11/13/2012 11:47 am ET Updated Jan 13, 2013

This Revolution Is Not Being Televised

There's an important new consensus developing around how people learn -- and a missed opportunity about how to start applying that knowledge in schools. We'd be wise to pay closer attention to both trends.

The consensus is that man cannot live by intellect alone -- that our physical, social and emotional selves matter equally when it comes to human development and growth. You'll see evidence of this consensus across a wide range of mediums and public voices: from opinion pieces in the New York Times to bestselling books about both the brain and school reform. As David Brooks writes in a recent column, "It's become increasingly clear that social and emotional deficits can trump material or even intellectual progress." And as a veteran educator points out in Paul Tough's new book, How Children Succeed, "This push on tests is missing out on some serious parts of what it means to be a successful human."

Although the amount of attention being paid to these sorts of observations is new, the insights being chronicled are not. Indeed, decades of strong social science research, sparked by Dan Goleman's groundbreaking book Emotional Intelligence, have helped bring a more integrated view of learning into focus.

The good news is that our historically myopic view of schools as knowledge factories is starting to fade away, and public voices like Brooks and Tough are helping to promote a more holistic view of education to a wider audience of Americans. The bad news is that too many public voices are continuing to overlook a body of research and evidence-based practices that schools can rely on right now to transform their learning environments. Across the entirety of his new book, for example, Tough cites copious research studies and school-based programs -- yet not once does he reference the expansive field -- social and emotional learning, or SEL -- that has, for 20 years, been at the forefront of researching how schools can apply the science of learning in ways that will deepen, not diminish, the art of teaching.

SEL's flagship institution is the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning -- or CASEL. And the programs it evaluates have been thoroughly researched, revised, and well-received. The RULER Approach helps schools support the development of five essential life-skills: Recognizing emotions in oneself and others; Understanding the causes and consequences of emotions; Labeling the full range of emotions using a rich vocabulary; Expressing emotions appropriately in different contexts; and Regulating emotions effectively to foster healthy relationships and achieve goals. Responsive Classroom's widely used "Morning Meeting" approach helps children build both academic and social-emotional competencies. And states like Illinois have gone so far as to adopt a statewide set of social and emotional standards that schools can use to guide and frame their work.

Recently, CASEL extended its work even further by partnering with eight school districts around the country in an effort to demonstrate, across a variety of settings, what it looks like when a system of schools is organized to value both what children know and who they are. Yet most of the leading public voices on school reform act as though SEL doesn't exist.

What organizations like CASEL demonstrate is something we would all be wise to remember: that we know more than we think we do about what great learning environments actually look like -- and require. And what contemporary commentators like Brooks and Tough overlook is something we would all be wise to acknowledge: that when it comes to reimagining education, we do not need to start from scratch.

Great schools already recognize the multiple pathways through which young people must grow and develop. Great programs already exist to support schools in this work. And while it's true that we are still waiting for the great policies, that doesn't mean the learning revolution isn't already well underway.