Monday, May 11, 2009

Is it Time for Schools to Try to Boost Kids' Emotional Intelligence?

An interesting article from the Boston Globe on the need to include emotional intelligence as a part of our educational system. I missed this when it was published back in early April.

The other kind of smart

Is it time for schools to try to boost kids' emotional intelligence?

By Drake Bennett April 5, 2009

FOR MOST OF us, what we were taught in school and what we remember from our school years are two different things. We sat through uncountable hours of lessons about denominators and organelles, about precipitates and dangling participles, about Boo Radley and Shays' Rebellion, and yet the memories that sneak up on us today are more likely to be the humiliations suffered on the school bus or the awkward moments from a pubertal romance, the triumph of a deftly parried insult or the sheltering solidarity we felt in a now long-dispersed clique.

Much of what we learn about social life, in other words, we learn in school. The learning process is a fumbling and painful one, administered not by teachers but through schoolyard intrigues and emotional outbursts. And in this part of our education, we are largely on our own. While some people - Franklin Delano Roosevelt was one, Ronald Reagan another - seem born with a gift for emotional perception, the rest of us muddle through as we can. School is set up for one kind of learning, but when it comes to emotional matters, the assumption has always been that these are instincts we have to develop for ourselves.

Today, however, a number of educators and psychologists are arguing that, actually, we don't. What they call "social and emotional knowledge" - the ability to read other people, manage our own emotions, and thereby master social situations - doesn't have to be imparted solely through the cut and thrust of lived life. It can be taught, they say, just like trigonometry or French grammar. Psychologists are designing curricula that aim, step by step, to build up students' emotional knowledge: a typical teaching unit might include a role-playing exercise, or a set of diagrams breaking down the components of different facial expressions, or, in older children, a discussion of the subtle differences between disgust and contempt.

And while the basic idea that school should help refine social skills is not a new one, the proponents of social and emotional literacy programs are armed and emboldened by promising new findings that suggest just how teachable these skills are. With a little training, studies show, grade-schoolers can dramatically improve how accurately they read emotions in others' faces, how well they head off impending tantrums - even how empathetic they are toward classmates.

Education officials are starting to take notice. Around 10 percent of American grade school and high school students now go through some form of social and emotional learning curriculum, according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a Chicago-based emotional learning research organization. A handful of states have instituted emotional learning guidelines for their public schools - the most comprehensive is Illinois's, which sets "self-management," "social awareness," and "interpersonal skills" benchmarks, among others, for kids at each grade level.

The movement has been fed by a confluence of factors. Parents and school administrators are increasingly worried about the disruptive effects of bullying and other antisocial behaviors in schools. At the same time, cognitive scientists are emphasizing the vital role emotions play in rational thought.

Supporters point to a growing collection of studies showing the benefits of emotional learning programs in everything from test scores to lowered anxiety levels and rates of drug use. But the ultimate goal is something larger: a redefinition of what school is meant to teach, and what sort of knowledge we value. What emotional literacy campaigners are arguing is that the problems of the American school system won't be solved by getting kids reading sooner or ensuring that they can find Alaska on a map - they need to better understand what drives them and others.

"This is not meant to be part of the school mental health plan, but part of the regular instructional plan," says Mary Utne O'Brien, a research professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an executive at CASEL. "It's about more than making school nice; it's specific skills, just like what you're doing in language or math."

The champions of emotional learning claim an intellectual pedigree stretching back to Aristotle, who described emotional control and understanding as vital virtues. Writing in the early 20th century, the philosopher and influential education reformer John Dewey fleshed out this idea, insisting that schools should impart not just information but habits of mind that would ensure that graduates were active participants in a democratic society. Educational reformers in the intervening decades have echoed Dewey's arguments.

Still, these ideas have had a hard time finding purchase in the traditional "reading, writing, and arithmetic" curriculum, especially as standardized tests on traditional topics have come to determine more and more of how students and their schools are judged.

Today's emotional education movement, however, is energized by something new: a surge of studies suggesting that "softer" knowledge like social and emotional skills can be analyzed and taught in the same way that math and critical thinking can be.

The emotional knowledge research field arose in the early 1990s with the work of the psychologists John Mayer, of the University of New Hampshire, and Peter Salovey of Yale. Mayer and Salovey weren't interested in emotional knowledge per se, but emotional intelligence: people's ability to process new emotional information (a sort of emotional IQ). But, according to Mayer, their interest grew out of earlier research exposing some of the mechanics by which emotions guide us and, at times, give us away - work by the neurologist Antonio Damasio, for example, showed how people rendered emotionless by brain damage became not more but less rational in many ways. Also influential was psychologist Paul Ekman, who developed an exhaustive taxonomy of what he called "micro-expressions," tiny, inadvertent facial movements that betray our true emotions. (The current TV crime drama "Lie to Me" is inspired by Ekman's work.)
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