Harvard Educational Review
  1. The Promotion of Social Awareness

    Powerful Lessons from the Partnership of Developmental Theory and Classroom Practice

    By Robert Selman

    New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2003. 325 pp. $37.50

    In 1980, Robert Selman wrote, “We have no choice but to try to learn how our children become socially wise, to provide opportunities for them to do so, and to try to understand through both ‘educational’ and ‘naturalistic’ research how this ethical and interpersonal wisdom can best be put into practice” (p. 311). Selman’s new book, The Promotion of Social Awareness, traces the evolution of his work, looking at what he and his colleagues in the Group for the Study of Interpersonal Development (GSID) have learned about social wisdom and its development and about the practices that foster it. Selman nests an exploration of his current research within the broader corpus of his work and makes explicit the methods, motives, and perspectives that make his contributions, and those of the GSID, unique. He engages the reader in a personal narrative about how his identities as a clinical psychologist, a developmentalist, and a practice-based researcher have both shaped and been shaped by the work. Selman draws on the voices of other researchers, students, and teachers he has met along the way, offering opportunities for conversations and questions from and among multiple audiences. In addition, he presents an intimate view of the theory-building process as it evolves over time and explores the ways in which the interplay among theory, research, and practice enhances the conversation about education.

    The Promotion of Social Awareness
    is divided into sections that chronicle the evolution of Selman’s work. In Part One he explores how the relationships among his theoretical work, research, and practice shape the directions of his research and complicate his theoretical understandings of the phenomenon of social competence. In Part Two, Selman chronicles applying his theoretical framework to practice in 1991 through the development of Voices of Love and Freedom (VLF), a literature-based social education program. He not only explains specifically how his theoretical work took on a practical shape, but he also details the motivations and larger contexts for such a leap. Selman’s accessible exploration of the evolution of his thinking helps to illustrate the ways in which his work speaks to myriad contemporary issues, including school violence, standardized and high-stakes testing, and the character education debate, and to multiple audiences, including teachers, psychologists, and researchers.

    The latter sections of the book present Selman’s most current work and explore the organic connections to the fields of teacher development and literacy that have emerged from it. In the case of teacher development, Selman writes, “It began to dawn on us that it was important to understand how teachers become aware of why it is personally meaningful to them to teach students seriously and systematically about dealing with [social issues]” (p. 110). Part Three is coauthored with his colleague, Sigrun Adalbjarnardottir, who has used Selman’s framework in Iceland to better understand both the role of the teacher in promoting social awareness and how a teacher’s social development informs his/her relationship to the social curriculum. In this section, Selman and Adalbjarnardottir explore the excitement and the challenge of studying a multilayered and dynamic process, how to promote social awareness and also to illustrate the need to approach such phenomena with equally dynamic and flexible methods. Through the Iceland Project, Selman and Adalbjarnardottir explore the role that teachers’ professional and interpersonal development plays in the work of promoting students’ social awareness. As a result, they present a revised framework that “would respect differences in teachers’ views about their role as agents of socialization and yet help us to study these differences” (p. 126).

    Keeping the challenges associated with teacher development in sight, Selman and his colleagues’ current work focuses on incorporating the promotion of “core social competencies” into the school curriculum (Part Four). Selman presents the classroom as a place where students have opportunities to safely express ideas and, with the guidance of an effective teacher, to develop increasingly complex social perspectives. He writes, “Teachers can harness children’s natural focus on peer relationships . . . to promote academic and social learning in the classroom” (p. 191). In the face of high-stakes and standardized tests, the challenge becomes to incorporate a social curriculum without sacrificing the teaching of academic skills. In response, Selman, with his colleague and student Amy Dray, explores the relationship between literacy and interpersonal development and how the components of a literacy curriculum, when deftly taught, serve to scaffold the development of increasingly sophisticated perspective taking (Part Five).

    Ultimately, in addition to looking at the complexities of day-to-day human social exchange and how to help children navigate them, Selman and his colleagues are working to understand how we manage social conflicts when “the source of the conflict is not simply personal, or social, but societal” (p. 268). He argues that schools can and should play a role in helping children develop the capacity to hold multiple perspectives in the face of those societal forces, and he recognizes that what he proposes is not easy. For example, it is difficult to prepare educators for such a task, and educators are divided regarding the appropriate content for such a curriculum. In addition, he describes a reticence that some educators have about assessing children’s social wisdom and “diagnosing” their social development. To this end, understanding the range of typical responses for a given group of children on measures of interpersonal development would allow teachers to promote developmentally appropriate strategies and create environments that help children develop increasingly sophisticated interpersonal skills. Selman writes, “Our story is one of growth and change in the process of making meaning over time” (p. 282). Their story is also one of connection between theory, research, and practice, a story that transcends scholarly debate and speaks to practitioners and scholars alike.


    Selman, R. L. (1980). The growth of interpersonal understanding. New York: Academic Press.
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