Rethinking Education from a Critical Lens: A Case Study on Reflective Practices of Social and Emotional Learning in China

Presented in the 63rd Annual Conference of Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) in April 2019, San Franicsco. 

Introduction and Research Question

Social and emotional learning (CASEL, 1994), which has emerged in the past 20 years as a thematic and programmatic emphasis in American education (Hoffman, 2009), has also captured the attention of educational researchers as well as educators in Mainland China (Cao & Mao, 2016; Shi & Li, 2003; Sun, 2016). Since 2011, China has witnessed a significant trend of developing and implementing SEL frameworks and curricula into local school settings and teacher education programs—for example, a three-year project by UNICEF and the Chinese Ministry of Education (UNICEF, 2017). How we can critically examine the political and cultural assumptions behind the trend in order to appropriately initiate its pedagogical practice in the Chinese social and cultural context? This academic endeavor will infuse critical and feminist pedagogy into reflective practices of SEL with a study group of Chinese adult educators. In this paper, the following two questions will be examined: 1) How have educators reconstructed their knowledge about SEL through reflective practices in the Chinese context? 2) How do educators perceive their reflective practices of SEL in various educational settings?

Theoretical Framework

In this research, a combination of critical pedagogy theory (Freire, 2000 [1970]; Giroux, 2003 & 2018) and feminist theory of education (Jackson, 1997; Luke & Gore, 1992; Weiler, 1991; Weiner, 1994) will be used as theoretical framework as a guide. Critical pedagogy emphasizes education as the practice of freedom and its need to develop a discourse of emancipation and social transformation. Knowledge emerges from a critical and dialogical encounter with each other. Feminist theories of education challenge the category of knowledge and its ownership, and question the disconnection between the personal experience in everyday life and its link to knowledge and truth, politics of power and authority of teachers, and questions of difference.

Case Study Description and Research Method

This one-year case study is focused on three female educators and their reflective practices of SEL in China. A study group was organized in May 2018 by the researcher and educators, based on their mutual interests in adult education and the topic of SEL implementation in China. The study group meets once a week for three hours except for holidays and school breaks. A dialogical space is constructed for inquiry, critiques and praxis. Readings on SEL and critical feminist pedagogy, both in English and Chinese, are assigned to and criticized by the group. Reflective writings are also collected. Each educator designs and conducts one research project on SEL throughout the one-year study. In addition, the researcher conducts observational participation in SEL classes by the educators; these include workshops for teachers and parents, and formal and informal classes for students. Some classes are co-designed and co-taught by the researcher and the educators. Reflections from the educators, observations from the researcher, and critical dialogue between them are documented in the process. Narrative inquiry (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000) is used to portray and make meaning of the educators’ experiences and the approach of narrative analysis (Riessman, 1993) is used for further analysis.

Findings and Discussion

Two preliminary themes and their subthemes are discussed in the paper:

1. The educators' SEL practices:

a. knowledge reconstruction about SEL through personal experiences

b. struggles for the power of politics and authority of teachers

c. dialogical spaces to value difference and diversity

2. Sense of dilemmas in the educators' SEL practices:

a. the tension between the SEL framework and the discourse of China education system

b. the split of the educator's role in private and public spaces

Through the case study of SEL in China, this paper attempts to rethink the claim of education for sustainability and social transformation from a lens of critical and feminist pedagogy. The dialogical space that is created by this research allows the educators to bring in their personal experiences, and assist them in reflecting on knowledge, politics of power, and teacher-student relations with an aim of revisiting the purpose of education from a critical, feminist and most importantly, humanist perspective. Pedagogical practices of SEL in China should not be simply viewed as a decontextualized or instrumentalist approach of teaching, but rather as a lens to critically re-examine the complexity of social and cultural context, through which participants in the practice will be able to become agents of change for social transformation.

Work Cited

Cao, H. & Mao, Y. (2016). An introduction of social emotion learning program RULER and its enlightenment. Comparative Education Review, 12: 73-79.

CASEL. Retrieved from:

Freire, P. (2000) [1970]. Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th anniversary edition). New York: Continuum.

Giroux, H. (2003). Critical theory and educational practice. In A. Darder, M. Baltodano & R. Torres (Eds.), The critical pedagogy reader. New York: RoutledgeFalmer.

Giroux, H. (2018). Pedagogy and the politics of hope: Theory, culture, and schooling. New York, London: Taylor and Francis.

Hoffman, D. M. (2009). Reflecting on social emotional learning: A critical perspective on trends in the United States. Review of Educational Research, 79(2): 533-556.

Jackson, S. (1997). Crossing borders and changing pedagogies: from

Giroux and Freire to feminist theories of education. Gender and Education, 9(4), 457-468, DOI:10.1080/09540259721196

Luke, C., & Gore, J. (1992). Feminisms and critical pedagogy. New York: Routledge.

Shi, Y., & Li, S. (2003). The nature and development of “social emotional learning” and its value in basic education reform. Contemporary Education and Culture, 5(6): 46-50.

Sun, E. (2016). Model and experience of social and emotional learning curriculum development in the United States: taking the strong kids program as an example. Comparative Education Review, 5: 91-96.

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Weiler, K. (1991). Freire and a feminist pedagogy of difference. Harvard Educational Review, 61: 449-474.

Weiner, G. (1994). Feminisms in education. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.