Social Emotional Learning in the SMALLab

Schools have been known to focus on academics, but a recent update to federal education law has required states to teach, measure, and test social emotional skills as a means to judge school performance. While “grit” has become a buzzword and a desirable outcome for social-emotional learning, advocate Angela Duckworth says, “I do not think we should be doing this; it is a bad idea.”

Around 2011, schools discovered after an analysis of 213 school-based programs academic achievement improved by 11 percent teaching social-emotional learning, but how should this be measured?


“The biggest concern about testing for social-emotional skills is that it typically relies on surveys asking students to evaluate recent behaviors or mind-sets, like how many days they remembered their homework, or if they consider themselves hard workers. This makes the testing highly susceptible to fakery and subjectivity. In their paper published in May, Dr. Duckworth and David Yeager argued that even if students do not fake their answers, the tests provide incentive for ‘superficial parroting’ rather than real changes in mind-set.”  – February 29, 2016, Kate Zernike, “Testing for Joy and Grit? Schools Nationwide Push to Measure Students’ Emotional Skills,” New York Times.

Can Social Emotional Learning Be Taught?

While there is still debate over whether social-emotional learning should be taught and what should be measured, critics are also asking how “Can Emotional Intelligence Be Taught?”

September 11, 2013, Jennifer Kahn, New York Times: “Something we now know, from doing dozens of studies, is that emotions can either enhance or hinder your ability to learn,” Marc Brackett, a senior research scientist in psychology at Yale University, told a crowd of educators at a conference last June. “They affect our attention and our memory. If you’re very anxious about something, or agitated, how well can you focus on what’s being taught?”

We want our students to feel good, develop strong meta-cognitive skills and become motivated critical thinkers. With different learning styles, not all students will be inspired to develop positive social skills alone.

One way to boost student morale and performance is through teamwork and collaboration. Students are more motivated to work through activities and projects.

Fostering Social Emotional Learning

Add to this a video game setting aligned to classroom content and students are able to develop an incremental theory of intelligence where “they understand they have certain skills. They are praised for their effort: ‘you worked so hard on that problem, you solved that puzzle.’ They have a growth mindset.”

“Video games nurture an incremental understanding of intelligence. Because players are rewarded for one task at a time — for overcoming one obstacle after another — they learn to understand learning and accomplishment iteratively... Games designed for the classroom can leverage the same sort of motivational intelligence.” May 16, 2014, Jordan Shapiro, “Social And Emotional Benefits Of Video Games: Metacognition and Relationships,” Mind/Shift.

How does a video game relate to social-emotional learning? “70 percent of gamers play their games with other people... Gamers play cooperatively. They play competitively. They share tips and tricks. They work together. They teach each other how to get better at the game.”

Students at Providence Day School in Charlotte, North Carolina are using the SMALLab Memory Scenario to learn about the phases of the moon. The timer motives the students to work together to beat the clock!

SMALLab Learning’s empirical research has measured a 6.8X increase in student-to-student conversations and collaboration compared to traditional instruction this collaboration contributes to deeper learning experiences, and retention especially of abstract concepts.

Jordan asks us to “imagine a classroom where collaboration is the norm.” The Embodied Learning ™ framework of SMALLab creates such an environment every time it is used.