In this episode, Melissa Ragan, Chief Learning Officer at Navigate 360 talks to Annu Singh about using technology to enable social-emotional learning.
Annu: Hi everyone. This is Tech in EdTech. In this podcast, we discuss technology that powers education and improves learning for all. Welcome to today's episode where we are going to be talking about using technology to enable social-emotional learning. I'm your host, Annu Singh, chief product officer at Magic Ed Tech. Our esteemed guest today is Melissa Ragan, Chief Learning Officer at Navigate 360. Melissa, thanks for joining today. Welcome.
Melissa Ragan: Thank you so much for having me Annu.
Annu: So how you been over the last year or so?
Melissa Ragan: Well I think it's been pretty good considering there's been a global pandemic. How about you?
Annu: So Same here up been pretty good. A lot of new learning. A lot of different broader perspectives. So looking forward to what else right? But how did get into the EdTech and after spending a few initial years in teaching, tell us a bit more about your previous roles and your contributions to building some great curriculum and Ed-tech products.
Melissa Ragan: Yeah, thanks for asking. So as you mentioned I initially started in education teaching high school English and from there I started working in professional development helping teachers develop skills to work with their students. Then I sort of went and developed SEL curriculum for high school students for an EdTech company before moving into professional development for a large educational publishing company. Um, after developing some professional learning opportunities I moved into curriculum, did some parent engagement programs before moving into SEL, and recently just finished a book: the SEL classroom which I'm excited about and now I'm at Navigate 360
Annu: Wow, It's a pretty well-rounded, deep experience. You've been a teacher you've done SEL curriculums, you, But you're an author now and you're working for a EdTech company to write. So really, really excited So help us.
Melissa Ragan: Thank you.
Annu: Know more about navigate 360 and the problems it is trying to solve.
Melissa Ragan: One of the things I really like about navigate 360 is they provide this holistic approach to safety and mental health issues all of our schools are facing today. So it's not just about the SEL curriculum or the student safety. We prevent, we protect and we prepare students and schools for anything that they could possibly be encountering.
Annu: And extremely important I've got 2 kids one is in k-12 right. And absolutely see the need over there then so from your perspective what makes these problems crucial in current times and ahead.
Melissa Ragan: Well, you have children so you I'm sure have noticed that there has been a change in student mental health in the past even before the pandemic. But since the pandemic we've really seen a huge change and this change have been so significant that even the US Surgeon General has issued a mental health crisis advisory. Some of the statistics are really staggering, up to 1 in 5 children ages 3 to 17 have a mental-emotional developmental or behavioral disorder. It's just staggering when you look at that alone. But then you think that 40% of students, that's about 1 in 3, have had suicidal thoughts. 19% have seriously considered attempting suicide and that's a 36% increase. So definitely we're seeing serious mental health issues in our schools.
Annu: While these numbers are pretty insightful and while I'm glad you know there's a certain amount of self-awareness by the teens but There's definite ask that we as industry we need to kind of meet and glad that you and champions like you are making that happen. What is your approach towards building a strong learning curriculum?
Melissa Ragan: Well lucky for us. There's a lot of information about what best practices are There's been a lot of research. We have the castle competencies to guide us. But in addition to those principles, we also know that kids today are really savvy and they see through content that is superficial and it's not relevant to them. So it has to be flexible, has to be easily implemented by teacher as well and it really just has to be relevant in high-interest. Kids don't want to sit through social-emotional learning topics, no matter how it's presented to them if it's not on something that's important to them.
Annu: That is so well said kids are definitely savvy, definitely have some strong opinions, the students. Yes, so was the approach triggered by some of the lessons in the last two years or so during the pandemic?
Melissa Ragan: Well, what we saw, I think if you looked at before the pandemic there was sort of this misconception that you can't teach social-emotional learning digitally. People thought oh it's you know it's not social if you have to do it digitally. So what I really appreciated during the pandemic was this shift to online and hybrid learning really helped people see that. Yeah you can do it and you can actually do it well and we can use technology to make it high-interest and motivational for today's students while also being kind of off-the-shelf and easy to use for educators. Who quite frankly are still juggling a lot.
Annu: I Think the last part also the educators are still juggling a lot is absolutely see it with my neighbors and teachers I talk to right and absolutely important for us to go and meet that need too. What have been the lessons learned from the pandemic for you.
Melissa Ragan: That's a really good question. There were I think a lot of lessons that we learned from it. But one thing is I think I mean I I hate to think with as a benefit but one of the things we saw is the collective focus on equity. We really realize that there are some students in this country who don't have some things that other students have and that can be access to hardware. It can be tech support. It can be internet access.
Just as an example I live in a rural area in Maine and internet access was certainly something we struggled with in our own home. And I really love some of the creative ideas I saw districts coming up with to solve some of the issues but it shouldn't have taken a pandemic for this to happen. We should have always been thinking about these things and how to make learning equal for all students.
Annu: No agreed, absolutely. How has approach to instruction transformed during the pandemic?
Melissa Ragan: Well I think two things is that we certainly see people who are much more cognizant and aware of mental health issues. You know when I went to school to be a teacher I didn't learn about social-emotional learning. I didn't know how to address these issues with my students. I certainly did things like most teachers do like check-in with your students. Ask how they're doing try to check In. You know you notice when something is troubling them. You can read their body language but I didn't really know what to do about some of that stuff.
But now we know and we also know that before we can even think about prioritizing the core subject matter areas. We have to make sure that the kids are ready to learn right? The whole maslow before Bloom theory most teachers understand that they need to teach SEL but most teachers don't really know how to do that. So those are some of the skills we need to build up.
Annu: Correct I think that's something even for my own kids when I kind of look at even as a parent. How do I can engage with them? How do I support that from the home front right? But definitely how to be enabled teachers educators and schools and students. A big focus.
Melissa Ragan: Yeah, you want to build on what the schools are doing.
Annu: Yeah, so what is the need of the hour to safe our teachers parents and students from the social and mental stress?
Melissa Ragan: So that is another really good question and I think it's twofold. Number one is you know I still have lots of teacher friends and they say to me you know one more person tells me to practice self-care I'm going to lose it and I get that we're telling people not to get stressed out and that's making them feel more stress. So we have to help not just tell teachers to self-care but also give them the tools and abilities they need to do the things they need to actually practice self-care and actually help their students with their own mental health.
Annu: Yes, agreed on selfcare but also enabling helping the students out to right. Now, there's been a lot of buzz on SEL. What are the core competencies of SEL and what is that which is missing from SEL practices?
Melissa Ragan: So Cassil the collaborative for academic and social-emotional learning is sort of considered the guiding light for social-emotional learning and they've established these five competencies for SEL: there is self-awareness, social awareness, decision making, self management, and relationship skills. And I think when you think about all the things people need to be successful in life, pretty much anything you can think of fits into one of those buckets right? like communication skills, um you know decision making, um, being able to control your emotions, manage stress, all those things fit into these buckets.
But, what's missing in my opinion is a framework around teachers' knowledge and skills SEL needs to be a part of pre-service training for teachers. But the last time I checked I think only one college has that requirement and we also need more research about what works for middle and high school students. There's a lot of research on preschool and elementary school students and social-emotional learning. But when you start to look at the upper-grade levels, there's there are some gaps.
Annu: Well, that's interesting I did not realize that before now that there is a gap on the upper-grade levels and that's where I see a lot of, like my daughter is in middle school right? So, then I talk to her and her friends and she getting ready for high school I can definitely see the need over there. See, one more thing is when I kind of think about you said the five competencies for SEL right, and even when you think about equity eventually that kind of goes to the sense of belonging right? And how do we enable? That's an area we need to invest in as an industry. Agreed?
Melissa Ragan: Definitely and your daughter probably did a lot of social-emotional learning and the younger grade levels right? They teach them sharing and they teach them making friends and resolving conflicts and those needs don't go away just because you're going to middle school or in high school kids still need help with those skills, adults need help with them.
Annu: Yes, yes, so what do you think sits at the heart of building a strong SEL curriculum and the rule of technology is enabler to do the same?
Melissa Ragan: Well one of the things that really excites me about Navigate 360 and also building SEL curriculum general is the ability to really integrate technology. You can do so many really authentic learning experiences using technology. It also helps connect people. And allows us to deliver instruction in a way that's appealing to students. It's relevant and it also allows us to collect data and once you have that data then you can start taking action with it and that's much harder to do when you don't have technology to collect that information.
Annu: Yeah, technology definitely can help connect people or enable connecting people and then the responsible use of data from actionable data. I think very well said. How does your SEL product address some of these challenges associated with digital inequity and the social emotional wellbeing of learners and educators?
Melissa Ragan: Well one of the things I really love about our product is, it's not designed as a computer program that kids just sit in front of and you know stare at a screen for twenty or thirty minutes. It's really intended to be a blended solution. And so what we do is we use the technology to create background knowledge for students. We build their background knowledge on whatever the subject matter is, say it's empathy, and then the teachers follow up that digital lesson with classroom discussions.
And those are really meant to be facilitated by students and they're meant to be really meaningful conversations that kids can have to build their own SEL vocabulary build their own knowledge about the skills and then to sort of help close that loop, we also have lessons for educators so they can build their own knowledge before they teach the topic. And then we have lessons for families. So that as we spoke about earlier, caregivers can then reinforce the message kids are getting and learning at school.
Annu: Excellent that I think you said it the blended solution, especially with the whole 360 approach that sounds very compelling very powerful to me too.
Melissa Ragan: It's really exciting.
Annu: How has your product supported teachers to use technology in meaningful ways?
Melissa Ragan: We do a really great job meeting teachers where they're at, both with their SEL knowledge and their technology skills. We do onboarding. We have a product that's really easy to use but we also give them a teacher companion guide which is actually a print document that provides details on the topic additional resources, differentiation strategies and then of course we have the actual lessons for teachers too. Um, and of course the student lessons are online and teachers love using them to build the background knowledge and then followed up with those rich discussions.
Annu: What is the right way to measure a SEL learning?
Melissa Ragan: That's a that's a good question. It's it's a multimillion-dollar question too. I think the answer depends on what you're trying to do. I think you and I spoke before about you got this SEL assessment document at home and you were sort of like, what's this so we know that there are plenty of programs that have a pre and post SEL assessment and that'll demonstrate how students have grown over the course of a year right? You take it at the beginning, you take it to the end, here's where you grew, but that.
First of all that data is not actionable if you're not getting it to the end of the school year. If I see that my kids are having struggles in self-awareness or social awareness, there's not much I can do about that in may or June. There are some formative assessments including like informal check-ins with students and those are great but only someone is doing something with the data when they receive it.
I think all too often what's happening is that students are taking an assessment, parents or teachers are getting their results and we don't know what to do with it and so I'm not sure there's a right answer on how to measure SEL. I think what I always ask myself is what do we do with the information now that we have it. Now what?
Annu: Yes. I did this so much from both my daughters that received that SEL screening question, I ran on the same house. They get a very similar environment but different scores right. and I don't ah you know wasn't prepared to kind of look at what do I do next? Yeah, so the measures are there. But um I don't feel I was enabled enough. Now I'm doing my own work do my own research to say Okay, how do I interact and support that now working with the educators on that.
Melissa Ragan: Yeah, but you're a smart educated parent you know and for you it would have been helpful, as for anybody, to have sort of background and okay so what does this mean? what do I do with it What activities can we do?
Annu: Yes, agreed. Especially interactive with my younger one right, that she doesn't want to and gets interesting over there too right for her is see like now I done the homeworker then my work on focus a little different. So. Regarding the future of SEL learning and tech roles they're in which direction do you see this tech moving in how are you and your teams preparing for it?
Melissa Ragan: Well I think you and I will agree that technology is not going anywhere. Um, you know I have friends who have kids who are still remote learning or doing some sort of hybrid model. We also saw that some kids did really well in this sort of learning environment. Others struggled and. Our own family. We have 4 Children and two of them just did phenomenally and then two of them were not as successful with remote learning or online learning. So I guess what I'm trying to say is the biggest thing we're focusing on is using technology to connect all these silos of student data, and then create reports with actionable outcomes that educators can use to inform instruction or perform interventions with students who need it.
So for example, we have a tool that detects when students are using language on social media that suggests they're at risk of self-harm or harm to others. Now currently that information goes into our behavior threat assessment dashboard where a school-based team investigates it and takes appropriate action. But what if we could take that data and then curate specific resources for the student, their families, peers, teachers like the impact that could have, using this holistic universal approach to mental health and wellness when combined, could just be amazing for individual interventions.
Annu: Agreed that holistic view for and individual intervention applied to individual intervention becomes more targeted right? But how do you then make the solution scalable?
Melissa Ragan: Well I think there has to be a focus on 2 things. First of all, it's training for educators and it has to go beyond just and onboarding like how to use the product. We can show them how but what they really need to understand is why. Because if you don't get teachers to buy-in. You're not going to be successful and it doesn't matter what product you have or how great it is teachers have to understand why and the second thing is you know as a former educator myself, we many of us here are former educators, but we really make sure our products are user friendly with built-in support and walkthroughs to make sure using it is pretty easeless easy and seamless.
If something is a great product and you got buy-in and then it's difficult to use or it's glitchy or clunky. It's not going to be used so and we appreciate feedback we get from teachers along the way. We incorporate the feedback and just try to make the best product we can for educators and students.
Annu: Yeah, building compelling highly functional user experiences I think is key like you just mentioned and then the why behind that connecting it to for the teachers right? when the teachers have a buy-inI agree you know you can move the needle a lot more.
Melissa Ragan: If teachers aren't bought in then kids see that right and they're like well if my teacher thinks this is dumb, why am I doing it? or if my parent thinks this is stupid, why am I doing it? So you know, really the teacher's at the heart of it.
Annu: Absolutely And how can Ed tech companies be prepared for the future?
Melissa Ragan: Well to build on what we were just talking about I think technology changes really rapidly and so do school's needs. So being able to listen schools will tell you what they need. They'll say we need X, Y, and Z and the ed-tech companies that are going to be successful are the ones that listen to that and can pivot or adapt to those needs. We can spend all our time creating what we think is the right thing. But if it's not schools need. They're not going to use it. So it's really important to understand what the needs are.
Annu: Absolutely. Listen to the needs and adapt to the needs. Very well said. So last but not least what advice would you have for your peers and customers?
Melissa Ragan: I guess one thing is that there's really been some negative noise lately about social emotional learning and I think that's really due to misconceptions and misunderstandings. So I'd really love for there to be more transparency about what students are doing during their SEL instruction. I think this goes a long way when it helps to get any buy and from caregivers in the community for SEL.
You know there have been lots of states that have charged to introduce legislation to ban SEL, but I just can't imagine anyone who really knows what it is saying no. Don't teach my kid how to show kindness or don't teach them how to practice gratitude you know, forget sharing. But that's what happening. Um, and there's been a move to discredit SEL and I think that's that's catastrophic.
Annu: I think you said you've got to meet with educators are right and meet students where they are. If we can do that and help them, especially in the last two years, I think the needs become more profound I think the good initiatives. So what are the 3 things you want people to remember take away from this conversation.
Melissa Ragan: Well one thing is that you know it seems like SEL is like another thing to do in your day but I just want teachers to understand that, SEL, if you do it and you do it right, it's going to result improve the positive classroom climate and that is going to help you. The second thing is it takes practice. Don't expect that you know you're going to be a rockstar at SEL day one but don't give up either and the third thing is good teachers are already doing a lot of social emotional skill building in their classrooms. They just need encouragement and the right tools to do the job.
Annu: Yes, agreed about the practice. Agreed about the three points right. The encouragement for the teachers too right. And yes, it's not just another thing we do something very important that we're doing. Well said. Great call for action over there. As we close out Tech in EdTech, I do want to say how much I appreciated your insights, care, and passion. You brought to this topic of using technology to enable social-emotional learning. I do want to thank Melissa and Navigate 360 for enabling and championing these critical initiatives. Melissa, thank you for your time today and wishing you a great year ahead.
Melissa Ragan: Thank you have a great day Annu.
Annu: Thank you bye-bye.