Onward march of emotional literacy

15th July 2005 at 01:00
Colleges are awash just now with fashionable ideas for improving everything from motivation and achievement to social inclusion and leadership.

Senior management teams are prepared to pay a fortune for training consultants to diagnose their emotional intelligence. Some students have their self-esteem diagnosed and remedied. Others get a dose of Brain Gym, Accelerated Learning or "learning to learn" activities.

Fads and fashions are on the rise in FE. Learning styles is the most well-known, but emotional intelligence is moving fast on the fashion track.

Both attract sweeping claims for benefits and importance. Both lack sound evidence of their impact, and neither is subject to much critical scrutiny.

But a research report on learning styles shows that models purporting to assess "styles", "strategies" and "preferences" offer very different theories about learning and people's potential.

The most popular model takes ideas from neuro-science to claim that brain-based preferences lead to visual, auditory, kinaesthetic and tactile modes of learning.

The better models offer a basis to talk to students about their learning, but others encourage fixed ideas and labels. Tales abound of students telling their teachers that they are kinaesthetic learners and so cannot learn from reading.

It is difficult to judge how far all the hot air around learning styles leads to teaching and learning practices that differentiate between individuals. Nor is there any hard evidence about which models are used in colleges or what their impact is.

But learning styles may be on the way out. Emotional intelligence is moving fast into mainstream educational thinking. Daniel Goleman's best-selling book Emotional Intelligence has spawned books about emotional well-being for children, and "the emotionally literate school", and an army of consultants to promote the ideas and to run courses.

Supporters use terms such as "self-esteem", "confidence", "emotional intelligence" and "emotional literacy" interchangeably to make sweeping claims.

The Department for Education and Skills' website cites the think-tank Antidote to assert that lack of emotional skills causes marital breakdown, anti-social behaviour, unemployment, mental illness and low educational achievement. According to the DfES, we cannot leave emotional skills for children from disadvantaged backgrounds to parents. Schools must intervene.

Some supporters believe it is more important for such students to develop emotional intelligence than to try difficult subjects that make them feel bad about themselves. Others see education's moral role as the pursuit of happiness and well-being rather than knowledge and skills.

It is now common to hear policy-makers and teachers attribute low self-esteem, emotional deprivation and vulnerability to whole groups such as adults learning literacy and numeracy, asylum-seekers learning English, 14-year-olds doing vocational courses at college, and boys who are disruptive.

Yet sweeping assumptions about links between life chances, poor emotional literacy and students' educational "needs" have not been substantiated by a systematic review of evidence.

It is one thing to be sensitive to some students' lack of confidence, or to refer individuals to a college support service. But it is another when students must fill in questionnaires about emotions and self-esteem and review these with students and tutors. Not only is this intrusive, but it elevates emotional needs as a concern and sidetracks teachers from developing subject skills or encouraging risk-taking.

When fads and fashions become sacred cows wandering round the system without challenge, we should worry that we have no decent theory of learning and no confident vision for a genuinely inspiring education.

If we did, learning styles and emotional intelligence could not take hold without proper scrutiny of whether they are sound educational practices.

Kathryn Ecclestone is senior lecturer in post-compulsory education at the University of Exeter. Learning styles: a systematic and critical review by Coffield, F, Moseley, D, Hall, E and Ecclestone, K (2004) is published by the Learning and Skills Development Agency

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