Twelve years is the period of primary education in which a student spends his life learning through the school system. It is a period long enough to affect the formation of one’s identity and the child’s growth. Students who grow up and study in the Thai education system will find that there are many subjects to study each semester. Whether it’s mathematics, science, Thai language, English, etc., the tables are so crowded that there is almost no time to breathe in the hopes students excel in academics. On the other hand, the course on any skills for emotional and social development to help children’s ability to deal effectively with the conditions they face has become less important than it should be. Such skills are no less important than academic skills. The underestimation of soft skills has become one of the problems in the education system and a challenge for children’s skills as they grow up and enter the workforce.
“Schools do not have a curriculum that teaches us to be empathetic. It does not teach us to be brave or even time management. These skills are essential to how we are successful in life, yet they are not part of the curriculum. We have math, physics, Thai, and English. However, we do not teach any subjects that are important to our relationships, which is the social and the emotional component associated with how we feel.”
Oliver P. John, Ph.D., is a professor of Psychology and Research Fellow at the Institute for Personality and Social Research at the University of California, Berkeley. He has been researching the issue continuously for 20 years, inviting us to question the course of study and underlining the importance of social and emotional learning skills that schools in Thailand choose to overlook.
On the agenda of the Equitable Education Fund (EEF) and the World Bank, in collaboration with the Faculty of Economics, Thammasat University organized a workshop on social and emotional skills workshop with professor John as a speaker.
John also added that he initiated a large project focusing on field trips in schools or schools in different countries to help provide practical training for teachers in that area. The project has been created with the cooperation and support of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) since 2013 because they saw that many educational institutions in many areas did not teach enough social and emotional skills.
The OECD was a vital contributor to John’s travels to see schools and start another big project. It initiated in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in collaboration with the Ayrton Senna Institute. One of their fundamental commitments was to bring these issues to schools and provide practical training to teachers and other stakeholders in other countries. In the case of organizing a training program in Thailand, it is one of John’s intentions to push emotional and social skills into something that Thai society should be aware. It is also a matter that educational institutions or schools must take seriously as well.
The Equity lab had the unique opportunity to chat with Oliver John about why we need to focus on SEL (Social and Emotional Skills) and how important this is for human growth.
What was your previous position and role?
My work is about developing emotional and social attributes and skills and how to learn these skills in both children and adults. One of the things known from the beginning is that we need to teach people about these things because the school does not have a curriculum that teaches us how to empathize with others. How can we be more assertive? or How do we manage our own time? and so on.
These skills are essential to how we are successful in life, yet they are not part of the curriculum. We have math, physics, Thai, and English. However, we do not teach any subjects that are important to our relationships, which is the social and the emotional component associated with how we feel. In addition, the children in the school were frustrated, depressed, and anxious because they had to face exams and competitions. These are crucial details for them to understand. It is obvious that there is a gap when we are not teaching them.
What role do emotional and social skills play in 21st-century learning?
The best person to talk about is probably Albert Einstein, the famous Nobel Prize-winning physicist. He stated that intelligence was vital but that there were other factors that were equally as significant, if not more so, than intelligence. That is ‘imagination, creativity, and curiosity’ because this is what makes a huge difference. Without these things, knowledge alone would not be enough. We discovered in our research that smarter students learn better, but intelligence isn’t the only factor to consider when it comes to school learning.
Einstein mentioned three things: imagination, creativity, and curiosity. It can also help predict that children will learn better than being intelligent. Intelligence alone is not enough.
Another thing was I found out in a research paper I wrote in 1994, almost 30 years ago. We discovered that a quality termed ‘Open-mindedness’ predicts grade and academic performance. It is one of the three things Einstein mentioned, the other being the ability to handle one’s own affairs or ‘Self-management’. Is it possible for youngsters to control their own time? Are they able to manage a variety of learning materials? Do you have any documents or reports? These skills are essential to life when we have to enter the working age. We have to come on time and finish the job. These foundational skills can be practiced in schools. It is a skill that will last a lifetime and allows us to develop not only in school or university but also during the working years.
How can SEL skills reduce educational disparities?
One great thing is that we can teach these skills to everyone. In other words, even if the parents of the children, the poor have inferior education and fewer resources for such matters. We can also teach them emotional and social skills. We also actually find that compassion may be easier to teach to underprivileged children because they understand these things well about the hardships of life.
So, if we think about it, most children have parents who have money and power. They still have buffers to help even if they lack emotional and social abilities, but impoverished children gain enormously from these qualities. In terms of what we expect and what we currently have, some research from a Brazilian experiment shows that having strong emotional and social abilities might help children escape poverty. It allows them to have higher education and live a more evolved life.
James Hegeman, the Nobel Prize winner in Economics, continues to conduct excellent research. He looked at a bunch of data from developmental stimulation in early childhood. He found that relatively poor children who obtained developmental stimulation could grow up and live better because they have learned these emotional and social skills in life.
How can the SEL skills assessment results be used to affect personal, family, work, and policy change?
From a policy standpoint, it’s simpler than ever to look at it because we can tell you what skills Thai children aren’t acquiring enough. ‘Assertiveness,’ especially in denial or telling what we want, was one of the most intriguing things I heard during the course. It is tough to convey in Thailand since it is a society that values harmony, people who love harmony, and courteous to one another. As a result, assertiveness might come out as aggressive.
Therefore, we notice that it is more difficult for some people in some nations to develop particular abilities than it is for others since it is a societal issue. For example, at the household level, some families struggle to manage themselves and their time. When parents send their children to school, schools must assist them in teaching more of those skills in order to get everyone up to the level we desire.
We can look at people in groups, but we can look at individual children. Each family can and will try to provide specific assistance as well. Let me give you an example. I will talk about this in a workshop. Girls between the ages of 12-13 years old are less likely to deal with negative emotions and will have more problems with negative emotions than boys. Girls need help, learning strategies, and techniques to control their emotions. Is that something that most schools don’t do? So, girls have to live in silence, non-violent, non-aggressive. We tend to think that the child is OK, but the child is actually suffering in the heart. We, therefore, need to teach those skills.
How do you evaluate SEL skills?
We need to know what kind of help a person needs in order to be able to help them appropriately. For example, we have data on how emotionally and socially healthy fit girls between the ages of 12-13 and 14-15 perform. Then we will be able to tell policymakers and teachers that we need to be careful to prevent girls from becoming depressed. We teach girls not to do serious things like self-injury orcutting their bodies, which is a huge problem.
Another thing we discussed during the training was the issue of ‘bullying’, which is another serious problem that we must teach our children. It’s so that they can better apply their emotional and social skills to deal with it. So, at best, the principle would be to seek answers from the multi-stakeholders, the children themselves, teachers and parents, what problems they have and what strengths they are. We know that our children and grandchildren have many strengths, but we should also be aware of the obstacles. Essentially, we need to get as much information from these three groups as possible in order to compare them and see how they all affect each other. You can then design a really beneficial course.
What successful examples can be shared?
This one is very interesting as I have two daughters, the eldest who just graduated from college. Both of my children go to public schools because I believe in the public education system and believe that education is one of the ways to help us achieve equality. We can make children have a better life than their parents could ever have.
There has been a lot of change in the previous 15 years. My youngest kid participated in the ‘Social-Emotional Learning Toolbox’ social and emotional learning (SEL) program. There are 12 tools that children must learn, and each month, each child in the school receives a new tool. In Thailand, one of the tools employed is ‘breathing.’ You can relieve tension and unhappiness by taking deep breaths and focusing on your breath. It made me realize that some tools are already in use in Thailand, but there are other tools that I know Thai people may find more difficult to apply.
In addition, there will be one very well-known tool that we call ‘trash bin’. “Er… is this becoming fatter?” or something that might hurt our hearts. Instead of allowing those words to hurt our feelings, we could tell ourselves that Auntie was just talking. Then she had good intentions, we took the word and thought it was like a small piece of paper that he handed to us. Then we crumpled it up and threw it in the trash. We do not have to think about it and do not let those words make us feel bad, angry, or sad. Then we said to ourselves, “Okay, I will do something that I want to continue with my own life.”
These tools are very beneficial, and there are many courses like them in the United States. The problem, of course, is finding a good and suitable course. For example, is it appropriate for that age group of children or with schools in Thailand? How can this be applied really effectively? That’s an important question. How do we find the right course? Maybe we need to try 3-4 courses first and see which one makes the most sense.
However, if we are to educate children to utilize these tools, we must first convince them that they will function and that they can use them in real life. I believe we will need to work on it for a little longer before we can advise what might work in this culture and environment. However, based on what I’ve studied about Thailand, I believe you’re on the correct course. That was something I heard in kindergarten and early elementary school. The instructors will have the students sit in a circle and chat with each other about their feelings. They can communicate this. So, I have great hopes for Thailand.
What further has to be done in order for this concept to take root and propagate widely?
The biggest and perhaps most unbelievable thing is getting teachers involved. Because today kids are already playing Tiktok, they can do these things, right? So, the children were already ahead of the others. Adults, in my opinion, are the ones who have the most to learn and from my experience. Many teachers will say “I do not have time. I have a lot to do. I have to teach math. I have to teach physics. I have to teach the language. Please do not make me do anything more.” Therefore, we have to convince teachers first in order to move this matter forward because teachers are the ones who have to teach them in the classroom. I also have a large project in Brazil with many academics and professors. What we learned is if the teacher took it, if the teacher was excited, if the teacher said “I can use this. I can use my breathing exercises. I can be more compassionate. It has made my life better.” So, it would have been a lot easier to include this in the curriculum.
Another story that I frequently tell is the following. My oldest daughter’s class did not have a toolbox class. When she was 13, the school had a special teacher come to teach. The pupils appear to be aware that there would be no examinations or marks in this course. As a result, the youngsters exhibit extremely bad behavior when learning with their teachers. This instructor was supposed to lecture about mindfulness practice, but the children made this instructor very upset. “You guys are the worst students I have ever taught,” the instructor yelled at the child. At that moment, an old boy spoke up. “Teacher, were you yelling at us because of your own mindfulness skills?” Should the teacher know better?”
So, we never start too late. That’s one thing that’s important, and we have to make it a daily school routine. We don’t bring in experts to teach just a few sessions and then leave. When finished, the children will forget everything. It would have to be an effort that the whole school teamed up for this to really happen.
According to what I’ve heard, your classroom is a lot of fun. Only admirers are present. I would like to know whether there are any teaching suggestions or strategies.
First of all, I love teaching. My students are fantastic, and the participants in Thailand are as well. They are intelligent, inquisitive, and curious, and I am delighted to learn something from them. So, I think the best advice I can give is that we have to be active with the things we’re doing because enthusiasm is tangible. We’ll see, wow, this guy really cares about it, and I’m here to teach. I talked to the students who came to the training. I talked to them before I started. I talked to them during the break, and I stayed after teaching. I made it clear to them that I was concerned. It is crucial to me. I do this with love, and it makes a huge impact.
Another issue is that we must maintain our skepticism. I was dubious of the people here, as Einstein put it. What were the opinions of those who attended the training? As a result, we work out together. I gave a lecture for approximately an hour and then asked for your feedback. Then we practice exercises as a group. One of the things we do is exercise on ‘Assertiveness’ because the people who attended the training said that assertiveness is difficult in this country’s culture. As a result, we perform group activities. It was very fantastic how everyone got engaged. I’ve gained a lot of knowledge. So, if a student or someone I educate has the impression that I am concerned. I was so interested in them that I wasn’t here just because I thought my work was cool because I wanted to share it with them. I think this is another key element that can lead to positive outcomes.
What concerns do you believe are different from other areas or different from your previous interests after performing the workshops with the participants in Thailand?
I think Thailand has a unique culture, and I have only recently begun to learn about it. One thing that impressed me is that the people here are very considerate and caring. One of the skills I was teaching was about kindness, respect, and trust. All of these things will help our long-term relationship. It allows us to form stronger ties with others, and it appears to be a talent that Thai people have a lot of. When it comes to independence, self-reliance, assertiveness or creativity, these are things that we need to help promote.
Another thing we practiced is using creativity, which is an excellent approach. It’s something you should experiment with it. We must attempt to use a single thing in as many diverse ways as feasible. What can we do with a blanket? For example, most people mistake this for a blanket, and I use it to keep warm by covering myself with it. However, it turns out that they came up with 27 various ways to use the blanket when we completed this activity. That is to think outside the box and consider all the options.
We attempt to be creative rather than being locked in a particular frame. I see a lot of potential for creativity. It would be fantastic if we get to the point where we could focus on this in school. Some schools, I’ve heard, still utilize memorizing methods. We have to remember things. Well, we need to find a balance, right? As Einstein put it, “knowledge is power.” Creativity, outside-the-box thinking, and experimenting with alternative ways are all vital. As a result, I believe both of them are intriguing and significant enough to expand on.
If applying this concept to Thailand, how do you think there are problems, obstacles and opportunities to make it a reality?
The obstacle is that, while we humans are amazing, we also like resisting change. It’s difficult to change since we’ve always done things a certain way and believe it works. Persuading individuals to change is difficult, especially when someone has been doing the same thing for decades. Another part will be about ‘Convincing people’ gets people excited about it. Instead of saying, “Oh, the government is pushing us to do things we don’t want to do,” Because we didn’t want the audience to say no, we had to employ a more inventive method. We will have less time to teach physics and math as a result. So, imagine our surprise when we’re told that we need to teach these additional abilities. Someone is going to say no. It’s a terrible plan. That’s correct; we have to teach everyone to read, write, and perform math. But we don’t have to pick between the two; we may accomplish both at once. Because change is tough, this is always a challenging topic.
The opportunity is that I believe the young people are brilliant. The people who attended the training were intelligent, passionate, and curious. I haven’t had such a pleasant and fascinating training experience for many years. So, I really believe that Thailand has enormous potential. At the very least, it is clear from my training experience that the people here are highly enthusiastic about it. It was something they wanted to try, like a mental, creative, role-playing, and assertiveness test. Everything appears to be something that everyone is willing to participate in. I believe we ready for some change that will allow new opportunities to emerge.
Which sectors should play a key role in this, and where to start?
I’m not a politician; therefore, I can’t comment on this from a political standpoint. I can’t tell how we should do this. I’m currently helping with the World Bank’s work, but I’m not a World Bank employee. I work as a consultant for the World Bank, and it’s pretty good at sourcing and bringing in expertise. The World Bank was the one who contacted me earlier and asked if I wanted to teach for five days in Thailand. I am the only one that teaches five days a week from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. My wife informed me that you’re insane for going overseas for five days and not knowing anybody. But it turns out that I’m having a great time, so I believe there should be plenty of people willing to assist.
As someone who enjoys helping others, I believe you have a great organization in the Equitable Education Fund (EEF) that is working to improve things. I think it could play a significant role in making this a reality, and I think you also need the Minister of Education to help. If they don’t want to do it, it can’t really happen. We therefore have to rely on it. There should also be some grassroots movement, in my opinion. I believe that the attitudes of 30-35 people are shifting. “Wow, this is something we can actually accomplish,” they exclaim. I can’t recommend anyone, but I know there are a lot of brilliant people who want to assist, and we have some excellent professionals on our team.
What would you wish to work on with Thailand again if the opportunity arises?
I can say that I had a great time. I met a lot of interesting people, and I was really impressed. Individuals working in early childhood education, people dealing with teenagers, people working in the Ministry of Education, teachers, and people working in the Departments of Economics and Psychology were among them. As a result, I’d like to continue speaking with them. So, I’ve talked to some people about stuff that would interest us. So, I believe this is the start of a fruitful cooperation. If someone wants to do more, I’m willing to open up. Even though this is my first visit to Thailand, I am in love with it. I’d be grateful if I could return to assist with something.
Last question, what advice would you provide to those in Thailand who wish to practice and promote SEL skills?
Now is the right time to start. People are talking about ’21st Century Skills,’ which are particular skills that we should have in order to live in this globalized age. Because of the need for skepticism, inventiveness, and empathy, people from all over the world will be able to work together across boundaries, languages, and countries. These are critical skills in this period since we must collaborate with others to be successful. I think now is the perfect time to start here since I’ve talked to others both during and after the training. I saw that many people were ready. There is no better time than now.
Note: Interview with Professor Oliver John, a Social-Emotional Skills Assessment Specialist at the University of California, Berkeley, as a guest speaker at a workshop on Social and Emotional Skills from 28 March to 1 April 2022 held by the Equitable Education Fund (EEF) in collaboration with the World Bank and the Faculty of Economics at Thammasat University.