Case study: emotional intelligence

7th February 2003 at 00:00
The words we associate with intelligence are fascinatingly complex: too clever by half (cognitive ability or interpersonal effectiveness?); a clever move on the football field (cognitive or physical skill?); a bright idea (creativity?). So what do SATs, GCSEs and the rest actually measure? Convinced many years ago that history and humanities should be central, I helped create a fresh approach that brought together content and styles of learning to address students' cognitive, personal and social development (students working together, learning about their own strengths, and learning about the society in which we all live). Was this intelligence?

I introduced target-setting, but the more experience I gained, the more Socratean became my conviction that "intelligence" is a frustratingly complex idea. Something seemed to be missing - the true purpose of education and the effectiveness of how we learn. I always expressed it as personal and social development in its widest sense.

Teenagers tend to use the emotional part of their brains when responding to fear and the like, whereas adults tend to use their emotional brains with the higher order pre-frontal brain, which controls planning, goal-directed behaviour, judgment and insight. In experiments at McLean hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, teenagers seemed less able than adults to recognise emotions on people's faces. As educators, how do we help our students recognise emotions? How do we help them control their emotions so they can make considered judgments? How does this link with effective learning, and standards, attainment, and achievement?

Our emotional state affects our self-image, confidence, relationships, memory and decision-making - among other things. If somebody sets us a target, we respond emotionally - in a positive way, as motivation, or negatively, as a threat. Many of the reasons for boys' underachievement are linked to emotional intelligence. As educationists, we must nurture key qualities such as self-awareness and empathy. Is this intelligence? Does this fit with SATs and the rest?

Psychologist Peter Salovey (see resources) has identified four components of emotional intelligence. Three are concerned with how we recognise, understand and regulate our emotions. How do we help teenagers to develop so they can control their emotions and think before they act? There is no substitute for experience, but literature (and other media) can be a powerful aid to learning. Through literature we can explore the meaning of emotions; we can explore the motives and consequences of our actions and develop the key quality - dare I say intelligence? - of empathy.

Salovey's fourth - and most important - component concerns the link between emotional intelligence and cognitive thinking; try working on a maths problem when you are angry. Our memory is controlled by our emotional brain. We use our emotional memories as short cuts to decision-making.

People whose emotional brain is damaged, literally cannot make a decision.

Emotional intelligence has affected my teaching over 26 years. It is time to recognise that it is the key to effective learning. A target of 4 per cent can turn a 3 per cent improvement into a failure. Maybe the cartoon character Old Amos in the Dalesman magazine is the most intelligent of us all. "If tha thinks tha's missin' t'target 'appen tha's just aimin' too 'igh."

Keith Cox is assistant head at Hipperholme amp; Lightcliffe high school in Halifax, West Yorkshire

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