Putting emotional intelligence to the test

2nd August 2013 at 01:00
Does it exist and, if it does, should it have a place in schools? Two educational heavyweights battle it out on either side of the debate

Neil Humphrey: Yes

Emotional intelligence (EI) is, quite simply, the intelligent use of emotions. According to psychologists Peter Salovey and John Mayer, it involves the capacity to perceive, understand, use and manage our feelings productively as we navigate the social world. Individuals can vary in how good they are at this.

Beyond this, there is considerable debate. Is EI really a type of "intelligence"? Can it be measured in similar ways to IQ? Such questions are important but they also miss the point because of their fixation on the notion of "intelligence".

Viewed through another lens (that of developmental psychology), EI describes social and emotional competence. We know from Carolyn Saarni, a professor at Sonoma State University in the US, that children's awareness of their emotional states, their ability to use emotional language and to identify and understand emotions in others, and their capacity for empathic involvement are fundamental aspects of development.

Research from a range of disciplines supports the utility of EI. Consider putting feelings into words. EI theory suggests that this is a good way to manage difficult social experiences. Neuroscience appears to back this up. An imaging study by Matthew Lieberman, a professor at UCLA in the US, demonstrated that "affect labelling" of negative emotional images reduces activity in the amygdala, the brain's emotional centre associated with "fight or flight" responses, and increases activity in the prefrontal cortex, the region implicated in complex thinking and decision-making. The educational implications are obvious: teaching children to label their emotional experiences will help them to think before they act.

A good education prepares young people to become active and productive members of society. This inevitably includes being able to work well with others, manage emotions effectively, make responsible decisions and other qualities associated with EI.

This is not a new idea. These skills have long been central to effective education. Plato wrote about them in The Republic, as did John Dewey in My Pedagogic Creed.

In England, the social and emotional aspects of learning (Seal) programme is the most recent embodiment of the application of EI in education. Seal essentially comprises four components:

  • The use of a whole-school approach to create a positive school climate and ethos.
  • Direct teaching of social and emotional skills in class.
  • The use of teaching and learning approaches that support the building of such skills.
  • Continuing professional development for school staff.
    • Our research at the University of Manchester demonstrated that the outcomes of Seal were mixed at best. However, if we look elsewhere, a growing body of evidence suggests that high-quality, well-implemented school-based programmes of a similar ilk can have a profound impact on a range of important outcomes. Recent research by Joseph Durlak in the US and Marcin Sklad in the Netherlands is relevant here. Both conducted meta- analyses of high-quality programmes and found positive effects on children's social and emotional skills, attitudes to school, behaviour, mental health and attainment.

      If we create school and classroom climates that are safe, caring, well- managed and participatory, while also promoting social and emotional skills, students will develop a greater attachment to school and be more resilient in the face of adversity. These are the optimal conditions for success in school and life. Surely this is what we all aspire to provide for our children.

      Neil Humphrey is professor of psychology of education at the University of Manchester and author of Social and Emotional Learning: A critical appraisal, published by Sage

      Tom Bennett: No

      There's nothing wrong with emotional intelligence (EI) apart from the fact that it probably doesn't exist. And no one agrees what it means. Or how it should be measured.

      EI has been mooching around the educational mythology circuit for several decades. Howard Gardner, with his largely unsubstantiated theory of "multiple intelligences", speculated about interpersonal intelligence - the ability to understand the emotional states of others. Daniel Goleman is the smoking gun behind the theory's popular adoption in contemporary education, along with Peter Salovey and John Mayer. We can see its fingerprints on many, many projects in schools, such as the social and emotional aspects of learning programme.

      Nevertheless, EI has precious little research evidence to substantiate it. Of course, we are in the realms of speculative psychology here, where specimens are often too slippery to suffer stringent study. But even in this shadow world of abstraction, EI stands out as being more rumour and fancy than simply undiscovered. It's not just hard to catch, it's a unicorn.

      No one knows if EI is an innate intelligence, a skill, an aptitude, acquired knowledge or a mixture of all these. Not even EI's supporters can agree what it means. Each time I ask someone to define it, I get a different answer. Which is fine, but if a concept is stretched too far then it means nothing. Plus, before you can construct a project based on it, you first have to agree what "it" is.

      So why is it so popular? Because for any idea to catch on, it must meet a need or satisfy an appetite. Western cultures have become far more receptive to appreciating the emotional dimensions of our lives. "How do you feel?" has replaced "How do you do?" The rise of psychoanalysis and its concomitant industries has accompanied a post-Enlightenment fascination with man as the measure of all things. We are, as daytime television shows tell me, much more in touch with our feelings.

      The idea that there is a "right" way to feel, to react, attracts those who believe that there is a correct way to live, in an almost Platonic appeal to perfection. It often, in my experience, speaks to those who think the best way to feel about things is how they feel themselves. This is a dangerous game for any state institution to play.

      Isn't there a role for helping children understand how others are feeling and to recognise their emotional states? Of course there is. But this is a far cry from the initial EI project and it certainly does not mean that children need to be taught it in schools, or even that they can. Are we now trying to reposition the role of the teacher to that of therapist? Are we expected to have professional qualifications in applied psychology? Because otherwise, we are dilettantes.

      EI is a mess of optimism. We don't know what it is. No one can say that it exists. We have no idea how such a thing would be taught. How on earth would we assess it? Would we certify students with A levels in it? What if they then robbed a bank or set fire to an orphanage - would this show that they did not really pass the exam?

      It is a waste of time. The only - and most valuable - thing we can do as teachers is to act as the best role models possible; to exemplify kindness, courtesy and justice as much as we are able; to insist upon similar from the children in our care; and to attempt to develop in them such habits of character that civility is their default state. But reaching into their heads, to teach them which emotional states are appropriate, which ones are sanctioned and which ones are not? God forbid we should ever presume to such villainy. A child's interior space is sacred. Let's leave it that way.

      Tom Bennett is a teacher and author. His latest book, Teacher Proof, investigates the science - or lack of it - in education research


      • Salovey, P. and Mayer, J. (1990) "Emotional intelligence", Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 9: 185-211.
      • Saarni, C. (1999) The Development of Emotional Competence (Guilford Press).
      • Lieberman, M.D., Eisenberger, N.I., Crockett, M. J., et al (2007). "Putting feelings into words", Psychological Science, 185: 421-28.
      • Durlak, J.A, Weissberg, R.P., Dymnicki, A.B., et al (2011) "The impact of enhancing students' social and emotional learning", Child Development, 821: 405-32.
      • Sklad, M., Diekstra, R., De Ritter, M., et al (2012) "Effectiveness of school-based universal social, emotional, and behavioral programs", Psychology in the Schools, 499: 892-909.
      • Goleman, D. (1996) Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ (Bloomsbury).
        • Photo credit: Getty

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