Don't get emotional about intelligence

12th September 2003 at 01:00
Schools are in danger of jumping on a bandwagon and not thinking things through, says Chris Smith

Jack Mayer has stated that "emotional intelligence . . . broadens our understanding of what it means to be smart. It means that within some of us who are labelled romantics, highly sensitive or bleeding hearts serious information-processing is taking place."

Emotional intelligence has also been described as "the ability to monitor one's own and others' feelings and emotions to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one's own thinking and action" (Mayer and Salovey). The idea has been around for a long time. Mayer and Salovey suggest four aspects specific to emotional intelligence.

* Emotional perception and expression - the ability to accurately perceive, appraise and express emotion.

* Emotional facilitation of thought - the ability to access, generate and use feelings to facilitate, inform and guide thinking.

* Emotional understanding - the ability to understand the meaning of emotions, their likely transitions, blends and progressions.

* Emotional management - the ability to manage emotions for personal and social growth.

The popular definition, on the other hand, has included non-cognitive capabilities, competences and skills. There may be a problem with this wider definition, however, if we are to regard emotion as an intelligence.

Is it possible to have a non-cognitive intelligence? It is good to remember that intelligences are neither good nor bad. There is no question that I have worked with some individuals who would appear to have emotional intelligence by the bucketful but whom I would cross the street to avoid.

These people are incredibly adept at monitoring their own and others' feelings and are able to use this to great effect to guide their thinking and action. That thinking and action, however, is aimed at self-advancement and manipulation.

So it is not just about developing emotional intelligence or about teaching emotional literacy. It is also about the use of such abilities once developed. Neglecting emotional intelligence at the expense of other, more traditional areas of intelligence, may lead to the development of individuals (many currently in positions of power and influence) frequently described by my mother as "educated idiots".

There is a difference, therefore, between the academic definition which concentrates on cognition and the popular definition which seems to include value judgments about the best way to apply this intelligence once developed. These seem to me to be separate issues. If developing emotional intelligence in children and young people gives them greater control over their emotions such that the possibility for wise choices can occur, then this can only be a good thing.

For me teachers are the key. In this sense, however, I do not limit my concept of teachers to those who are registered with the General Teaching Council for Scotland and working in schools. Schools are not the only places where children learn or people teach. We are all teachers in different ways in different contexts and we are all learners in the same diverse way. Thus the responsibility for the development of our intelligences does not only lie with formal education and does not end when we leave school.

The national debate on education made it clear that many in Scotland believe education to be about more than the three Rs - important though these may be. Things that seem very important at school sometimes seem less so later. As the mother of one president of Paraguay said: "If I'd known he was going to be president, I'd have taught him to read." It is widely recognised that it takes more than school success to have a successful career andor life.

Thus we return to Salovey's and Mayer's idea that the contribution of emotional intelligence may make us more aware of the changes required in social institutions and cultural practices. Are we ready, I wonder, for the possible social and cultural changes that might become necessary?

My fear is that, in jumping on the emotional intelligence bandwagon without really thinking it through, we will expect schools to deal with the issue rather than see it as a wider social and cultural issue. In addition, I am terrified that we will end up with a list of performance indicators and targets which will turn an interesting concept into a form of social control and simply kill it dead. So I urge us to think before we act.

The Scottish Network for Able Pupils (SNAP) and the Scottish Health Promoting School Unit made a good start by hosting a national conference with Daniel Goleman as the keynote speaker at the end of June. However, let us see this as a beginning rather than an end and make sure we debate the issues before tackling practice.

Chris Smith is in the education faculty at Glasgow University and project leader of SNAP.

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