Emotions are the heart of learning

11th April 1997 at 01:00
How do you make changes? Not in itty-bitty things like who runs the country, but in the really big things like personal behaviour?

Certainly not by bribery, which is why schemes such as the recent wheeze to tack homework centres on to football stadiums and offer children a game once they've finished are nothing more than fancy distractions from the real issues about how you modify attitudes to school work and achievement.

All through their school lives, my children have gone to school alongside children who have been promised things by their parents - money, treats or possessions - if they get good grades, or a good school report, or pass a particular exam, and often the only effect has been to double the child's sense of failure when she or he hasn't made it. And even if the short-term goal has been achieved, the underlying pattern has remained unchanged. The child has not learned to value achievement for its own sake, or to take on any responsibility for her or his own life.

Children aren't stupid. They know exactly what's going on when adults dangle rewards, or dumb down the classics, or jazz up lessons, or try to manufacture a phony sense of excitement around things that, no matter which way you look at them, are essentially hard graft.

They are born with an in-built patronage sensor, and anyone who doubts it should watch the glazed expressions they turn towards the hysterical shrieking that grown-up producers believe constitutes fun on so many children's television programmes. They may be quick to grab any bait that's dangled in front of them, but that doesn't mean they're hooked by what's on offer.

Education doesn't change behaviour either, according to the drugs counsellor who spoke at a recent parents' meeting. In his field, he said, all the research showed that while education programmes were good at giving students facts and information, there was almost no evidence that they modified what students then chose to do.

Well, of course not, said a couple of thoughtful 17-year-olds, a few days later. Why would they?

"If someone tells you there's this drug, and this is the effect it will have if you take it, but there's a 15 per cent chance you could have a bad reaction, then you're going to think: OK, so it's 85 per cent likely I'm going to have a good time."

These were sober, well-adjusted girls, pausing in their A-level revision to explain teenage life to their passing visitors from Planet Parenthood.

So how many sixth-formers at their school (independent, co-ed, provincial), we asked, smoked cannabis? Oh, probably about 80 per cent, if you counted absolutely everyone. Took Ecstasy? They couldn't really say. People just did if they were going out to a club, or somewhere. It was no big deal.

"It's like everything else," one said. "It's like getting into a car, or crossing the road. You just decide to take a calculated risk."

So did that mean all their school drug lectures had been a complete waste of time? Oh no! They were genuinely shocked at the thought. No one touched hard drugs, they said, and if people took risks with soft drugs and alcohol, then at least they knew exactly what those risks were. And, of course, if new research came out saying that Ecstasy was really dangerous or something, most people would probably stop taking it just like that.

Social consensus remains the strongest trigger for change, even among those of us who like to believe we have minds of our own. I started smoking when it was what everyone did, stopped when it became less acceptable, started again when I moved to Turkey where smoking was so pervasive that one friend had had his shower head adjusted so he could inhale while abluting. I finally stopped back in England where the climate had grown so virulently anti-cigarette that to be seen to be putting a burning tube of tobacco to your lips and inhaling poison was to be seen for what you were - an idiot.

The same is true for almost all social shifts. It's easy to take exercise if you are surrounded by others who are slim, trim and aerobically up to snuff. You clean up after your dog when you notice that every other owner in town is walking around with a plastic bag in one hand. You stop believing a Costa Brava tan is a sign of bursting health, when, (as in parts of Australia now) a cancer-free pallor becomes the skin tone of cognoscenti.

Of course, these changes are set in train by other things. Smoking and tanning and sitting on your backside in front of the television are fading from fashion because of what we now know about the health risks involved, while people who have come of age under the drink-driving laws are altogether more disciplined about appointing a nominated driver when they go out than those of us who grew up with the blithe belief that we could enjoy a night on the town and drive home afterwards with no risk to ourselves or others. But education, alone, seems to have little impact on people's life choices.

On the other hand, learning about human behaviour, as a subject in itself, can have an astonishing effect. Therapists are discovering that introducing their clients to simple techniques of thought adjustment can have as much impact on the power to control anger, curb impulses and short-circuit depressions as years of analysis, while more and more schools are experimenting with life-skill courses that embrace ways of honing emotional competence and of weighing up problems, options and outcomes.

Such programmes can have a lasting impact on young people's behaviour, according to evidence put forward by Daniel Goleman, author of the best-selling Emotional Intelligence.

The book is far more than the woolly self-help manual its title might suggest. Written by a psychologist and reporter for The New York Times, it rounds up recent research on the architecture of the human brain to show how both feelings and reason work within the mind, and how neural circuits can be changed and responses adjusted by the right kind of help and intervention.

Its concern is to shunt IQ out of its star position on the stage of the human mind, and to show that social and emotional abilities are every bit as crucial to human health and development. Only by teaching children to know and master their emotions, and by encouraging them to develop self-control, zeal, persistence and empathy, Goleman says, are we ever going to equip them to live successful lives.

Its final section outlines a range of school programmes that are breaking new ground in this field, and is likely to leave British readers wondering whether, in fashioning our own core curriculum, we haven't managed to leave out all the things that lie closest to the heart of learning.

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