Human emotions - a user's guide

12th January 2001 at 00:00
So what's your EQ? Elizabeth Holmes delves into the mysterious world of emotional literacy.

Right class. Open your textbooks at page 55 for an hour of spiritual, moral, social and cultural education. And, at the end, I shall be testing your emotional literacy, with marks out of 10I If only it worked like that! When it comes to emotional literacy - the most intangible of all subjects we are called on to teach - textbooks, logic, precision and inflexibility all go out of the window.

Just because the subject is intangible doesn't mean we can ignore it. Indeed, some local education authorities have identified emotional literacy as being as much a priority as regular literacy and numeracy. And while your school may not prescribe specifically how you should impart morality, say, or spirituality, this is no bad thing.

These aspects of school life are nothing to do with quantity of information and everything to do with quality.

Educating about and through the emotions, regardless of individual subjects, is what connects many teachers and their reasons for entering the profession. For Kevin McCarthy, of Remembering Education, spiritual, moral, social and cultural education (SMSC) and emotional literacy are all about pupils relating what is learned in the classroom to the issues and experiences they face in their lives.

For the new teacher, delivery of SMSC and emotional literacy implies a focus on learning and teaching styles. Whatever subject you teach, there is scope to encourage and nurture insight into the emotional factors of your pupils' learning. This in turn can improve the way pupils behave in your lessons, not to mention what they can achieve.

An example of this could be anger management. Southampton City Council has been working on teaching pupils the techniques of managing their anger through understanding its nature and impact on behaviour. The aim is to help children explore their thinking, feelings and actions. Far from being about suppression, children are taught to distinguish between types of anger. This moves them towards achieving emotional literacy. And this, it is believed, can push standards of attainment upwards.

Yet it is impossible to isolate from a lesson the emotional content, or the cultural or spiritual elements. They may rise to prominence at certain occasions - and, according to McCarthy, these are the very times when teachers often retreat into the relative safety of the curriculum. He believes teachers must never be frightened to explore the central role in the classroom of emotion, spirituality and morality.

"At every conference I've been to, teachers own up to having cut short intensive conversations in lessons when pupils get animated about personal, moral or environmental issues," he says. "But that is when educaion is happening. That is when connections are being made and children are learning about relating."

If all this still seems too elusive to grasp, you're far from alone. There is little consensus on exactly what constitutes the teaching of such notions. We need down-to-earth experience to begin to make definitions, and this experience is necessarily subjective. A good place to begin your focus on the wonders of SMSC education and the emotions might be through basic questions such as:

* In this lesson, how is creativity nurtured?

* Do I encourage the "have a go" mentality?

* Can my pupils work collaboratively?

* Are my pupils able to relate their learning to their experience of life?

* Am I an emotional coach to my pupils? Are opportunities to explore emotion woven through the information I deliver?

* Are all aspects of my pupils' expressions of life welcomed and built on to further understanding?

* Do my pupils feel a sense of belonging to and ownership of their class, school, society etc?

* Are the feelings, values and beliefs of all those in my classroom (including me) respected and encouraged?

And if teachers can't answer yes to at least some of these questions, here's a sobering thought: the QCA, in its initial guidance on citizenship, states that if there is a discrepancy between the values stated by a school and its teachers, and the values practised through the examples set by the staff as a whole, pupils will recognise the resulting inconsistency and scepticism will develop. By this token, the responsibility is on teachers to understand their own emotions, spirituality and morality so that they are in a position to bring about understanding in others.

Lea Misan, of Heartskills, a private organisation which says it is "dedicated exclusively to the promotion of emotional competence in all fields of endevour", puts it like this: "If we wish to encourage self-reflection in our children, we must foster teachers' abilities to create space for their personal reflection. If we wish our children to learn to resolve conflicts peaceably in empowering, creative ways, we must ensure our teachers can resolve conflict between themselves as teachers and the 'system' into which they are entering in empowering, creative ways."

A tall order indeed. We all have our skills, insecurities and development needs, yet working with this emotional, spiritual, moral, social and cultural core in every lesson can clearly be beneficial to all.

Remembering Education offers courses and consultancy on citizenship, emotional literacy and SMSC. Contact Kevin McCarthy on 01273 239311; e-mail:; web www.remember. Heartskills: call 01923 820900; e-mail:; web:

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