What is Social, Emotional and Ethical Learning?
Social, Emotional and Ethical (SEE) Learning is a program to nurture emotionally healthy and ethically responsible individuals, social groups and wider communities. While primarily created for use in schools and higher educational institutions, the program is also suitable for use in other contexts.
This training program, developed by the Center for Contemplative Science and Compassion-Based Ethics at Emory University, has a comprehensive focus on ethics. Ethics, here, are not based on any particular culture or religion, but rather grounded in universal, basic human values such as compassion, tolerance and forgiveness. SEE Learning practices can contribute to individuals possessing a greater ability to care skilfully for themselves and others, which is crucial for both physical and emotional health. There is also a focus on increasing awareness of interdependence and the development of critical thinking skills, helping to prepare people to be global citizens in an increasingly complex world.
The program is based on “universal values” and so can be used across countries and cultures internationally. Based on common sense, common experience and science, it is possible either to use the categories and practices as presented, or to adapt them, drawing inspiration from the religious and cultural values of different people. The aim of this inclusive, comprehensive program is to teach social, emotional and ethical competencies to people of all ages. In this regard, it is no different to how people are taught mathematics, science, foreign languages or any other academic subject. Education can, and indeed should, be expanded to foster values and competencies that lead to greater happiness and harmony for both individuals and society at large.
Three Dimensions, Three Domains
SEE Learning has three dimensions that encompass the types of competencies it seeks to foster:
Furthermore, these three dimensions extend to three different domains:
The Three Dimensions
Awareness – developing an understanding of our thoughts, feelings and emotions. Awareness helps us to perceive our own inner life, the presence and needs of others, and interdependence as a feature of our lives and the world in which we exist. Cultivating this requires practice and the refinement of attention.
Compassion – training in a way of relating to ourselves, others and humanity as a whole, with kindness, empathy and a concern for their happiness and suffering. Competency in this requires critical thinking, an understanding of one’s own needs and wants, and the ability to discern what will bring about one’s own long-term well-being. The scope is then extended to encompass the needs of others, and ultimately to recognize the common needs of humanity as a whole.
Engagement – putting into practice methods gained from training in awareness and compassion. This includes learning about the types of behaviors and attitudes that are conducive to personal, social and communal well-being. This requires self-regulation, social skills, and engaged action as a global citizen.
Developing these three dimensions as basic values isn’t merely about acquiring knowledge, but about realizing their relevancy on a personal level and then deeply internalizing them. This has several steps:
- Initially, we learn by listening, reading and experiencing, becoming exposed to basic information and developing an understanding of each value.
- Using critical thinking, we then investigate the values using different lines of approach and apply them to our own situations, which leads to “critical insight.” This refers to the “a-ha” moments where we gain personal insight, connecting the first level of knowledge to our own lives.
- Repeated familiarization transforms the values into character strengths and personality traits. This comes about through sustained practice, discussion and debate until the values becomes spontaneous.
The Three Domains
Personal – to attend to the needs of others and the wider community, we must first learn to attend to our own needs and inner life. This is brought about by developing emotional literacy, where we’re able to identify emotions and understand their effects, allowing us to refrain from impulsive behavior that can harm ourselves and others.
Social – as human beings, we are social by nature, and it is of great importance that we relate well with others. We can cultivate social traits through learning, reflection and engaged practice.
Global – in an increasingly complex world, compassion alone is not enough. We also require a deeper understanding of the interdependent global systems in which we live. Knowing how to view situations from multiple perspectives makes problem solving a more holistic process, avoiding the tendency to fragment issues into small, disconnected pieces.
Learning threads are ways of exploring, assessing and internalizing the above three values. They allow our knowledge and understanding of them to build and deepen over time on a firm foundation. There are four:
- Critical thinking – exploring topics and experiences through logical reasoning, multiple perspectives, dialogue and debate to reach a deeper understanding.
- Reflective practices – directing attention toward personal experiences in a structured way to internalize the skills.
- Scientific perspectives – understanding the scientific viewpoint of our emotions and the world, to provide an approach that is impartial with regard to culture or religion.
- Engaged learning – getting involved with participatory learning strategies, such as creative expression (arts, music, writing) or ecological learning (engaged directly with the natural world), that allow subsequent reflection.
All four learning threads are grounded in the principle of compassion, which lies at the center of the three dimensions. Often, compassion is mistaken for weakness – letting others get what they want at our expense, or even allowing bullying or other negative behaviors. SEE Learning understands compassion to be courageous compassion, a stance of concern and consideration toward others that both stems from, and results in, great inner strength.
Through engaging in SEE Learning, we gain greater first-person awareness of our own thoughts and feelings, as well as of others and their mental life. We cultivate skills of emotional hygiene and self-care, with courageous compassion for others and a recognition of the common humanity that values all people, everywhere. Ultimately, through being able to distinguish beneficial behavior from destructive behavior, we can relate productively and caringly with others, helping to engage on a global level for broad social benefit. Thus, SEE Learning is a comprehensive program that orients us toward values and skills that enable us to develop a healthy sense of self-esteem, relate well with those around us, and become responsible global citizens.
If you would like to go deeper, read the full version of the SEE Learning Framework and learn about the other programs of the Center for Contemplative Science and Compassion-Based Ethics.