George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social and Emotional Learning

The Power of Collective Wisdom

Networking increases our chance of success in implementing social-emotional and character development programs.

A photograph of a large group of adults sitting in a circle.
A photograph of a large group of adults sitting in a circle.

In his award-winning book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman draws on extensive research to caution us about our knowledge of the reasons for successful implementation of social-emotional and character development (SECD) programs and related interventions in schools.

When we implement prevention programs in high-risk environments, those same programs with the same implementation standards often fall on both sides of the ledger of success and failure. Why? It is likely due to the myriad of local events that took place in the implementation context: loss of key personnel, change in leadership, tragic local event, funding cuts, too much or too little confidence after the first year of implementation, or population changes in the community. There is quite a large potential list of influences.

We Like to Create Stories That Are Relatively Simple

Kahneman cautions that we often create a narrative that justifies success and explains failure with specific attributions that cannot really be confirmed. “The mind that makes up narratives about the past is a sense-making organism. When an unpredicted event occurs, we immediately adjust our view of the world to accommodate that surprise” (p. 202). He also notes, “Paradoxically, it is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle” (p. 201).

Further, we indulge in “hindsight bias,” where we feel we knew all along that success or failure would result, and why. Our reports of interventions reflect this. But our strength of knowledge and accuracy of prediction are a lot greater looking backward than when we were in the middle of the situation.

How Do We Navigate Toward Success?

We increase our chances of success by tapping collective wisdom. That refers to the wisdom of our own school community, of other implementers of the same program, and of the wider implementation world.

Collective wisdom—referred to by such names as professional learning communities (PLCs), communities of practice, and networked improvement communities—allows each of us to benefit from the experience of many of us. Success is in the ongoing process, in being able to adjust to the inevitable and numerous deviations from the plan that will befall any school-based intervention attempt, even with the best evidence-based program.

The beginning point is the degree of difference between contexts in which a program was validated and your own implementation situation in your school. You never hear the full story of what happened and the likely role of the research team in filling major gaps, funding extra training, providing lunch at every meeting, and doing whatever they could to preserve the integrity of the process so that the evaluation could proceed well. That team is not showing up at your school any time soon, however.

Your Next Steps

If you’re interested in implementing an SECD program in your classroom, grade level, school, district, or state, or even if you are in the midst of doing so, you improve your chances of success by tapping collective wisdom in these ways:

Use professional learning communities. Dedicate ongoing PLC time to SECD in your grade level(s). Also, become part of virtual PLCs via a credentialing program in SECD instruction or leadership.

Design a special SECD study group. Invite interested colleagues to gather routinely to analyze and discuss data and successful SECD plans.

Network with others. Reach out to surrounding schools to see who is implementing similar SECD programs and create avenues for ongoing communication. Join any local or regional implementation support networks; these have been established in some states, such as New Jersey.

Seek out resources. Utilize guidelines for implementing SECD programs, improving school culture and climate, and creating schools of character:

These will serve as valuable resources for your team. Going to an individual source of success is as likely to yield hindsight-tinged accounts of what worked as it is to provide information that you can use as you move forward.

Ongoing access to collective wisdom is the next implementation challenge education must embrace. Now is the time for each of us to reach out and create the networks we need for our students to succeed.

About the Author
  • Maurice J. Elias Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu) @SELinSchools
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