Social skills: do they hinder maths?

3rd April 2009 at 01:00
New research confirms what has long been suspected - emotional intelligence helps in English but can prove a handicap elsewhere

It has long been suggested that emotional intelligence can improve academic achievement. But in maths, new research shows that social skills are associated with poorer results.

Mathematicians have greeted the confirmation of the socially awkward geek stereotype for pupils excelling in their subject with weary recognition.

But they say it has more to do with a failure of schools to promote the human side of maths than any inherent advantage in being unable to communicate feelings.

The study compared GCSE grades from some 2,000 pupils with questionnaires asking the candidates to rate themselves on qualities relating to their wellbeing or happiness, self-control, emotional maturity and "sociability" - assertiveness and social skills.

After taking into account other factors, such as prior attainment, gender and the school a pupil attended, researchers from Cambridge Assessment found that at least some elements of emotional intelligence had a positive association, with better results in all the subjects they examined.

But in maths, the better pupils were at expressing their emotions, influencing other people's feelings, networking, using social skills and general social awareness, the worse their results were.

"It may be that if an individual has high levels of emotion, this might get in the way of their logical thinking," the researchers said.

Barry Lewis, chair of the Mathematical Association council, was unsurprised by the findings but had a different explanation. Lessons were failing to show that there was a human side to the subject and were discouraging pupils who had stronger emotional intelligence from giving their all.

"I ran a government research project called Maths Year 2000 and the one thing we found was that many young people didn't believe that maths was about people at all," he said. "There was no teaching that even mentioned a human being." But Mr Lewis said the situation was improving since the introduction of the history of maths in secondary schools.

The Cambridge Assessment research suggested emotional intelligence had a bigger impact in English, English literature and drama than in French and art and design. In science it made the most impact on results in applied science, with a noted effect on chemistry and biology but little on physics.

Some results suggested it did not have a big influence on the performance of high ability pupils but helped those of low ability to cope with stress and anxiety.

Overall, the researchers said their work suggested that emotional intelligence had a very important effect on learning. "Therefore, attempts to improve the emotional and social skills of British schoolchildren with training programmes could be worthwhile," the report said.

- `Can trait emotional intelligence predict differences in attainment and progress in secondary school?' by Carmen Vidal, John Bell and Joanne Emery.

- A debate about what the research means for schools will be held at the RSA in London on May 7.

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