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SEAL at St. Paul's School, bringing together thinking and feeling

SEAL at St. Paul's School, bringing together thinking and feeling

What the best SEAL (Social, Emotional and Academic Learning) achieves is to give students the tools and the knowledge to learn not just knowledge, but to love their learning 

Zeba Clarke, Deputy Head at St. Paul’s School 

For me, this year marks a big anniversary: it is thirty years since I finished my teacher training, started my first teaching job and began the strenuous, joyous work of making children think.  

There have been many changes in education and in schools since I crossed the threshold of a classroom door and began working with my first students. One of the richest and most rewarding has been the explosion of research into how our students learn and how we can help them learn more, learn better.  

What I knew instinctively thirty years ago is now supported by an incredible research base. It is no big secret, no stunning revelation. Essentially, what has happened is that we have the evidence base to support a really simple concept.  

Happy children make good learners. 

The next key building block is also pretty obvious when you are in the classroom: 

Being a good learner can make children happy. 

And finally, in the classroom, we also know: 

Children experience significant levels of interference in their learning. 

We have all worked in that classroom where Johnny is thinking more about football scores than spotting metaphors, where Clarice is wondering what Jenny said about her to Kate, where Arthur is wondering about whether his mother will have been well enough to shop and cook for him and his little sister. Most children, most of the time, experience interference.  

This is really the basis for us as teachers to create sustainable systems in our schools to ensure that we help children manage the interference levels in their learning so that they can experience the satisfaction, the pleasure, the joy of learning.  

If we want to create lifelong learners, our job in school is not simply to ensure that children can write coherent and meaningful essays on the theme of power and authority in Macbeth, or a lucid newspaper article, report or letter. It is to send out my students into the world with a love of learning, a delight and curiosity in the world around them and the ability to think critically about the world.  

In practice, this means bringing together three key types of learning that take place in schools: social, emotional and academic. 

By bringing together I mean that from our earliest years to the students who are about to head to university or into the workplace, our pupils need to be engaged in organic, holistic learning that helps them develop agency, focus, and direction in their learning.  

There is a great deal of talk surrounding the idea of 21st century skills – we can boil them down to the Four Big Cs:  

  • Creativity 

  • critical thinking 

  • collaboration,  

  • communication 

We expect children to emerge from education with these skills embedded and innate so that they can enter the workplace and contribute immediately, effectively and powerfully.  

But most educational systems are not designed to integrate these skills into the academic expectations we also set for our children.  

We are making progress though. We are building up the toolkits we need as teachers to help our children, we are developing our strategies, and we are working towards that sweet spot where the students in our classes are working harder than the teacher.  


So what are the tools our children need to flourish and thrive? 

  • Metacognition – understanding how to learn, not just what to learn 

  • Oracy – the capacity to engage in rich, meaningful discussion 
  • Philosophical enquiry – big questions, serious debate 
  • Self-regulation – understanding the interplay between thought and feeling, and being able to monitor, log and regulate that interplay 

These are not new ideas or concepts in education, but I think the big difference that we are seeing is that alongside the techniques for teaching and learning such as modelling, scaffolding, questioning, retrieval practice, educators are exploring how to sustain our students and build in them the ability to drive their own learning. Perhaps even more important is that these are not stand-alone ideas or concepts. As educators, we need to interweave these into our day-to-day practice and into the fabric of school life.  

The next challenge is for schools to identify, deploy and share the best ways of integrating our increasing understanding of the neurological processes of learning with our deepening awareness of the psychological impact of learning on our wellbeing.  

We can’t legislate for happiness. Happiness is not something we can teach as a standalone concept or experience. But what we can do, and what the best SEAL achieves is to give students the tools and the knowledge to handle interference and learn not just knowledge, but to love their learning.  


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