We Need More Than Empathy: A Call for Social-Emotional Learning in Museums

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) is arguably one of the hottest topics in formal education in the last couple of years. Education policy is shifting rapidly. Yet the term is almost non-existent in the museum field.

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 Why all the buzz about SEL in formal education? Although we can’t say for certain, it may be the recent increase in political divisions, the way that technology sequesters us, or the surge in bullying and discrimination. There is a lot of palpable anger out there. And although the movement towards SEL began more than two decades ago, we are now more urgently grasping for ways to address this maelstrom of confusing feelings.

The museum field is concerned with the same societal issues, but very few of us are using SEL’s more holistic approach. We seem to have rallied around our mental health crisis in a sort of piecemeal fashion. We talk of “well-being” and “self-care.” We clamor for ways to accept each other through diversity and inclusivity efforts. And perhaps most often, we talk explicitly about the need for “empathy.”

Empathy is everywhere in our field. In its 2017 Trendswatch Report, the Center for the Future of Museums named “empathy” as one of five major future trends. At every conference I attend, sessions on empathy are packed with standing room only crowds.

My Deep Dive with Empathy

In the last year, I’ve been to several major “convenings” that have focused solely on discussing the best ways to foster empathy and compassion in museum visitors – including one epic journey to India with Elif Gokcigdem and others to meet with the Dalai Lama. See my blog post here. His Holiness spoke eloquently of the need to teach secular ethics and of learning to manage one’s emotions. I learned later that the Dalai Lama’s team worked with Emory University to create their own version SEL called SEE - Social Emotional and Ethical Learning (See framework below). I love the emphasis on ethics and on recognizing our common humanity. SEE, from what I can tell, has a much more globally oriented world-view.

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I’ve also had really interesting discussions with Gretchen Jennings and others in the Empathetic Museum group. This group’s focus is distinctive from other empathy initiatives I’ve seen in that it does not concentrate on fostering empathy in visitors, but rather improving the museum’s organizational culture so that it is more inclusive of different perspectives.

The photo above was taken at an lively and inspiring two-day “Empathy Lab” mini-conference I attended earlier this year (Me - second row).  It was hosted by the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s Center for Empathy and Visual Arts. Our efforts focused on finding ways to foster empathy through Mia’s collections and programs. What a great group of empathy enthusiasts!

The photo above was taken at an lively and inspiring two-day “Empathy Lab” mini-conference I attended earlier this year (Me - second row).
It was hosted by the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s Center for Empathy and Visual Arts. Our efforts focused on finding ways to foster empathy through Mia’s collections and programs. What a great group of empathy enthusiasts!

In short, I’ve been in deep with the empathy crowd. One of my biggest take-aways from all of these discussions is that, yes, many of us in the museum field have the desire to address the very real empathy deficit in society (a 40% decline since 2000!). But we seem to be fumbling towards best practices for how to do that. What kind of empathy are we trying to foster? Some kinds of empathy frame stories in a way that can leave visitors with more of a “selective empathy” - reserved for people just like them. What if we ignite empathy in visitors that opens up strong emotions - strong emotions that museum staff are not prepared to deal with? Do we need to change organizational culture first?

There is no shortage of ideas, but we have little agreement about what we are really trying to do with empathy and how we should best do it. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s necessary for us all to agree. Experimentation is vital. But wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel completely?

That’s why I was elated to find out that there is already a very well-thought-out set of frameworks (SEL and SEE) being used in school systems across the country. And they are much more comprehensive than aiming to foster empathy alone.

The SEL framework, devised by CASEL has 5 “competencies” for students. It is the most widely used. The newly unveiled SEE framework (Social Emotional and Ethical Learning) created by the Dalai Lama and Emory University is newer and less pervasive, but very seems (to me) a bit more adaptable to use with adults.

SEL Competencies Framework by CASEL

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SEE Competencies Framework from The Dalai Lama

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SEL is More Than Empathy

In looking at these competencies, try to envision what these skills would look like in practice. Isn’t this really everything we want for people in a good functional society? I’m not just talking about children learning to stand nicely in line at the water fountain. I’m talking about adults whose decisions affect all of our lives.

To underscore the dire need for an emotionally healthy and ethically aware human race just peruse the news. Almost every conflict or disturbing trend involves a deficit of these skills:

  • Mass shootings

  • Inhumane treatment of undocumented immigrants

  • Climate change denials

  • Public internet shaming

  • Fake news and dishonest public figures

  • Pervasive racism, classism, sexism, ableism, and all the isms

Illustration: Golden Cosmos

Illustration: Golden Cosmos

Research tells us that human beings make decisions in their lives based mostly on emotion. Then they use rational thought to justify their emotional response. Thus far museums and schools have focused mostly on building skills in only rational thought. Do we think we are going to help people reason their way out of racism? We’re missing half of the equation. SEL and SEE employ the use of critical thinking in a new way - to examine the roots of our emotions, values, ethics, and relationships. All of these together can give empathy a nice, well-supported environment to live in.

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Is empathy important? Absolutely! Not only is it important, it is perhaps at the root of all of social and emotional skills. But it’s not all we need. We need to be able to understand and identify emotions –in ourselves and others. We need to figure out our purpose and our values. We need to delve into our own beliefs and design our own moral compass. These are all things we may feel innately as we grow up, but we have to learn to make choices about them and to use them purposefully. Where are you supposed to learn this? At home? Ok maybe, if you’re lucky enough to have an emotionally healthy family. How about church? Well, that may not be an option since half of Americans don’t go to church anymore. And besides we need a new kind of character education, one that’s less prescriptive.

Are museums willing to fill in some of those gaps? One thing is for certain, the purpose of museums is changing. We can all feel that. What I’m proposing here, is one possible path for reinvention – a path that museums seem well-suited for. [FYI: For an excellent deep-dive into the paradigm shift museums find themselves in, PLEASE listen to this episode of the MuseoPunks podcast]

SEL Is Not Just for Children

In the early days, school systems put all their SEL eggs in one or two baskets – pre-school and kindergarten. As a parent of a two-year-old I can verify the prevalence of these lessons from teachers and parents alike. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard parents teach lessons to toddlers on the playground about kindness or taking turns – lessons that our politicians and business leaders have forgotten. And it seems logical that they’ve forgotten. Do we really expect kids to get a one-stop-shop character education when they’re three years-old and then be set for life?

Teaching and learning about sharing has traditionally been reserved for pre-school and kindergarten. Photo: Ellen. Buikema

Teaching and learning about sharing has traditionally been reserved for pre-school and kindergarten. Photo: Ellen. Buikema

Adults have trouble sharing too. For decades, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida have been in a heated legal battle due to their inability to equitably share water from two river basins that sustain economic growth for their states.

Adults have trouble sharing too. For decades, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida have been in a heated legal battle due to their inability to equitably share water from two river basins that sustain economic growth for their states.

That’s why school systems have taken massive steps towards prioritizing SEL in ALL grades. In 2009, only one state (Illinois) had state SEL standards post pre-k. Now, at last count, there are 14 states with SEL learning goals or standards. And city school districts are joining the movement in droves. Chicago, Austin, Atlanta, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Oakland, and countless others. To find out about the momentum of the movement where you live, check out state and district pages on the CASEL website (Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning). Changing educational policy to include SEL is one of this organization’s biggest initiatives. Personally, I have never been a fan of state standards. They make any subject too, well, standard. And their existence invites testing. But this is a good movement to keep tabs on because it can tell you how to position your museum to be a support for teachers.  

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Teachers will Need the Support of Museums to Meet New SEL Standards

All of this policy change is happening very quickly. And teachers will probably be caught in the cross-hairs, as they always are. Many will be responsible for helping students learn SEL skills without adequate training to do so. Museums can play a vital role by supporting teachers with professional development and innovative SEL programming. Of course, that means museum staff will need to learn a bit about another discipline - psychology. But if we are already obsessed with empathy, this is definitely within our reach. And trust me, museum staff (as busy as we are) have lots more time to delve into psychology than teachers do.

SEL is Backed by Tons of Research

Another advantage of adapting SEL frameworks for museums is that effects of SEL on student success, mental health, and wellness is well documented. For the two decades, researchers have been connecting the dots between SEL and academic/personal success. CASEL has a wealth of this research on their website so that schools can arm themselves with data for our evidence-obsessed era. And so that districts and states can justify policy changes. Granted, this is not research done in museums, but it’s still relevant enough to be cited in a museum grant.

Not Just for the Museum’s Education Department

Just because the SEL movement originated in schools doesn’t mean the torch should be passed to museum education departments alone. To be good at SEL, we have to work at making our organizations more emotionally healthy overall. We have to learn how to identify toxic workplace dynamics, be mindful of our emotions, and identify our values in ethical decision making. In fact, this is one of the things I like best about the SEL movement in schools. There is a real emphasis on creating an SEL-literate workplace for staff. The school has to exude a healthy feeling if the SEL lessons are going to seem authentic.

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Translated to museums this would mean SEL literate workplaces, exhibits, social media, adult programming, field trips, visitor services, community partnerships, and mission statements. The transformation would affect every department.  I don’t know about you, but this sounds like my dream workplace.

But what does an SEL museum really look like?

Because I understand the power of real case studies, I’ve started the process of gathering examples from museums across the country. Some are doing this work on purpose, some are doing it NOT on purpose. Please send all examples my way and I promise to write about them.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with the idea of “sub specie aeternitatis” – a beautiful phrase from the Enlightenment Era. Translated from Latin, it means “in the light of eternity.” When it is all over, what is it all for? What can we do to create some good in the world?

Andrea Jones is an independent consultant and experience designer working with museums to reinvent storytelling and interpretive methods in the service of greater relevancy for audiences.
She is located Washington DC.
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SEL Resources

The Wallace Foundation: Funder of SEL initiatives

CASEL: Works directly with schools to implement SEL their framework + works on policy issues. Lots of research supporting SEL on their website.

SEE curriculum: Social Emotional and Ethical Learning curriculum developed by Emory University and the Dalai Lama (more focus on ethics, mindfulness, and global “oneness”)

Committee for Children: A leader in advocacy for SEL and other related legislation. They sell their “Second Step” SEL curriculum to schools. They host a SEL podcast, blog, and post white papers.


Your reward for reading to the end. An unbearably cute pair of unlikely animal friends.

Your reward for reading to the end. An unbearably cute pair of unlikely animal friends.