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Social and Emotional Learning in New Zealand: A Burst of Enthusiasm

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is much more than a US phenomenon.  Evidence for this claim can be found in The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) 2015 report “Skills for Social Progress: The Power of Social Emotional Skills” and in the 2016 World Economic Forum report entitled “New Vision for Education: Fostering Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) through Technology.

Fast-rising global interest in the importance and benefits of SEL continues.  ACT researchers are advising a national assessment program in Chile and presenting on SEL measurement this fall in the Netherlands, Istanbul, and Egypt.

In addition, ACT Tessera™—a comprehensive next-generation SEL assessment system—was piloted this fall in New Zealand, the first international implementation of this innovative new assessment system.  At 12 middle and secondary schools in Auckland and Wellington, nearly 4,000 students sat for ACT Tessera, and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.  Students said that ACT Tessera felt very different from a typical test and they were eager for their results to come quickly because they wanted to understand themselves better.

The New Zealand pilot was conducted in a creative partnership with a startup organization based in Auckland, the 21C Skills Lab.  The Lab, which is headed by its co-founders Faye Langdon and Justine Munro, holds as its guiding force the question: “Are the skills we’re teaching young New Zealanders the skills that the 21st century needs?”  In Langdon and Munro’s eyes, the answer is, at present, no.

The urgency behind the 21C Skills Lab lies in the founders’ understanding of the fast-changing world of work.  The students in school today, as they explain, “will come of age during the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a period where automation, globalization and collaboration will make most manual, non-cognitive and impersonal jobs redundant, but people who have high creative and intrapersonal skills will be significantly in-demand. Constant and accelerating change will mean that learning becomes much more important than knowing, with the focus on agile talent—workers who are constantly adapting and re-learning.”


Of particular importance to the work of the 21C Skills Lab is a 2016 report from New Zealand’s neighbor, Australia, entitled THE NEW BASICS: Big data reveals the skills young people need for the New Work Order, published by the Foundation for Young Australians.  This report was informed by a “Big Data” analysis to, as the report states, “understand what employers want from young people: The data was collected from more than 6,000 websites, from which 4.2 million unique job advertisements were retrieved over the past three years.”

The Need for Enterprise Skills

The report found a dramatic uptick in the demand for so-called “enterprise skills,” which the report says includes problem solving, communication skills, teamwork, presentation skills, and critical thinking.  In its analysis, the report explains, that “the jobs of the future, or those jobs that are least likely to be automated, demand enterprise skills 70% more frequently than the jobs of the past.”

There are many other studies coming to similar conclusions.  A recent survey of over 1,000 employers in the United Kingdom, which created much buzz, found that when comparing the relative importance of “life skills” and “academic results,” 94% of respondents said life skills were equally or more important.  For teachers, it was 97%, and for young people themselves, it was 88%.

Source: LIFE LESSONS: Improving essential life skills for young people Carl Cullinane and Rebecca Montacute, October 2017
New Zealand’s 21C Skills Lab, upon its founding earlier this year, set three major agenda items for itself, the first of which was: “Assessing 21C skills: For our education system to focus meaningfully on developing student 21C skills, we must have both a clear idea of what these skills are and how to measure them.”

To do this, co-founders Langdon and Munro conducted a global search for the best leading-edge assessment system available for their skills and selected researcher-scientist Rich Roberts, PhD, and his team of Social Emotional and Academic Learning researchers (yes, the “SEAL Team”) who were just then joining ACT.  Langdon and Munro determined ACT Tessera was the ideal measurement system for them to advance their “priority number 1.”

In developing their 21C skills framework—organized around four quadrants they’ve labeled as “Use, Be, Know, Grow”—the co-founders placed the six skills measured by ACT Tessera in the “Be” section: tenacity, organization, teamwork, resilience, curiosity, leadership.”
Source: 21C Skills Lab


In October, ACT researcher Cristina Anguiano-Carrasco, PhD, and I visited New Zealand for a week of meetings, presentations, and trainings regarding the ACT Tessera system.

It was remarkable to see the wide diversity of schools participating in the pilot: public and private, large and small, co-ed and single sex, urban and suburban, “decile 10” (high income) and “decile 1” (low income).

In all cases, these school leaders and educators recognized the critical importance of developing these skills in their students, and, in nearly all cases, they expressed a need for more support—better assessments, strong systems, richer curriculum—to meet this critical need.

In a day-long educator workshop, the conversation was highly energetic. In the morning, New Zealand teachers, counselors, and school administrators considered carefully how they might best use ACT Tessera reports to counsel students, monitor student progress, and measure success of their SEL initiatives and interventions.

At one table, a group of teachers discussed how to present ACT Tessera reports to their students in a growth-mindset manner, so as to ensure students took this information as motivating for effort and improvement.

At another table, an assistant principal displayed to his colleagues the color-coded dashboard he had created for student performance in each of the six ACT Tessera skills, allowing any teacher or counselor to perceive at a glance which students need most help and where they might focus improvement efforts with their class as a whole.

Moving the Pilot Forward

This New Zealand pilot is just the beginning of a much longer campaign by the 21C Skills Lab to advance the development of these types of skills throughout the country. They are rapidly moving ahead with programs to support empowered and informed teacher leadership in each of their partner schools (Priority 2: Building Educator Capability) and transform career pathways for youth (Priority 3: Transforming careers support for young people).

Similarly, the New Zealand pilot schools are still early in their journey. Among their next steps are embedding SEL instruction into their core curriculum; building out supplemental curricular pieces to further bolster SEL skills; and, for school leaders, implementing a systematic strategy for ongoing SEL educational improvements.

We are excited to see how so many nations are embracing SEL as a critical step to ensure success in school and in the workplace of the future. We believe their enthusiasm is well-placed and their early adoption of such measures will reap great rewards for their students, schools, and communities.

Read more about the OECD report here and about the WEF report here.

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ACT is a mission-driven, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people achieve education and workplace success. Headquartered in Iowa City, Iowa, ACT is trusted as a leader in college and career readiness, providing high-quality assessments grounded in nearly 60 years of research. ACT offers a uniquely integrated set of solutions designed to provide personalized insights that help individuals succeed from elementary school through career.

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