framework – an unsurprising connection. However, you can see that “empathy” in Youthpower Action is also related to “social skills” in the LEGO Foundation framework but not at all to “emotional skills,” which might be slightly more unexpected. Without a mechanism like the Compare Frameworks tool, it would be difficult to understand the precise points of alignment and divergence between these two frameworks.

Now is an important moment for SEL and related fields. As we have all been experiencing real time, a global pandemic can lead to disruption and distress that puts a strain on the mental health, learning experiences, and general wellbeing of children, and we know that unchecked experiences of stress and trauma can have an adverse impact on children’s healthy social and emotional development. As a result, there has been a growing interest in efforts to support social, emotional, and relation skills among governments and education systems, who are looking toward SEL and life skills to help address the impact of COVID-19. 

This represents a moment of interest for SEL, and we hope we can all seize this moment to assist in the reimagining of future education to be most relevant and supportive of young people everywhere.