Experimenting on Students

Recently I read a critique of the “SEAL” initiative in the UK, a government mandate to ensure all students systematically and consistently learn about emotions. The critique is poorly grounded, sensational, and self-promotional — but there was one point that’s been hovering. It said, in essence: This approach has never been fully tested so it is unreasonable to experiment on a generation.

On the one hand, this is eminently reasonable. We ought to look before we leap. So we do a great deal of research (both empirical and observational) and use that to define best practice. There is now a substantial body of research on SEL (see the case), but of course not enough for certainty.

On the other, we are already experimenting, so the question isn’t “experiment or not,” it is, “do our best to rationalize this experiment or bury our heads in the sand.”

The experiment underway is a tsunami of social change. As a society we’re in the midst of a chaotic, uncontrolled experiment — introducing variables from GMO foods to youth who average 60 hour of TV time to instant messaging to billions spent on marketing to children (versus 1/50th only two decades before).

In the face of these unprecedented, chaotic, and stress-inducing forces, we must find ways to balance — like surfing on tidal waves. HopeAs educators, we do not have the luxury of certainly. We need both the immediate intervention — our best efforts crafted from a blend of reason and compassion — and the carefully considered and well-evaluated response.

But we can’t wait too long. Each year we spend contemplating and debating, millions of children miss another year of opportunity… and then the experiment changes again.

Further, it occurs to me that education has always been an experimental journey.

At one point, the field of education had never tested the teaching of anyone but nobility. At another point, the use of pencils had never been tested. Or teaching of girls – and girls and boys together – and teaching of people of multiple races together… more recently, education had never tested the effect of raising a generation who used electronic typewriters. I remember the joy when my parents bought an IBM Selectric which would re-type a report from memory! And the consternation of some of my teachers when I was bringing reports without white-out-corrections (was I cheating??)

To teach at all requires a certain arrogance — based in a belief that we know what will help the next generation solve the problems they will inherit from us (that’s right – those very problems we have patently failed to solve).  Ideally we balance that arrogance with incredible compassion, not just for humanity but more for these individual people, these delightful, confusing, challenging, and unique humans. In the abstract we can research and debate — but when it comes down to the mat, there are children who need us, and they are the promise, the one chance for tomorrow, and they can not wait for us to figure it out.  So in the end, teaching is an act of hope.

3 Replies to “Experimenting on Students”

  1. Hi Josh I agree with what you have said in you blog and would like to add something. In one area where I have been working with teachers for the last five years, the woman in charge of introducing ‘SEAL’ went to see schools where teachers had previously worked on their own EI with me first. She was looking to see if these “EQ prepared” teachers would work differently/more effectively with the material than schools where this was all new to them.

    It is early days yet, however they have told me the difference is marked, teachers and support staff in the “prepared schools” have a level of understanding which enables tham to empathise, support and be compassionate when working with the pupils.

    When this is rolled out to high schools the work with staff is going to be even more important otherwise this experiment will be a failure. Just one more initiative that wasn’t really taken on by schools. Teachers need to own it, understand it, and support it and if they have no interest in EI for themselves they won’t value it enough to teach it to others.

    It is, however, urgent that we do this work, at the moment asbos are being used in this country to manage young peoples emotions and we are allowing that to happen.

  2. Thanks Cath – that makes SO much sense to me — as Anabel Jensen says, “You teach what you are.” So teachers who start by developing their own EQ ought to be far more effective at SEAL or SEL.

  3. Cath and Josh
    I think it is almost impossible to teach emotional intelligence untrained, just as with any other subject. I don’t believe you can get full engagement from young people if you don’t model EI, understand it and have great enthusiasm for it! For some teachers SEALs and similar widespread programmes can be seen as another top down initiative which is a great pity. As you say Cath, teachers need ownership – and some space for creative initiatives which can only be envisioned with some real understanding.

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