ProExam Blog

Assessing the Emerging New Vision for Education

Posted by Jonathan E. Martin on Apr 26, 2016 5:23:31 PM
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Photo by Brad Flickinger (CC by 2.0)

“SEL programs almost universally demonstrate a strong return on investment (ROI) over long periods of time.” So states a recent World Economic Forum (WEF) report, entitled “New Vision for Education: Fostering Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) through Technology.”

Although the U.S. has seen the most research about the importance of social and emotional learning (SEL), this is a global urgency. One SEL program, the Healing Classroom Initiative, which has been deployed in more than 20 nations including South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, has “realized considerable progress in both academic achievement and social benefits for students whose schooling had been interrupted by conflict.”

Parents and educators agree in surveys with what researchers have found in their studies. The report notes that “more than 90% of parents and teachers in China emphasize teaching children these skills, for example, and in the U.S., 81% of parents and 78% of teachers emphasize SEL.” 

Among the competencies and character qualities the report identifies as key are “communication, collaboration, curiosity, persistence/grit, adaptability, leadership, and cultural/social awareness.” Strategies suggested for their instruction and development include:

  • Encourage play-based learning
  • Break down learning into smaller, coordinated pieces
  • Create a safe environment for learning
  • Develop a growth mindset
  • Foster nurturing relationships
  • Allow time to focus
  • Foster reflective reasoning and analysis

Excitingly, the report explains, technology can, will, and already is enhancing educators’ work in developing these skills. One example lies in the amazing rich environments digital games provide for students to explore, confront challenges, work with others, fashion effective solutions, persist through a sequence of obstacles, and recover from difficult setbacks. In so-called “sandbox” games—such as Minecraft (recently featured in the New York Times magazine)—the WEF report explains:

“Success hinges on being resourceful and taking the initiative to secure essential elements. Numerous published case studies from primary- and secondary-school classrooms that have integrated Minecraft into the curriculum bolster the company’s claim that the game fosters creativity, collaboration and problem-solving.”

The future is bright, according to the WEF. New “miracle” technologies and digitally empowered techniques will improve our ability to develop SEL via things like:

  • Wearable devices
  • Leading-edge apps
  • Virtual reality
  • Advanced analytics and machine learning
  • Affective computing

However, substantial obstacles exist, limiting our collective ability to more fully advance the social and emotional learning we know to be so important. The report’s obstacles include insufficient awareness, low levels of funding, and poor prioritization, but most challenging of all, it is explained, is the “lack of consensus about valid and reliable SEL measurements,” which is described as “a key concern among stakeholders.”

  • Lack of measurement emerged from our survey as one of the most important impediments to promoting SEL among parents and teachers in the U.S., UK, China and South Korea, with 48%–72% of respondents citing this as one of the main barriers to teaching social and emotional skills.
  • Lack of measurement is a particularly important barrier in South Korea and China, where parents ranked it as the top concern, with 65% in South Korea and 72% in China agreeing that a lack of clear measures for social and emotional skills was a main barrier to SEL.

They note that the most frequently used methods, student self-reports and teacher observational ratings, are relatively easy and inexpensive to administer, but “face challenges in adoption, comparability and scalability,” and “can display subtle biases and be difficult to compare across contexts.” Other approaches to measurement rely on proxies such as absences and disciplinary infractions, but “research on their validity is still in the early stages and complicated statistical adjustments are required to interpret them accurately.”

The report ends with a call to action, issuing directives to each constituency that is engaged in the broader work of strengthening student social and emotional learning. Among the strong theme of these directives is for policy-makers to “include SEL in the policy agenda, starting with measurement and assessments;” researchers to develop and validate assessment and measurement methods for SEL; and investors to fund SEL solutions.

The time is now—not just in the U.S., but globally—to innovate instructional methods, bolster curricular resources, and leverage technology to ensure children are learning and developing all of their competencies and character qualities. And as the World Economic Forum so clearly establishes, new and better measurement and assessment methods are essential to the advancement of this mission.


An independent, not-for-profit organization, ProExam has been helping to set standards in educational assessment and professional credentialing for 75 years. ProExam’s Center for Innovative Assessments, headed by Chief Scientist Richard D. Roberts, PhD, focuses on developing groundbreaking methods to better assess noncognitive skills and Tessera™its suite of noncognitive assessments for K–12 students, is being piloted in schools nationwide.

Jonathan Martin is an educational author and consultant with 15 years of experience as an independent school principal/head of school. He holds degrees from Harvard University, Starr King School for the Ministry and the University of San Francisco School of Education, and was a Visiting Fellow at the Klingenstein Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. He regularly presents at conferences and provides workshops to schools, boards and faculties around the country on 21st century learning and assessment.

Topics: noncognitive skills, education, K-12 Noncognitive Assessments, social and emotional learning, education technology