Reading for emotional intelligence

Reading literary fiction develops empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence, according to a new study reported in the New York Times.

Understanding others’ mental states, known as “Theory of Mind” (ToM), is a critical social skill, researchers write. People who read a short piece of literature did better on ToM tests than those who read excerpts of popular fiction, nonfiction or nothing at all.

“Literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity,” researchers believe.

 “This is why I love science,” Louise Erdrich, whose novel The Round House was used in one of the experiments, wrote in an e-mail. The researchers, she said, “found a way to prove true the intangible benefits of literary fiction.”

“Thank God the research didn’t find that novels increased tooth decay or blocked up your arteries,” she added.

The study could give ammunition to critics of the Common Core standards, which call for students to read more nonfiction. Inevitably, that means less time reading literature.

Participants were tested on their ability to decode emotions or predict a person’s expectations or beliefs. For example, in one test, they studied 36 photographs of pairs of eyes and chose which of four adjectives best described the emotion shown.

Is the woman with the smoky eyes aghast or doubtful? Is the man whose gaze has slivered to a squint suspicious or indecisive? Is she interested or irritated, flirtatious or hostile? Is he fantasizing or guilty, dominant or horrified?

Popular fiction tends to be focused on plot, says researcher Emanuele Castano, professor of psychology at The New School for Social Research. “You know from the get-go who is going to be the good guy and the bad guy.”

Schools try to teach ‘emotional intelligence’

Schools are trying to teach “emotional intelligence,” writes Jennifer Kahn in the New York Times Magazine.

As the children formed a circle, (teacher James) Wade asked the 5-year-olds to think about “anything happening at home, or at school, that’s a problem, that you want to share.” He repeated his invitation twice, in a lulling voice, until a small, round-faced boy in a white shirt and blue cardigan raised his hand. Blinking back tears, he whispered, “My mom does not like me.” The problem, he said, was that he played too much on his mother’s iPhone. “She screams me out every day,” he added, sounding wretched.

Wade let that sink in, then turned to the class and asked, “Have any of your mommies or daddies ever yelled at you?” When half the children raised their hands, Wade nodded encouragingly. “Then maybe we can help.” Turning to a tiny girl in a pink T-shirt, he asked what she felt like when she was yelled at.

“Sad,” the girl said, looking down.

“And what did you do? What words did you use?”

“I said, ‘Mommy, I don’t like to hear you scream at me.’ ”

Does anyone see a problem with asking little kids to describe family problems in class?

Many “prosocial” programs promise to teach social and emotional learning, aka SEL, writes Kahn.

Some of them — including one of the most popular, Second Step — are heavily scripted: teachers receive grade-appropriate “kits” with detailed lesson plans, exercises and accompanying videos. Others, like Facing History and Ourselves — in which children debate personal ethics after reading the fictionalized letters of a Nazi colonel and a member of the French Resistance — are more free-form: closer to a college philosophy seminar than to a junior-high civics class. “

Leataata Floyd Elementary, a school in a low-income part of Sacramento, hopes SEL will raise low test scores. Students learn how to deal with sadness, anger and frustration. Techniques are simple: Count to five. Take a deep breath.

Kahn observed a fourth-grade class discussion.

Sitting in a circle on the carpet, Anthony, a small boy in a red shirt, began by recounting how he cried during a class exercise and was laughed at by some of the other students. Asked whether he thought the kids were giggling to be mean, or just giggling because they were uncomfortable, Anthony paused. “I think that some people didn’t know what to do, and so they giggled,” he admitted finally — though he was also adamant that a few of the kids were actually laughing at him. “I was really sad about that,” he added.

Though Anthony was still upset, his acknowledgment that not all the kids were snickering — that some may just have been laughing nervously — felt like a surprisingly nuanced insight for a 9-year-old. In the adult world, this kind of reappraisal is known as “reframing.”

SEL advocates say it “can establish neurological pathways that make a child less vulnerable to anxiety and quicker to recover from unhappy experiences,” writes Kahn. They also claim “social-emotional training develops the prefrontal cortex,” enhancing”academically important skills like impulse control, abstract reasoning, long-term planning and working memory.”

However, a U.S. Education Department analysis of seven SEL programs in 2010 “found no increase in academic achievement and no decline in behavioral problems.”

Teaching self-control makes sense to me. But I’d feel happier if they left the prefrontal cortex out of it.

Mindfulness or abdication of mind?

Leon Wieseltier’s critique of Google’s “emotional intelligence” curriculum (“The Tao Jones Index,” The New Republic, May 24) is worth reading and rereading. In a few words he nails what’s wrong with the concept of workplace “mindfulness” (as put forth by the Google engineer Chade-Meng Tan) and points to larger problems as well:

“Pay[ing] attention moment-to-moment” is a renunciation of the critical temper. The pure present is for infants and mystics. The serenity that Meng teaches is a go-along, get-along quietism, an organizational submissiveness—a technique designed to strip the individual of any internal obstacle to the ungrumbling execution of his tasks. … Meng and his authorities—“happiness strategists,” “leadership scholars”–insist upon the “non-judgmental” character of the mindful ideal. This is one of the great American mistakes. Instead of teaching people how to judge, we teach them not to judge—but there is no circumstance or context in which the absence of judgment is not a judgment, specifically one of accommodation and acquiescence.”

In other words, mindfulness of this sort amounts to abdication of mind. Read the whole piece.

I see this play out in school curricula and policy: ”Instead of teaching people how to judge, we teach them not to judge.” We give judging a bad name, equating it with knee-jerk reaction. At its best, judgment is anything but knee-jerk. In fact, if we do not know how to exercise judgment well, we are all the more susceptible to impulsive reactions, both our own and other people’s.

I have attended PDs where everyone was supposed to create quick “art,” put it up on the wall, and then take a “gallery walk” around the room, writing ”nonjudgmental, observational” comments on Post-its and placing them upon the rushed piece in question. Nonjudgment of this sort should have its own circle or pouch in the Inferno. My guess is that Dante would have included it in Malebolge, the Eighth Circle, which has ten pouches for ordinary fraud.

Update: A number of commenters below seem to have taken Wieseltier’s article (and  my post) as an attack on mindfulness itself. As I see it, Wieseltier is criticizing a particular sort of workplace spiritual doctrine and its attendant jargon.

Teaching niceness

“Social and emotional knowledge” can be taught in school “just like trigonometry or French grammar,” some psychologists believe. From the Boston Globe:

. . .  a typical teaching unit might include a role-playing exercise, or a set of diagrams breaking down the components of different facial expressions, or, in older children, a discussion of the subtle differences between disgust and contempt.

Some of this sounds like the social skills classes offered to kids with Asperger’s Syndrome and other forms of autism.

Around 10 percent of American grade school and high school students now go through some form of social and emotional learning curriculum, according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a Chicago-based emotional learning research organization. A handful of states have instituted emotional learning guidelines for their public schools – the most comprehensive is Illinois’s, which sets “self-management,” “social awareness,” and “interpersonal skills” benchmarks, among others, for kids at each grade level.

At high-scoring Scarsdale Middle School and elsewhere, empathy is showing up in the curriculum, reports the New York Times.

English classes discuss whether Friar Laurence was empathetic to Romeo and Juliet. Research projects involve interviews with octogenarians and a survey of local wheelchair ramps to help students identify with the elderly and the disabled. A new club invites students to share snacks and board games after school with four autistic classmates who are in separate classes during the day.

Los Angeles is using Second Step, which “teaches empathy, impulse control, anger management and problem solving,” in its middle schools.  Seven Seattle elementary schools are using Roots of Empathy.

I’m dubious about adding another responsibility — one traditionally handled by parents — on to teachers’ shoulders. It’s one thing to insist that students learn to behave in class; it’s another to take on their social and emotional development. Also, I know there’s little research backing the effectiveness of these programs in changing students’ behavior.

Teachers, what do you think? Should “relating” become the fourth R?