Why can't learning be more fun?

11th December 1998 at 00:00
STATING THAT you rate the importance of emotional intelligence in the classroom is greeted with knowing looks and suppressed chuckles. It's like confessing a predilection for speaking to the flowers in the manner of Prince Charles. Yet you only have to look at the popular psychology section in bookshops to confirm how intrigued we have become with the essential role of feeling in the thinking and learning processes. How relevant is this to the classroom?

Most of us have memories of emotionless monsters who dominated our own schooldays, creatures who made Count Dracula look touchingly endearing. I recall the flashing eyes of the primary teacher who went berserk when I made one mistake in my rendering of the multiplication tables. But that was nothing in comparison to what happened to poor William who sat in front of me: for having his shirt tail hanging out he was virtually executed. Weeping aroused nothing more than the sharply wicked rejoinder "and I'll give you something to cry about".

Years later, the theory of divine retribution took on a new hue when I heard of the drink problem which was now afflicting that ogre from my past. Mind you, that whole system of ignoring emotional life - and teachers were as much victims as their pupils - was enough to send anyone to the bottle for solace. And what about teacher training? Did anyone ever mention emotional skills?

Theories about learning certainly abounded. Relive for a moment that crushing sense of ennui as Pavlov's dogs were yet again trolled out as the protagonists in the drama of "how humans respond to stimuli". Remember the way intelligence was presented as fixed early in life and was related entirely to linguistic and mathematical skills. Fairly run-of-the-mill stuff familiar to all teachers and, sadly, it must be said that some of us have not moved much since. We continue to underestimate the role of the emotions in learning. I hope that the training colleges have progressed.

It has taken the educational world a long time to accept that emotional life has its own set of competencies, which have little to do with academic intelligence. People with well developed emotional skills are more likely to be content and effective in their lives. Teachers and pupils fall into various categories as they attend to and deal with their emotions. And I am not just referring to that awful moment when you wish you had extraterrestrial powers to escape from a sticky situation in the classroom. There is, after all, a great deal more to emotional intelligence than "Beam me up Scotty".

Ironically, it doesn't take a heavy intellect to perceive how key is the role played by emotional intelligence in the architecture of the whole being. As adults, we can all remember occasions when feelings overwhelmed rationality. As teachers we daily see pupils who are swamped by their moods and therefore are blocked off from meaningful learning. We must help them to develop their emotional world so that they have a chance of realising their potential in whatever area of "the intelligences" their strengths lie.

In practice, our pupils need to have self-awareness; the ability to handle stress; a developing empathic sense with others; a willingness to take personal responsibility; negotiating channels to resolve conflict; and a host of other "emotional insurances". To what extent do we, the adults, have the skills to help them?

We have to feel a little sorry for ourselves as we contemplate our emotional navels. Examine facial expressions in the staffroom on a Monday morning, all the group dynamics, empathy and emotional health of the doomed on their way to the gallows. Remember how the psychologists say that, after the fulfilment of the basic survival needs, the human race looks for fun. This doesn't come as a surprise. Who would have a digestive biscuit if a sticky toffee pudding is on offer?

Repeated surveys show pupils want learning to be enjoyable. If we could just take care of that, however daunting the prospect, some of the other emotional necessities might slip into place.

A challenge? Yes, but remember Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. With the help of his friends he did make it to his destination despite having no heart for a long time. Classrooms can be such dull places. Bring on the yellow brick road.

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