Building Support for a New Approach to Education

Work with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Pennsylvania State University, and the Aspen Institute

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The Challenge

For decades, education has been thought of as a purely academic exercise—that if we give students new information and repeat it enough times, they’ll learn and be set up for success in the future. But in recent years, research has shown that learning happens best when students are engaged socially and emotionally too, not just cognitively. Supporting students’ self-awareness, engagement with their peers and instructors, and ability to set and work towards goals means they will learn better, and be healthier and more successful in the long run. By getting this growing evidence base in front of a wider audience, particularly those who can put it into practice, we can help the country build a new approach to education and raise a generation of kids who are better prepared for life and the workforce.

Our Approach

Working with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and a research team at Pennsylvania State University, we have widely disseminated the research on the power of social emotional learning. We assisted in the release of a 20-year retrospective study which found that kindergarten students with greater social competency go on to be more likely to graduate from high school and ultimately attain a college degree. This landmark study was followed by a series of 10 research briefs that highlighted the strength of the evidence on social emotional learning and how it supports healthy overall development. We armed partners and advocates with the research and graphics, placed stories in key trade publications, and supported convenings that brought together key players in the field, all with the goal of  building a steady drumbeat of proof points in support of social emotional learning.

Our work has been about translating that evidence into action too. We worked with the Aspen Institute as it launched the first-ever National Commission for Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. Backed by major health and education funders like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and chaired by Tim Shriver, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Jorge Benitez, the Commission was launched to fundamentally rethink what constitutes success in school. We helped the Commission develop a concise, compelling narrative about the benefits of social emotional learning and their vision for the nation.

Through both of these efforts, we used visual storytelling tools at key moments. For the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we developed a series of animated gifs—widely shared on Twitter and Facebook—to simplify and share key messages about the value of social emotional development. We also used a mix of interview and animation to create videos for the Aspen Commission co-chairs to help them tell their story as they launched.

Results and Impact

Our efforts have had an impact across the board. Our media outreach earned or contributed to coverage in Politico, Education Week, the Washington Post, NPR, and The Atlantic, among others. The series of research briefs have been downloaded more than 40,000 times from rwjf.org. Social outreach has led to engagement with other leaders in the field, ranging from the National Association of State Boards of Education to Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, a national expert on childhood development and trauma. Collectively, the work we’ve led with these partners has expanded the audience for social emotional learning, moving us closer to our partners’ vision of a more holistic approach to education.