Social and Emotional Learning is Imperative and in Museum Educators’ Wheelhouse

Just months ago (but what feels like an eternity ago), I was in an art museum observing museum educators lead a group of fifth-grade students on a museum visit.  One work of art they viewed highlighted inequities in the world by zooming in on areas where there is an abundance or absence of light across the globe at night.  Students’ emotions were clearly triggered.  Some called out “wow”; “what?”; and “that is so unfair.”  After experiencing several minutes of the media piece, the museum educators then guided a discussion about the work of art using simple questions from Harvard Project Zero’s Artful Thinking Routines: “what do you see?”; “what do you think?”; “what do you wonder”; etc.  These questions are tools museum educators, and not exclusively art museum educators, use regularly in their teaching.

Evaluators know the power of questions.  A good question can unlock so much knowledge.  And that is what happened for me when I was helping my daughter completing a Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) assignment given to her grade by the school counselor.  The counselor posed a few simple questions about how students are thinking and feeling in a Google Form.  This simple question is the one that really resonated: “What is a challenge you are going through right now?”

Google Form question

My daughter and I looked at the question together, and I read it aloud.  To paraphrase, my daughter told me (and her school counselor) how she misses her friends.  She explained that she is an only child, and because my husband and I are working at home, we cannot play with her all the time.  She also explained that, while she has a dog, he isn’t such a good playmate sometimes.  (TRUTH: he recently chewed the foot off a new doll, and she was very upset!)  Of course, her feelings gave me the feels, and are still doing so right now as I write this.  It also gave me data I could work with.  I needed to prioritize setting up more FaceTime calls with her friends (one this weekend that lasted 2 hours!) and other social and emotional activities.

In addition to thinking about my daughter’s needs, this experience made me think about all the inquiry-based museum teaching I have seen.  It seems to me museum educators are well-suited to share their inquiry-based teaching expertise in support of social and emotional learning.  Even pre-pandemic, I was seeing this need.  For example, at the National Art Education Association convention in March of 2019, a school district administrator told me how mental health is becoming a hot topic for schools, and that museums would be wise to discuss their ability to support children in this way.  And now mid-pandemic and beyond, social and emotional learning will be critical.  As Tim Walker wrote on the National Education Association blog: Social-Emotional Learning Should Be Priority During COVID-19 Crisis  I am looking forward to seeing what museums can do for our students, and for all of us, in our social and emotional well-being during this time since this expertise is certainly in their wheelhouse.

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