It can be commonly agreed that the purpose of education is to prepare young people for life. When a child today starts her educational path and enters into work-life two decades later, this so-called life can look very different from what it was in the early days of kindergarten. The world changes faster than ever and education struggles to keep up. As psychologist Jerome Bruner stated already in 1996, education should be understood as helping young people to better adapt to the world in which they find themselves, and to aid in the process of changing it (Bruner 1996).
How to adapt to a world which we have no clear impression of?
Nobody knows for sure where we are heading. At the same time, education should provide us with the very best resources. Educational systems worldwide are stressing the importance of 21st century skills to equip young humans for the 21st century challenges – challenges that we are only supposing to exist.
One thing is sure: student wellbeing, entailing social and emotional learning (SEL), is an investment that will pay off.
Even though we don’t know the needs of future work-life, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t change education. We definitely should. However, we should concentrate on the skills that are indisputable; the skills which are the basis for all learning. I argue that no matter what the future holds, one thing is sure: child and student wellbeing, entailing social and emotional learning (SEL), is an investment that will pay off.
High quality means high wellbeing
In my ideal world, high quality equals high wellbeing when talking about education. Social and emotional competencies, along with physical and mental health, are in the core of educational systems. SEL and learner wellbeing is hierarchically above all academic subjects. They are integrated in all learning: in fact, wellbeing is the prerequisite for successful learning and pursuing high quality education.
Feelings of anxiety can inhibit learning.
Educational psychology and neuroscience have brought us many insights about the importance of learner’s physiological state regarding learning. First, learning requires motivation, curiosity and interest (Lonka 2018), whereas feelings of anxiety can inhibit learning (see e.g. Vitasari et al. 2010).
Physical exercise, sleep and even music have been proved to improve learning.
Second, physical exercise, nutrition and even music have been proved to affect learning; the last impacting children’s memory and cognitive skills (see e.g. Huotilainen et al. 2012). Not to forget sleep – a hot topic since Matthew Walker’s bestseller Why we sleep – is crucial for being able to learn and memorize; sleep deprivation does not only weaken learning but also negatively impacts an individual’s emotional stability and somatic health in general (Walker 2017).
Prepared for work-life
Work-life has taken a giant leap since the start of digitalization. Besides creativity and problem solving skills, some popular buzzwords of modern work-life are self-leadership, employee wellbeing, empathy, resilience, social skills, meaningfulness and coaching, to name a few. These are familiar terms and concepts from the Finnish National Core Curriculum, too (cf. OPH 2014). Why are these attributes trending in work-life? Because the fast-paced, continuously changing, information over-flooded and ever more independently organized work calls for means of survival.
The world is changing faster than research can be done or curriculums reformed.
When I went to secondary school in early 2000, nobody prepared me for a work-life that is likely to manufacture stressed adults experiencing burnout on their job (see e.g. Gallup 2020). I’m not accusing neither education for the bad preparation nor work-life for evolving to an unhealthy environment. Twenty years ago, educators couldn’t predict the demands of future work-life and continued to teach skills that were needed at the very moment – or that were expected to be needed in the future. The world is changing faster than research can be done or curriculums reformed.
It’s about equity
Top executives today swear by wellbeing, their own as well as the wellbeing of their employees. Life has become so complex that there is no other choice, least in the era of pandemic. However, I am deeply concerned that wellbeing and social and emotional skills will be managed – in today’s schools and future work-life – only by those who are privileged (cf. Lonka 2018).
If school doesn’t put SEL as a top priority, unprivileged students will fall behind.
If school doesn’t put SEL as a top priority, only those students who have the appropriate social and cultural capital from their home environment (see e.g. Vryonides 2007) will be sleeping enough, doing sports regularly, eating a balanced diet, meditating, playing music etc. On contrast, unprivileged students will fall behind – not only during their school years but also later when they face the shift from school to working life.
Prioritizing social and emotional capacities and student wellbeing is very much about equity in education. To successfully face a fast-changing and unknown future, a student needs to learn to manage her feelings and actions, cope with epistemic emotions (e.g. confusion), set goals, learn to work in diverse teams, communicate in an efficient and respectful way, and in general, take care of herself physically and mentally (see e.g. Lonka 2018).
SEL competencies are needed in the big shift from school to worklife.
SEL competencies are essential in adapting to new learning methods (e.g. PBL, flipped learning) and eventually to the big shift from school to work-life. The content changes but learning never stops, meaning that our minds have to be emotionally and socially wired to continuously create new knowledge. As Bruner argued, learning is an interactive process where people can learn from each other, rather than simply by showing and telling (Bruner 1996).
Future of education
I truly believe that the foundation for future education lies in leading own and others’ social and emotional wellbeing.
To conclude, I will dive back to my ideal world and take you to Singapore, Asia, where the government has been recently concerned about adolescents’ increasing suicide rates (CNA, 2021). The reasons behind the growth have been speculated to academic stress, peer pressure, relationship issues and uncertainty about future.
What if both teacher training and curriculums would put SEL and wellbeing above all academic subjects, considering the former to be a criterion for learning any academic content? Children and adolescents would learn in collaboration with others; enjoying group flow in phenomenon-based learning, and intrinsic motivation in play-based learning (cf. Lonka 2018; Vygotsky 1978).
They would wear Oura rings provided by their school to measure their sleep and wellbeing, knowing that nobody is left behind when facing challenges in their life.
I truly believe that the foundation for future of education lies in leading own and others’ social and emotional wellbeing. If it’s a megatrend in work-life already, why is it not yet one in education?
Bruner, Jerome (1996). The culture of education. Harvard University Press.
Channel News Asia (2021). MOE, MSF ‘very concerned’ about spike in youth suicides; experts say more support and awareness necessary. Written by By Ang Hwee Min, Aug 5th 2019, updated Feb 9th 202.
Lonka, K., Makkonen, J., Berg, M., Talvio, M., Maksniemi, E., Kruskopf, M., Lammassaari, H., Hietajärvi, L., & Westling, S. K. (2018). Phenomenal Learning from Finland. Edita.
Opetushallitus (2014). Perusopetuksen opetussuunnitelman perusteet 2014. Helsinki. Available online, URL: https://www.oph.fi/fi/koulutus-ja-tutkinnot/perusopetuksen-opetussuunnitelman-perusteet
Prima Vitasari, Muhammad Nubli Abdul Wahab, Ahmad Othman, Tutut Herawan, Suriya Kumar Sinnadurai (2010). The Relationship between Study Anxiety and Academic Performance among Engineering Students. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, Volume 8, Pages 490-497. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2010.12.067.
Särkämö, T., & Huotilainen, M. (2012). Musiikkia aivoille läpi elämän. Suomen lääkärilehti, 67(17), 1334-1339. http://www.fimnet.fi/cl/laakarilehti/pdf/2012/SLL172012-1334.pdf
Vryonides, Marios (2007). Social and cultural capital in educational research: issues of operationalisation and measurement. British Educational Research Journal, 33:6, 867-885, DOI: 10.1080/01411920701657009
Vygotsky, L.S. (1978), The mind in society. The development of higher psychological processes. Harvard University Press.
Walker, Matthew (2017). Why we sleep: Unlocking the power of sleep and dreams. Penguin Books.
Wigert, Ben (2020). Employee Burnout: The Biggest Myth. Gallup, March 13th 2020. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/288539/employee-burnout-biggest-myth.aspx