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The Key to SEL? Metacognition.

Metacognition is not a higher form of thinking - it is a lateral cognitive process. It is stepping outside of the thinking that you are already doing and applying a separate cognitive process to the thinking already being applied. Some people like to say it is thinking about thinking though experts in this field say this phrase simplifies the concept a bit too much. While the idea might sound too far outside the box to some, or perhaps something only an expert in the field can do, it is actually something people do all the time. Any time a person stops what they are doing to consider if it is the best way to do that thing, they've shifted outside of their task to consider the effectiveness of their strategy. It is this awareness of perspective which a person can learn to intentionally shift away from a challenging task or situation to consider the effectiveness of their approach. This awareness can be taught, studied, and extended to develop a more purposeful understanding of how this shift in perspective can be strengthened through processes of self-reflection, analysis and evaluation.

Students at all ages of primary, secondary, and post-secondary schools experience a variety of emotions and engage in a number of different kinds of personal, social, and professional relationships. These are ideas highlighted in what is referred to as Social-Emotional Learning (SEL), a focus in education for many years now with programs designed and implemented to support SEL in students as well as school staff. Many of these programs are based on decades of research from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). This organization developed a framework of five domains (competencies) to separate concepts of emotional intelligence and social relationship-building skills, with an added emphasis on responsible decision-making. SEL Programs use this framework to design lessons and activities which highlight these competencies appropriate for different age groups. Not all programs emphasize each competency exactly the same way and in some cases place a particular focus on some competencies more than others, highlighted in this study from Nov 2018.

SEL Programs give students opportunities to receive direct instruction on these kinds of non-academic skills and concepts such as identifying and managing emotions, and strategies for conflict resolution. The idea is that students who are able to identify their emotions can prepare to manage those emotions in the event they need to be able to stop and reflect on a particular situation. For example, if a student is easily frustrated and often expresses anger in various situations, being able to shift their perspective in the moment, consider the impact that emotion is having on their own self as well as on others, the student can learn to manage such a response to situations. This is essentially a metacognitive process and allows students to extend their capacity to reflect on how they think and feel before, during, and after an event takes place.

Academics do also provide opportunities for metacognitive reflection and evaluation, though these opportunities are often limited by demands for task completion rather than deeper understanding of skill or concept. Too often the completion of a task is seen as evidence of understanding. Rarely is a student assessed in their capacity to reflect on how or why the completion of a task is relevant to their understanding of a skill or concept. Again, metacognition is not a higher form of thinking - it is a lateral form of cognitive processing, yet academics have not required such perspective to be directly instructed and assessed. This is where SEL Programs can be seen as having the potential for unlocking metacognition in schools and connecting this approach with non-academic skills and concepts to academics.

We can start by connecting metacognition to what we already know about education. For many teachers and students, this concept likely already exists in their beliefs and practices to some degree. Schools implementing SEL Programs with fidelity are also likely to be addressing this concept to some degree. However, it is the awareness of how metacognitive practices are being used with intention, instructed with purpose, assessed and given feedback, which can then build awareness of perspective such that academic and non-academic skills and concepts become secondary effects of the learning process.

Think of a skill or concept a student may be expected to perform at an appropriate level of proficiency. This could be as simple as reading aloud a page in a book or as complex as producing a soundbyte statement summarizing a particular theme of that book. This could also be as simple as substituting a variable to simplify a math equation or as complex as presenting the similarities and differences of two different proofs (or logical arguments) for the Pythagorean theorem or perhaps even the Quadratic Equation via polynomial expansion. The point here is that it is not the task itself which measures a person's capacity to learn; rather, it is their ability to explain the process by which they were able to confidently and accurately respond to a given task which measures the capacity to learn.

Training a student to perform a task, with adequate external motivation applied, can (and has) produced proficient performances of required tasks. A student that is then expected to explain their performance presents an understanding of their own performance which allows them to repeat that performance perhaps in a formal assessment setting. However, it is the student who is able to explain the process behind which they were able to perform that specific task who can then reflect on how that performance may be adapted to meet the requirements of a similar skill or concept - this is the beginning of the metacognitive process, and one which is often not required in the instruction and assessment of academic learning. This depth of understanding can be daunting, exhausting, and (for some) seem unnecessary to the purpose of education with regards to the societal needs of an educated populace.

Consider now the kinds of SEL skills and concepts which are being directly instructed in school SEL Programs across the country and around the world. A task might be as simple as identifying an emotion in context of a given situation or as complex as describing how coping strategies can highlight "benefits of conflict" in attaining equity in a community. A task might also be as simple as identifying when two people feel differently about the same situation or as complex as comparing and contrasting the role of empathy in different societal structures from around the globe. The difference here is in how each task requires less a performative act and more a reflective analysis of one's self and how an idea connects the self to a community, locally and/or globally. The processes involved in completing such tasks will not be as simple as exhibiting an act which can then be reproduced in a formal assessment setting. Instead, it is a student's capacity to see themselves and others around them as a third-party observer, reflecting on the emotional states and social interactions in context of various situations and environments. This then allows students who find themselves in such situations to have a heightened metacognitive awareness of their actions as they relate to the experiences they will continue to have throughout their lives.

This is how metacognition becomes the key to SEL, to non-academic skills and concepts, and can become the key to improving our approach to instructing and assessing academic topics.

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