Social-emotional Learning and Higher Education: Developing a Pre-service Course for Teachers in Afghanistan
Research and experience demonstrate that school-based social-emotional learning (SEL) has lifelong, positive effects on students’ academic performance, professional career development and overall well-being, which led to its inclusion in USAID’s 2018 Education Policy and use by a growing number of humanitarian and development organizations as part of their emergency and non-emergency education response.
Despite its acceptance and growing use, scarce research and practical guidance are available for integrating SEL into pre-service teacher training curricula at higher education institutions. However, research and practice suggests that the inclusion of SEL can orient the next generation of teachers to foundational concepts related to their students’ development, mental health, and wellbeing. For example, having an understanding about how trauma affects children’s developing brains enables teachers to play a critical role in countering these effects through simple classroom activities. Further, including SEL as part of higher education teacher training coursework may signal a larger value across higher education systems that the development of non-academic life skills and wellbeing among teacher trainees and educators across all ages are critical aspects of a holistic education.
The USAID-funded Afghan Children Read (ACR) program, implemented by Creative Associates International and the Afghan Ministry of Education teamed up to take on this challenge. The five-year activity seeks to improve equitable access to education and generate measurable early grade reading outcomes for girls and boys. Through this activity, USAID and the Ministry developed five early grade reading pre-service courses for teacher trainees attending teacher training colleges.
One of these five courses focuses on SEL and its integration in early grade reading – aligned with the Ministry’s new early grade reading curriculum and textbooks with embedded SEL pedagogy and content. The pre-service course has four overriding objectives:
- Understand SEL’s core competencies
- Develop and apply strategies that promote learner and teacher well-being
- Identify methods of assessing SEL
- Develop lessons that teach SEL competencies to students
Spread over 16 weeks (two sessions per week), the SEL curriculum includes 32 lecture or practice sessions, as prescribed by the Ministry’s template for all pre-service teacher training courses. Throughout the module, the first weekly session is a lecture, and the second session is interactive and includes different practical activities to respond to lecture content. Embedded in the module design are reviews at the beginning of the week on the previous session and reflections at the end of the week on new content. This provides instructors with feedback as to how their students are processing and interpreting the module. Students are assessed through exams (final and mid-term), portfolio journal entries, participation and quality of class activities, and a final essay. The content is designed to help future teachers learn that developing SEL competencies is best achieved through a whole-school approach that includes support and reinforcement not only through classroom practices but by the entire school, family/caregivers, and community.
Teacher trainees are also provided an opportunity to reflect on their own well-being and explore effective self-care and stress management approaches. The course centralizes engaging teachers’ instructional approaches and areas of skills development for student inclusion and wellbeing. Along with exploring global SEL frameworks, teacher trainees learn about and practice instructional strategies for supporting and assessing safe, inclusive, and connected classrooms. Other topics covered in the course include: SEL Research; Sensitivity to Learner’s Needs in SEL, Teacher Wellbeing, SEL from the Afghanistan Perspective, SEL and the Whole School Approach, and Assessing and Measuring SEL within a Classroom.
Considerations for future design
To date, the module has been piloted with 20 teacher educators of the teacher training colleges and five Ministry of Education personnel from the Teacher Education Department (TED). These pilot sessions provided an opportunity to receive feedback on the content of the module from people who were not involved in creating the module. During the training, participants evaluated content and activities on their relevance to Afghan contexts, teachers, and students. Post-pilot evaluations indicated that all participants strongly agreed (92 percent and 82 percent respectively) or agreed (8 percent or 18 percent respectively) that the learning outcomes of the module were important for their roles and that the training enhanced their professional expertise (Afghan Children Read 2018). Based on feedback following the pilot, the collaborative team of ACR and the MoE/TED made several recommendations for ensuring relevance and feasibility for integrating SEL into pre-service teacher education courses in the future:
Contextual appropriateness: International SEL frameworks have largely been dominated by Northern and Western hemispheric countries. The course should include a discussion about the origins of available frameworks, as well as a session on how to centralize a local perspective about what competencies and life skills are prioritized in its implementation.
Topics for course inclusion: SEL as an approach is rooted in a wide range of interdisciplinary topics relevant to education, psychology, and health. It is important to understand the course within the larger degree program. Will the trainees have other courses with similar content? What concepts may be unique to the course and how might others overlap with other courses? The course should be implemented as part of the larger teacher training sequence and identify opportunities in other courses to reinforce the topics.
Instructional feasibility: Though this course was co-created with the Ministry, ACR faced an ongoing question about how new material may be translated, interpreted, and understood by different instructors. The course should continue to evolve as more feedback is provided In January 2021, all of the course materials will be handed over to the MoE/TED and they will take responsibility for implementing the course. MoE/TED should build in structured mechanisms for feedback to the course’s content, particularly around instructor comfort with delivering material that might be new.
Fit for purpose: We recognize that SEL instruction is effective when ample time for discussion of topics and ample time for practice are provided. In our pilot sessions of this curriculum, we found that teacher trainees wanted more time to practice the content. Given the often stringent requirements of academic course requirements, there was little time in the outlined templates to practice the activities. ACR suggests an accompanying activity workbook with example activities and in future iterations of the course, to leave more time for actual practice of the activities.
Based on the feedback from the teacher educators and the Ministry, the integration of SEL was a critical and practical component of the curriculum. In the context of crisis and post-conflict development, supporting new approaches like this through higher education teacher training holds the promise for self-reliance and durable change.