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How SEL and engagement supports equity in education with David Adams

Corrinna PoleMarch 25, 2021

Middle school students looking at a laptop together. Social emotional learning (SEL) cultivates skills like collaboration

What can education leaders take from basketball and video game mechanics to make sure their school is equitable for all students? And how does learning from failure have an impact on students’ academic achievement and social and emotional well-being? 

In episode 13 of The Great Exchange podcast, David Adams CEO of the New York-based The Urban Assembly shares insights about equity and engagement in education. He discusses the role engagement plays in driving equity, some of the everyday tools educators have at their disposal to promote engagement, and how equity is different from equal access. 

David also talks about the second annual SEL Day on March 26, 2021. The international event initiated by The Urban Assembly and SEL4US, celebrates the importance of social and emotional learning (SEL) in changing lives for the better.

 This conversation is a slam dunk! 

Interview highlights:

The Wall Street Journal quoted you as saying: “We need to reframe the debate from giving access to some kids to delivering equitable education to all kids.” It seems like equity might be synonymous with equal access to things like good schools, high-quality learning materials, etc. But it’s more than that. How do you differentiate equity from equal access?

One of the things we’ve got to think about, particularly in the context of K-12 schoolings, is the idea that the purpose of public schools is to graduate citizens who can contribute to our society, and that a failure to do that means that we have folks who are unable to be in community with us, either because they haven’t developed skills, terms of academics or they haven’t developed social and emotional skills.

That failure is a failure of our whole community, it’s a failure of our whole society. That means that we need to think about the difference between playing a game of who’s getting the most qualified students and pretending that school is driving the success, and start thinking about schools as organizations that move kids from where they are, to where they can contribute to society. I call this the Phil Jackson fallacy.

I’ve been working in New York for almost 15 years now. A little while back, Phil Jackson came to coach the New York Knicks with great fanfare. I remember having conversations with guys who said, “This triangle offense is gonna transform Madison Square Garden! We’ve got 11 rings!” So here comes Phil Jackson, with his 11 rings, you can’t even slip past the bling, and it turns out that the triangle offense is just another way of playing basketball. His real genius is playing with the top players of all time, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and these folks.

This is what happens when we think about schools that see their program as the most important thing. It’s really not. It’s who they’re recruiting.

I want to be Gregg Popovich. You don’t have to love the San Antonio Spurs, you may not think that they’re the most high-flying team in the world, but they’re consistent. They’re consistent because of a system that actually has an impact on the players. Our schools need to look at that consistency. Our schools need to aspire to places that don’t exclude kids because of their attendance, or their background, or special education status, but who pride themselves in their ability to move kids from where they’re at, to a place where they are contributors to society.

What role does engagement play in fostering that sense of consistency? 

Engagement is one of the most important things teachers bring to the table. If it wasn’t for engagement, we could all be learning from textbooks or YouTube. Students need to be in a relationship with either the material or the person teaching the material. That’s how learning works.

When we’re engaged, it’s because we have a sense of difficulty that’s matched with support; challenge with structure. The zone of proximal development by Vygotsky — he was a psychologist in the 1900s from Russia and the first one who really started to talk about this idea of “how do we move from independent problem solving, to assisted problem-solving.” That independent problem solving is what folks can do for themselves students. Assisted problem-solving is what they can do with a more knowledgeable peer or adult who supports them, not only emotionally, but also cognitively and academically with scaffolds and support.

When you see students disengage, it’s either because they don’t feel like they have the support to address the problem at hand, or they don’t feel like the problem at hand has relevance to their own life. Either way, the role of the teacher is to translate these things to the student’s life and then support the student around the frustration that it takes to learn.

What are some of the challenges to fostering equity, particularly among students from underserved communities?

To provide engagement, you’ve got to activate perspective-taking skills as a teacher. The further you get away from childhood, the harder it is to tap into what students care about and how they’re motivated. The goal of the teacher is to be continually in touch with childhood, continually taking the perspective of a young person.

When it comes to equity, the further away students are from the person who’s teaching the classroom, the more effort that teacher has to make to think about ways they can make connections with this young person. It takes effort, intention, conversation, community, relationship. 

This is not to say that it can’t be done. It just means that we have to put power into it in order for us to overcome these differences. That engagement question is the question on how intentional we are about building relationships and being in community. The more intentional we are, the better engaged our young people are going to be because they see that we care about them and when kids see that you care about them, they’ll do all the math problems in the world.

Do video games provide a cultural medium where teachers and students can form those relationships?

If you think about how video games are constructed, they’re constructed to organize the level of challenge that players experience, in a way that allows for success over time. Think of the notion of efficacy, self-efficacy, Albert Bandura: How do we establish self-efficacy? We need to have a sense that we can accomplish this.

The way videogames work is that they have a zone of difficulty. The types of situations and problems and scenarios that are presented to the student get higher and higher in terms of challenge, but also there are all sorts of support. If you’ve failed three times, you get a little pointer that says, “you might want to go that way”. These are psychological mechanisms to help students stay engaged and believe in their beliefs to resolve that problem.

One of the coolest things about video games is the notion that you’re supposed to fail. Nobody passes the board the first time. You’re supposed to learn how these things go.

I remember as a kid, before savepoints, you’d have to memorize the entire game. We’re not at that point now, the problem solving is a little less intense. But this idea that you have to fail to understand how to respond to the constraints that the game has put on, produces a sense of problem solving and efficacy that leads to engagement because you will eventually succeed. 

That’s a little bit different than how we think about schooling. Our students are still internalizing this idea of “I know how to do this well” or “I don’t know how to do this”. It’s shifted a lot with the introduction of ideas like growth mindset, which riffs off this notion of self-efficacy. But there’s still a lot of students and a lot of teachers who are like, he’s good/she’s good/he’s bad. Or he’s bad at this task, versus this is how they’re approaching the scenario, or this is how many repetitions they’ll need me to be successful.

At the end of the day, we need to produce citizens who contribute to society.

From my point of view, I don’t care how many repetitions it takes, we need to get young people who graduate from high schools ready to contribute. if it takes three, five, 10 tries, the end of the game for schools is with young people who have the skills, attitudes, and experiences to be in the community with the rest of their society.

Do you think games can be a force for reducing some of the bias that’s kind of inherent in all our relationships, not just in education?

It depends on the game. What games give everybody is the ability to have an equal opportunity to try and to fail, and to try again. They have such tight feedback mechanisms that help folks to see what they could be in the next iteration.

My son is playing Roblox and trying to get Ultra Instinct. He said “I’m on level 25. I only have to get to level 271 to get Ultra Instinct for this character.” But he sees what it looks like. This is a very important notion of self-efficacy. You have to see success modeled. And the closer that person is to you who models that success, the more likely you are to believe that you can do it for yourself.

What games are able to do is create these feedback loops and models that allow us to say, “I’m going to continue to exert energy to be successful at this task.” We can learn a lot about how to organize instructional and learning experiences in the classroom from how game designers and psychologists organize the kinds of experiences that video games offer to young people to keep them engaged at the task at hand.

So games are empowering in the way they encourage somebody to try, fail, learn, try again, and eventually succeed? 

You said it. I don’t know anybody, even the best gamers in the world, who are able to play a game the first time and get from the beginning to the end. That’s not the point. The point is the process. The point is the exploration. The point is the frustration, the learning over time.

The types of feedback loops that allow you to make corrections and then see the results of that correction, give you a real clear sense of your progression over time. These are visualizations of your progress.

I’ve been very interested in the role that badges play online when you’re looking at forums. Folks will do a lot in the context of virtual forums to be recognized by these virtual representations of their status that have no real worth, except for the community that they’re a part of. A leaderboard is the same thing.

If folks took a more sophisticated understanding of the difference between being recognized for your contribution, versus this more behavioral understanding of reinforcement and behavior, we would learn to appreciate how to organize learning experiences, so that folks feel like they can be successful, and that that success can be visible for the folks around them and themselves as well.

When it comes to engagement, we have a tendency to over-simplify and think about it from the perspective of the student. How else should we be thinking about engagement?

The big idea when you think about engagement is motivation. There is no engagement without motivation. And there’s no motivation without goals.

When we think about what we want to develop or enhance in our young people, it’s this relationship between setting a goal or a task. We want to take something that you’re trying to accomplish that should be moderately difficult, give you a little bit of push, and then learn how to pay attention, for example, to your emotional reaction. So when you hit that “oh, man, this is frustrating” point, are you going to pull back from the task or invest in it? When you work through that many times, you’re teaching kids — not the content, but how to approach learning in general.

When we first got into the pandemic, my son Isaiah, who’s seven, had been doing online learning for a while. And my wife said, “I know, he can get this, but he’s just not paying attention.” And I was like, “yo, that’s teaching.”

It’s not that the kids are difficult, for the most part in terms of being able to access the material, it’s that their attention is at different places. That’s the beauty of teaching; watching young people struggle with these learning experiences, looking to their teacher,  the teacher giving them a sense of motivation, “You can get this done,” and the young person going back and doing that.

When you look at what we’re doing now with independent learning, so many of our young people are struggling. But at the same time, we’re seeing young people manage their own learning. We’re seeing them take bathroom breaks when they need to, in terms of elementary school, and coming back from a snack on time. It turns out, our young people were way more responsible than we had first imagined.

The goal here, when we’re thinking about engagement and how we understand it, is to organize instructional experiences when we get back into schools that help students see themselves in these tasks with regards to their ability to be successful.

When we do that, and when students can see that success, then students will motivate themselves. That’s what we see in video games, on leaderboards, and on forums. We see context that helps people to motivate themselves towards an outcome.

Tell us about some of the initiatives that are coming up for The Urban Assembly. 

We’ve got SEL Day, (March 26) that is a celebration of social emotional learning worldwide. We’re partnering with SEL4US for that. You can sign up on to promote and showcase SEL. I’d love to see more engagement with promoting social and emotional learning worldwide.

We are also doing work ensuring that our schools are serving as proof of concepts for things we’re working on across the country. We’re working in California, Virginia, and Texas. if you’re interested in working with Urban Assembly with regards to social emotional learning, college and career readiness, post-secondary pathways in terms of career pathways, or things like leadership, hit me up at [email protected] and I’d be happy to reach out to see how we can work together.

Listen to more conversations with educators making an impact on student engagement at The Great Exchange podcast. Visit to stream inspiring sessions with leaders across education, tech, and gaming from Classcraft and Google’s student engagement summit. 

Interview edited for clarity.

PBIS - Social Emotional Learning - Student Engagement