An emotional 'script' change

28th September 2007 at 01:00
Carol Gow lectures in media at Dundee College.

Against a background of concern about the lack of shared values and the shock of appearing at the bottom of Unicef's table of child well-being, we have decided that our society is in meltdown. Something must be done. We lack emotional intelligence. It is no longer evolving naturally through a kind of osmosis, so it now must be taught, like geography or food science.

But should it be taught? Indeed, can it be taught? Further education has always grappled with this interesting dilemma.

We can happily pay lip service to the notion that we are engaged in vocational training and education, and that this is simply a commodity. Learners can come to us and pick up a course as they would a packet of HobNobs from the supermarket and walk out the door again with a specific skill. The learner as choosy consumer, the college as service provider. It is impolite in the extreme to enquire about the health or otherwise of a learner's emotional intelligence as he or she is leaving the checkout.

At the higher end of the qualification scale, these units look at coping strategies, and involve the learner in introspection, reflection and evaluation. Learners at this level often enjoy the process enormously, but I always worry about opening large cans of worms for assessment purposes.

At entry level, units are usually assessed by tick boxes. For students whose courses are practical in nature and who like to get on and get things done, time spent on introspection and evaluation is slightly alien. They tend to tick the boxes pretty smartish and then ask brightly "What do I do now?"

I'm not convinced that you can assign a specific time to developing emotional intelligence and then ask the students to close their folders and pack it away. Nor am I convinced that courses are HobNobs.

In reality, because of the nature of further education, we have never been able to ignore the emotional aspects of living and learning, even before anxiety about societal breakdown became quite so fashionable. Some adult returners take a huge step into the unknown by coming to us and undergo massive life changes. They may need mentoring and encouragement to learn new coping techniques. If these things are not addressed formally, they are usually worked through informally by osmosis, by example, or in a quiet chat with other learners and tutors.

And sometimes Shakespeare does it for us. A student with great potential had not bothered turning up for a class on Tuesday mornings because he didn't understand it, didn't understand the lecturer, and had given up. By the time he came to my class on Thursday, he was alienation personified. We were looking at Macbeth's "Tomorrow" soliloquy. "I don't like literature," he said. "I don't get it, I never will. I can't do it."

Battling on, I suggested that Shakespeare's creation of the stage metaphor and bit players was pretty amazing. It was integral to new theories such as cognitive behavioural therapy and neuro-linguistic programming. We had a little chat about that and discussed the premise that changing the "script" in your head could change results. I worked on this jokingly with him, suggesting he try changing the "can't do, won't do" script and see what happened.

I have heard that he attended the class he'd been missing, and told the lecturer he'd got on well with the task set. Either he's at it, or he's trying out a technique that's making a difference. Let's hope he sticks with the script until our next class when we're tackling a little bit of Beckett.

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