How should we define truly equitable instruction? Does it give every student access to rigorous academics that stretch their intellectual capacities? Is it personalized to each student’s unique academic needs? Does it mitigate the effects of the opportunity gap and close achievement gaps? Equitable instruction not only must address these academic needs for students: It must do more.

The missing piece in many approaches to equitable instruction is the integration of social-emotional learning (SEL) into academics. Students should have authentic opportunities to practice SEL skills like conflict resolution, perspective-taking, and collaboration daily in their classrooms while they are learning the academic content through a student teaming process. These are the skills that will help all students thrive in college and their careers. They can equip the most vulnerable learners to lift themselves out of generational poverty and flourish in the new economy.

Google conducted a multiyear research initiative on the key skills of their most effective managers. The highest- ranked skill was being a good coach. Other skills in the top eight included empathizing with team members, being a good communicator, and the ability to create a clear vision and strategy with a team. Some students may be able to develop these highly sought-after SEL skills through sports, other extracurricular activities, or at home with their families. But what about the students who don’t have access to SEL-building opportunities outside of their classrooms?

Not just 'one more thing'

According to a 2019 survey by the Education Week Research Center, the No. 1 challenge teachers face in supporting students’ social-emotional development in the classroom is that focusing on academic content leaves them with little time for SEL. But SEL doesn’t have to nor shouldn’t be an extra burden for teachers. Though SEL is often taught as a separate program, the most effective way to harness its power is to embed SEL into daily classroom instruction along with rigorous academic learning.

In a traditional classroom, embedding SEL is difficult because the teacher is doing most of the talking and explaining, and students are expected to sit quietly in their seats and listen. Confident students usually raise their hands to answer questions, while other students may not feel comfortable speaking in front of the whole class. This leads to fewer opportunities to participate. A typical SEL lesson might look like this: The teacher explains what empathy and care mean and offers some examples. Students individually read a story illustrating empathy and care and write an essay to demonstrate their understanding. At no point in that process did students have a chance to exercise empathy and care with their peers.

Student-led academic teams

What if the lesson looked like this instead? Students work together in small, diverse teams on an open-ended task (in any academic content area) that requires the interdependence of the team members to complete it. Students wrestle with different ideas and push each other towards deeper thinking as they try to come up with a solution without the teacher’s help. The teams have guiding norms, including SEL protocols, so they can deal with their own issues such as arguing, being off task, or not contributing equally.

During this lesson, students experience social bonding and effectively develop empathy and care in their teams because the level of cognitive rigor in the task necessitates that they rely on each other and coach each other through academic struggles. In other words, students are in a classroom environment where every student must develop and practice SEL competencies. And in this scenario, students didn’t just learn how to empathize with peers. They also exercised persistence, critical thinking, and communication—the same skills they will need to thrive outside of the classroom.

Student-led academic teaming opens access and equity to core instruction for every student, including reluctant learners, English learners, and those with disabilities. The team members own each other’s learning and foster an environment of academic safety and care. In an academic teaming school, SEL is integrated across all content levels and in all grade levels. Every student has opportunities to exercise SEL skills in their daily lessons.

Not only do students build SEL skills in their teams, which can lead to more equitable outcomes in their personal lives, but the academic achievement results from schools that have implemented teaming schoolwide also are significant.

A 10,000-student multiyear study in Iowa’s Des Moines Public Schools was conducted by Learning Sciences International’s Applied Research Center using the federal What Works Clearinghouse Design Standards. It focused on schoolwide implementation of academic teaming through a model called Schools for Rigor. The study found that students at schools where academic teaming was implemented experienced statistically significant improvements in reading and mathematics achievement compared to students at matched control schools.

Of particular interest is how academic teaming impacted students who had achievement gaps. African-American students, students with disabilities, and English learners all saw achievement gaps close by 4 percent to 7 percent in one year.

The associate superintendent of Des Moines Public Schools said, “Schools for Rigor fosters inclusiveness—instead of EL or special education students being pulled out into isolation, these students are able to work in their academic teams within mainstream classrooms.”

A comprehensive vision for equitable instruction must focus on both the academic outcomes that schools and communities want for their students and also the SEL skills outcomes integrated into core instruction. Student-led academic teaming puts this vision for equity into action, so all students have the chance to grow into leaders with the skills to effect positive change for themselves and others.

Visit www.academicteaming.com to see videos of students teaming, hear from teachers on the SEL and academic impacts, and access free resources.

Michael D. Toth (mtoth@learningsciences.com) is the author of the book The Power of Student Teams: Achieving Social, Emotional, and Cognitive Learning in Every Classroom Through Academic Teaming, founder and CEO of Learning Sciences International (LSI), and leader of LSI's Applied Research Center.

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