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Rethinking Learning

Cover story: Dr. Yoko Mochizuki and Dr. Nandini Chatterjee Singh

Why ‘re-think’ learning?

In the last two decades, our knowledge about the neuro-biological basis of human cognition and learning has dramatically increased. Today there is much excitement around the idea that recent advances in neuroscience unlock the potential of ‘science-based’ education and lead new visions of learning for the 21st century. At the same time, over the past quarter of a century, new approaches to the study of complex systems have been developed by mathematicians and scientists (including biophysical, computer, social and organisational scientists), offering tools for qualitative reasoning about complex systems as well  as for quantitative modelling and simulation. It is critical to recognise that education systems are complex systems that do not change overnight.

. . . whatever pedagogical innovations or recommendations for curriculum development might emerge . . . we must keep in mind that they are unlikely to have significant impact unless the entire system is reconfigured to support learning.

Education is a complex system because it is composed of multi-scale hierarchical organisations. Each subsystem also operates on a distinct time scale. Hence, changes to the complex system of education emerge only through incremental processes, often with unintended consequences. Whatever pedagogical innovations or recommendations for curriculum development might emerge—whether inspired by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), driven by major technological, geopolitical, environmental or other social changes, or derived from latest insights from the neurosciences, we must keep in mind that they are unlikely to have significant impact unless the entire system is reconfigured to support learning.

Insights from the complex systems’ theory could inform the processes of curriculum revisions and, more broadly, of systemic reform in education. Researchers from the United States developed a schematic representation of four critical components of school education and their illustration at different levels, from classroom to policy (Figure 1).

This model uses as variables the following:

1. Cognition (how people learn)
2. Content (what people learn)
3. Context (where people learn or learning environment)
4. Equity (which people learn and why)

With these four critical components of learning—cognition, content, context, and learner—in mind, this article contexualises UNESCO MGIEP’s activities to rethink learning and reorient education systems towards peace and sustainable development.

A renewed focus on learning

The 1990 adoption of the Education for All (EFA) goals demonstrated an international commitment to meeting basic learning needs for all. This commitment was affirmed in the 2000 Dakar Framework for Action’s Goal 6, which focused on ‘improving every aspect of the quality of education, and ensuring their excellence so that recognised and measurable learning outcomes are achieved by all, especially in literacy, numeracy and essential life skills’. As the 2015 target year of the EFA goals and Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) approached, there was mounting concern that millions of children and youth do not have the basic knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in school and life—let alone possess knowledge and skills required to navigate the changing world and shape a more sustainable and peaceful society.

While EFA has always been not only about guaranteeing access but also about achieving quality learning for all, the strong focus on education-related MDGs (MDG 2 on universal primary education and MDG 3 on gender equality) has somehow distorted progress with the original intent of EFA. It has shifted attention away from critical factors beyond completion of primary education in fulfilling the promise of education. With a focus on access, neither the content of education nor pedagogy have taken a centre stage in international education debates.

Admittedly there have been rich and diverse efforts to make the content of education more relevant for the 21st century and articulate competencies necessary to engage creatively and responsibly with the world. UNESCO’s work on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) and Global Citizenship Education (GCED) has benefited from and contributed to these efforts. Indeed, SDG 4, Target 7, focusing on ESD, GCED and other related value-based education has been interpreted as signalling an international consensus on the importance of ‘soft skills’ and a renewed attention to ‘life skills’. But the reality is that ESD and GCED have been commonly implemented as ‘add-ons’, without really impacting the education system or the mainstream education policy.

In the long traditions of value-based and action-oriented education now captured in SDG 4.7, ‘whole-school approaches’ have been widely viewed as the ultimate desirable form of learning intervention, exemplifying the spirit of ‘learning by doing’ and creating an ethos of peace and sustainability at the school and the community level. While few would disagree with the importance of context in learning for peace and sustainability, sweeping calls for mainstreaming holistic and transformative learning in formal, non-formal and informal learning settings mean that a necessary focus on the particular challenge of re-designing curricula to meet the 21st century challenges has largely been lost. What is lacking are concrete examples of exactly how we can reorient the mainstream curriculum to foster desirable competencies, as well as strategies and tools to foster such competencies that are informed by new insights into learning.

The Emergence of SEL as a Policy Focus

At the onset of the implementation of the SDGs, we are witnessing a growing popularity of efforts to support children and youth become more socially and emotionally competent. Between 2015 and 2017, UNESCO, the OECD, the World Bank, the World Economic Forum (WEF), and the Brookings Institution all developed their own individual publications, which highlighted the importance of social and emotional dimension(s) of learning.1   There is a broad consensus that students should develop not only cognitive skills (both ‘foundational skills’ of literacy and numeracy and ‘higher-order’ cognitive skills such as critical thinking skills) but also social and emotional skills—also referred to as ‘soft skills’ or ‘non-cognitive skills’.

At a glance, this seems like nothing new. It resonates with a familiar call for the development of a ‘whole person’. However, what is new at the beginning of the 21st century is the fascination with the idea that social and emotional skills can be taught—an insight reflecting the advancement of neuroscience research on emotions in cognition and its dissemination and popularisation in recent years. (see Figure 2). There seems to be a great appeal to the idea that we can train our brains like we train our muscles.

Since the early 1990s, social and emotional learning (SEL) has been gaining traction in the United States. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), the most powerful SEL campaigning organisation in the U.S., aspires to integrate ‘evidence-based’ SEL into state education and ‘to turn momentum for SEL into a national movement.’ In 2004, Illinois became the first state to develop comprehensive, free-standing K-12 standards for SEL. By 2017, Kansas and West Virginia followed Illinois in developing K-12 SEL standards, and Connecticut, Idaho, Ohio, Massachusetts and Washington developed SEL standards for pre-school through early elementary grades2. In the U.S., SEL and the associated concepts such as ‘character development’, Angela Duckworth’s ‘grit’, and Carol Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’ have emerged as a key policy priority.

This phenomenon needs to be understood against the backdrop that the U.S. has tried to fix the problem of low academic performance (mainly of socio-economically disadvantaged students) over the last two decades through an emphasis on standards and accountability, introducing federal programmes such as ‘No Child Left Behind’ (under President George W. Bush) and ‘Every Student Succeeds’ (under President Obama)3. SEL is essentially being promoted as a cure for poor academic performance and behaviourial problems. The Hamilton Project—launched in 2006 as an economic policy initiative at the Brookings Institution by academics, business people, and policymakers to address the challenges faced by the U.S. economy—makes this point in no uncertain terms: ‘Noncognitive skill development interventions improve student achievement and reduce behaviour-related problems4’.

The SEL advocacy seems to be finding a niche in the global education agenda today. First of all, it provides high hopes for fulfilling the broken promise of EFA and addressing the ‘learning crisis’ the world is facing. Many developing countries have achieved or are nearing the goal of universal primary education, yet millions of children are leaving school without even the most basic skills. Furthermore, another key factor driving the SEL movement in American education finds a perfect parallel in the context of global implementation of SDG 4.7: heightened concerns over the (perceived and real) vulnerability of children and youth to a range of social and psychological problems such as substance abuse, violence, bullying and suicide. What has recently been added to the list of behavioural and psychological problems is radicalisation to violent extremism. In the face of rising incidences of violent extremist attacks in recent years, the potential role of education in preventing, mitigating or ameliorating such risks has begun to catalyse the SEL movement internationally. Before getting on the bandwagon of SEL and contributing to its worldwide dissemination, however, we must critically look at the contemporary SEL advocacy largely originating from the U.S. and its main assumptions.

UNESCO MGIEP’s “Operation Rethink”

SEL and SDG 4.7

What is driving the contemporary SEL advocacy is the simple and alluring idea that social and emotional skills are (i) necessary (to address long-standing educational problems of low academic performance and behaviour problems of disadvantaged students), (ii) teachable or, as OECD’s Skills for Social Progress puts it, ‘malleable and improvable’ (as opposed to the conventional idea that these are character or personality traits than cannot be explicitly taught), and (iii) measurable. In the U.S., where SEL is becoming a policy priority, many school-based SEL programmes focus on fostering Emotional Intelligence (EI), or skill sets related to cognitive processing of awareness and emotion and the integration of emotional information with social-interactional skills.

The model of SEL focusing on cognitive information processing and self-management (emotion monitoring and regulation) resonates with an emerging trend of personalised education enabled by educational technologies. Here, the 21st century SEL movement meets the ed-tech industry. A source of immense optimism expressed by SEL advocates and the ed-tech industry is the presumed ‘measurability’ of individual competencies, whether in SEL, Mathematics or English language learning. The bottom line for SEL advocates and the ed-tech industry is that individual strengths and weaknesses can be assessed and ameliorated through learning interventions based on cognitive sciences and customised for individual needs, and that eventually all learners can become more academically, socially and emotionally competent.

But the focus on individual SEL abilities and deficiencies runs a risk of ‘remedial’ or ‘deficit’ model of education. When we focus on what is ‘wrong’ with the individual learner and ‘what works’ to change individual behaviour, we tend to shift our attention away from the equally, if not more, critical aspects of what can and should be done to transform education for humanity. While the remedial approach may be rather harmless in an individualised mathematics learning experience, the predominant SEL approaches shift our focus away from the critical importance of social and cultural contexts within which the learner is embedded.

No doubt the SEL movement is making a valuable contribution to SDG 4 on education, sensitising educators and policymakers to the importance of the emotional domain in learning. In an era when educational debate worldwide has come to be framed by a narrowly economistic and instrumentalist agenda, changing the ethos of classrooms and schools to cultivate experiences of caring and collaboration is urgently needed. In much of the work by SEL advocates, however, social and emotional skills are valued not so much as a foundation for building a more peaceful and sustainable world, but as a key way of boosting academic attainment and personal gains. So long as SEL is seen primarily as something that gives an ‘edge’ to individual students to succeed in school and life, SEL does not contribute to changing the competitive ethos of schooling and society—and the mindless pursuit of narrow and short-term interests on a massive scale and unsustainable patterns of development. As UNESCO MGIEP derives its mandate from SDG 4.7 on ‘knowledge and skills for sustainable development’, promoting SEL simply for the sake of making students more competitive falls short of—or is even counterproductive to—our aspiration of transforming education for humanity. So what would be next steps for UNESCO MGIEP?

Next steps for UNESCO MGIEP

At a glance, the contemporary SEL movement appears to be in congruence with UNESCO’s humanistic agenda in education now encapsulated in SDG 4.7. But a closer look at the rationale for promoting SEL put forward by organisations such as OECD and WEF—which, by no coincidence, focus on economic development—makes it clear that the purpose of education continues to be conceived in instrumentalist terms. SEL is largely promulgated as a means to produce human resources to ensure national economic competitiveness whether the goal is conceptualised as to ‘promote social progress’ (OECD) or to ‘equip students to succeed in the swiftly evolving digital economy’ (WEF).

We must ask the ‘what works’ question not only in terms of cognition (how people learn) but also of other critical components of learning, and in the broader context of planetary imperatives of sustainable development. SDG 4.7 must go far beyond teaching good behaviour; it needs to promote the kind of learning that fosters reflective and engaged citizenship—to overcome rigidity and cynicism and respond to unforeseen challenges and changes beyond our individual control with hope and ingenuity. Meaningful implementation of SDG 4.7 rests on fostering intelligence that integrates reason and emotion. UNESCO MGIEP will undertake projects to provide concrete guidance on fostering such intelligence in a holistic and transformational way.

Libre is UNESCO MGIEP’s flagship initiative to design a curriculum for ‘Social-Emotional Leaning (SEL)

1. Libre

To inspire and harness SEL that is more consistent with the aspirations of SDG 4.7, UNESCO MGIEP has developed a model entitled Libre. Libre is UNESCO MGIEP’s flagship initiative to design an SEL curriculum. Libre will focus on building the 3R’s of SEL, namely Attention Regulation (AR), Emotion Regulation (ER) and Cognitive Regulation (CR). Through piloting of Libre in ten countries, UNESCO MGIEP will engage deeply with questions of respect for cultural diversity. Establishing the empirical basis for and effectiveness of SEL needs to take place in the context of redefining the ultimate purpose of education—a transformative shift in the lens with which policymakers and educators examine the nature of desirable competencies in the 21st century.

2. The State of SEL Review

SEL programmes, if decontextualised and modularised without sufficient respect for cultural diversity and concerns for the politics of schooling, can promote an alarmingly individualist and robotic view of children and youth—all while emphasising the importance of empathy and compassion. Over the course of next two years, UNESCO MGIEP will review rich and diverse traditions of approaching social and emotional skills in different parts of the world to propose an approach to SEL that is consistent with the transformative aspirations of SDG 4.7. In Japan, for example, abundant academic literature exists on the place of emotion in schooling that provides insights into what SEL can look like in different cultural contexts. In 2018, an initial desk review will synthesise the research evidence on approaches to fostering social and emotional skills and identify good practices (including, but not limited to, those aimed at building ’emotional intelligence’). It will cover a wide range of academic literature on alternative and holistic education approaches, including the notion of cooperative learning space and the development of self-regulated and self-motivated learners.

3. Digital Pedagogies

Despite high hopes and hypes surrounding the power of technology in transforming education, educational systems are still largely untouched by technology as a ‘game changer’ in learning. Viewing ICT as an enabler for immersive, self-directed learning, UNESCO MGIEP is exploring what digital pedagogies for peace and sustainability can and should look like. UNESCO MGIEP will develop platforms where teachers and students can co-create and share a highly interactive digital learning experience. These platforms will attempt to combine the best features of a textbook and a digital learning platform, while enabling teachers to attend to the interests and needs of individual learners, make complex interdisciplinary connections, and relate to students as equal partners in learning.

The response of the educational system to the public demands for reform, planetary imperatives of sustainable development, and the new threats and opportunities created by technological advancements must be guided by the combined expertise and innovative ideas of the interdisciplinary research community, and by decision-making driven by quantitative and qualitative educational research. There will be no shortage of organisations and ed-tech companies promoting SEL for their instrumental purposes in the years to come. UNESCO’s role should be not just catalysing the SEL movement but to reframe and redirect the movement for fixing the broken promise of ensuring quality learning for all. UNESCO MGIEP’s Operation Rethink inevitably involves rethinking the predominant model of SEL itself.

1 See UNESCO (2015), Global Citizenship Education: Topics and Learning Objectives; OECD (2015), Skills for Social Progress: The Power of Social and Emotional Skills; World Bank (2017), World Development Report 2018:Learning to Realize Education’s Promise; World Economic Forum (2016), Industry Agenda: New Vision for Education: Fostering Social and Emotional Learning through Technology; and The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI) and the Brookings Working Group on Poverty and Opportunity (2015), Opportunity, Responsibility, and Security: A Consensus Plan for Reducing Poverty and Restoring the American Dream.2 See CASEL (2017), Identifying K-12 Standards for SEL in all 50 States, available at The development of SEL standards in the U.S. followed a 2001 resolution on the school teaching of socioemotional skills passed by the National Conference of State Legislators (an NGO established in 1975 to serve the members and staff of state legislatures of the U.S.).3 The RAND Corporation reviewed recent evidence on U.S.-based SEL interventions for K–12 students under the Every Student Succeeds Act and published in 2017 a report to help federal, state and district education policymakers identify relevant, evidence-based SEL interventions that meet their local needs.4 See Seven Facts on Noncognitive Skills from Education to the Labor Market, available at