Why emotional intelligence classes were so unintelligent
I just listened to Fran Abrams' excellent report on BBC Radio 4, looking into the controversial national curriculum subject, Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL). Actually, I say it's controversial - in fact, there has been a bizarre lack of controversy since the Labour government introduced this subject into UK primary schools in 2002, then UK secondary schools in 2007.
Today, SEAL is taught in 90% of primary schools and over 60% of secondary schools. And yet, as I wrote last year, the subject is actually based on one book of popular psychology: Emotional Intelligence, by the New York Times journalist Daniel Goleman. Goleman threw together all kinds of different psychology research under the catch-all term 'emotional intelligence', much to the chagrin of the scientists whose research he cobbled together, and then hyped it massively, claiming that teaching EI improved well-being, academic success and led to greater career success. There was little or no evidence for these wild claims.
Nonetheless, the hype around the book carried across the Atlantic, and reached the chief educational psychologist of Southampton local education authority, Peter Sharp, who became so carried away, he decided that emotional literacy should be 'an equal priority with literacy and numeracy for all children in Southampton'. EI classes were rushed into the Southampton curriculum, and given a resoundingly positive evaluation by a friend of Sharp's, Katherine Weare of the University of Southampton.
In 2002, the New Labour government pondered whether to introduce SEAL into the national curriculum, and asked Weare to make an 'independent evaluation'. Her report claimed that EI classes were grounded on a 'firm evidence base' - although the evidence was mainly the wild claims made in Goleman's 'seminal work'. So the government introduced SEAL classes to primary schools, and then secondary schools. As a result, children from 3 to 18 in most UK schools are now taught the pop psychology of Goleman's book.
You'd think that the government and local schools wouldn't rush to dabble with children's psyches and emotions without very strong evidence and a clear idea of what works and what doesn't. After all, as the Hippocratic Oath says: 'First, do no harm'. Yet there was no such evidence base for SEAL. The only independent report into the subject, which was commissioned by the Department of Education and carried out by Neil Humphrey of the University of Manchester in November 2010, found "completely null quantitative findings". SEAL "failed to impact significantly" secondary school children's "social and emotional skills, general mental health difficulties, pro-social behaviour, or behaviour problems".
Now, according to Abram, the Department of Education has decided that "the lack of any overall positive impact from SEAL reinforces the need to prevent further time and resource expenditure on this project".
My God. Didn't someone think to trial the programme before introducing it to the entire national curriculum? Which civil servant decided that this book of pop psychology was the answer to the nation's ills? The fact that Peter Sharp and Katharine Weare could apparently introduce an intrusive psychological procedure into Southampton's schools without any proper evidence is bad enough. But then New Labour introduced the subject into the national curriculum? Were there not any speed bumps, any civil servants, MPs or select committees prepared to ask where the evidence for SEAL was? This seems to me a scandal - that civil servants, politicians and teachers could have played so fast and loose with our children's minds.
Neil Humphrey of the University of Manchester asks a very good question at the end of the programme: if schools are supposed to teach young people 'how to live', then what model of life are we teaching them? SEAL, he suggests, was only teaching them how to be "placid consumers". I think that is a great point. A crucial aspect of social and emotional well-being, it seems to me, is the ability to think for yourself, and the ability to spot bullshit when you see it, and when others try to make you believe it. If you passively accept whatever other people tell you, you'll be in trouble pretty quickly.
But, under the auspices of SEAL, children were force-fed pseudoscientific claims - such as the claim that our body has seven 'energy centres' which emit energies of different colours (we hear this class being taught in the BBC radio programme). This kind of pseudo-science is actually weakening young people's ability to cope with life, because it's weakening their ability to think for themselves, question authority, and to realize when people are talking rubbish to them.
The programme ended with the hope that a more 'evidence-backed' approach will be introduced in the place of SEAL, and Lord Layard was on hand, to promote the 'emotional resilience' pilot programme which he has endorsed, which was designed by Martin Seligman of Penn University, and which basically teaches the Stoic-Socratic techniques of cognitive psychology. I have more time for this programme than SEAL - although I also have grave doubts about some aspects of the programme and its tendency to force-feed one model of the good life.
Please, if this is going to become the national-level substitute for SEAL, don't make the same mistakes that SEAL made:
1) Don't rush it. 2) Don't over sell it. 3) Don't present very young research to children as 'facts'4) Don't design a programme which forces children to passively accept dogma, but instead design one that trains them how to think for themselves, and how to hold beliefs to rational account - their own beliefs, and also the beliefs that are passed on to them by their teachers. 5) Don't force-feed your model of the Good Life onto our children. Instead, teach them to consider, debate, reflect, and choose for themselves. Give them the reason, autonomy and confidence to make their own 'experiments in living', rather than following the prescriptions of old men.