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.”

With no soccer ball, every child ‘wins’

According to the Soccer Association of Midlake, kids imaginations are runnign wild. (Steve DePolo/FLICKR)

According to the Soccer Association of Midlake, kids imaginations are running wild. (Steve DePolo/FLICKR)

Worried about too much competition, many Canadian youth soccer associations no longer keep score, reports This is That, a CBC radio show. Removing the soccer ball is even better, according to the Soccer Association of Midlake, Ontario.

Without a ball, “it’s absolutely impossible to say ‘this team won’ and ‘this team lost’ or ‘this child is better at soccer than that child,’” said Helen Dabney-Coyle. ”We want our children to grow up learning that sport is not about competition, rather it’s about using your imagination. If you imagine you’re good at soccer, then, you are.”

Is this for real? No, it’s satire. But it’s eerily close to plausible.

Relevant schmelevant

Britain’s new “children’s laureate” wants to encourage reading by giving minority students books about people like themselves. “I still remember feeling I was totally invisible in the world of literature,” said Malorie Blackman. “I understand you need to learn about Henry VIII, but when I was young I wanted to learn about something that felt more relevant.”

Relevant, schmelevant, responds Howard Jacobson in The Independent. As a working-class, northern, Jewish boy, he didn’t consider his own visibility when he read books.

“Where are the Jews?” It’s possible that one of the reasons we refrained from asking that question was that when a Jew did pop up in literature we wished he hadn’t. Thanks, Fagin, but no thanks. . . . We didn’t read to self-identify. . . . We read for precisely the opposite reason – in order imaginatively to enjoy the company of others, in order to understand what those who were not ourselves were like, in order to feel the world expand around us, in order to go places we didn’t routinely go to in our neighbourhoods or in our heads, in order to meet the challenge of difference . . . Reading felt like a journey out of self, not into it. And if occasionally we thought we saw something specific to us in Hamlet, or Heathcliff, that was interesting but not obligatory.

. . . Madame Bovary c’est moi, Flaubert declared, invoking the writer’s creed. The reader’s creed is similar. Jane Eyre c’est moi, I felt when I read Charlotte Brontë’s great novel at school, and she was no less moi because she was a girl. . . .  I was not invisible when I read Jane Eyre a) because the best writers make general what’s particular, and b) because I, who had not been taught to go looking for myself missing, honoured the writer/reader compact and found me in characters who weren’t me.

When “relevance” entered the education debate, Jacobson knew knew the outcome, he writes. It has “demeaned those it pretended to help by assuming limits to their curiosity, denied those it offered to empower, cutting off their access to ‘irrelevant’ intellectual pleasure and enlightenment.” It “narrowed the definition of learning to the chance precincts of an individual’s class or upbringing.”

Once education “assumed an equality of eagerness for knowledge, and an equality of right to acquire it,” Jacobson concludes. That’s no longer “relevant.”

As a child I loved reading historical fiction and history, adventure, fantasy . . . Like Jacobson, I didn’t read to find myself. People like me were boring. I wanted to get out of the box of self and see the world.

When Ta-Nehisi Coates talks to black students, he tells them education is “a ticket out into a world so grand and stunning that it defies their imagination.”

From boredom to creativity

A little boredom is good for children, Dr. Teresa Belton told the BBC. Children who are kept active and stimulated every minute don’t have a chance to develop their imaginations, argued Belton, senior researcher at the University of East Anglia’s School of Education and Lifelong Learning.

Interviewing writers, artists and other creative people, Belton heard many stories of boring childhoods. Writer Meera Syal grew up in a small mining village with few distractions.

“Boredom is often associated with solitude and Syal spent hours of her early life staring out of the window across fields and woods, watching the changing weather and seasons.

“But importantly boredom made her write. She kept a diary from a young age, filling it with observations, short stories, poems, and diatribe. And she attributes these early beginnings to becoming a writer late in life.”

Society sees boredom as uncomfortable and uncreative, Belton said. But creativity “involves being able to develop internal stimulus.”

“When children have nothing to do now, they immediately switch on the TV, the computer, the phone or some kind of screen. The time they spend on these things has increased.

“But children need to have stand-and-stare time, time imagining and pursuing their own thinking processes or assimilating their experiences through play or just observing the world around them.”

Reminds me on Diana Senechal’s book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture.

Kids play less, but imagination soars

Despite less time for free play, children play more imaginatively, according to researchers who’ve tracked children’s play for 23 years.

In an analysis published in May 2011 in the Creativity Research Journal and posted online last month, researchers from Case Western University in Cleveland found elementary school children in 2008 were significantly more imaginative and took greater comfort in playing make-believe than their counterparts in 1985 despite having less time either during or after school for free play.

Children ages 6 to 10 are videotaped for five minutes each while playing with three blocks and two hand-puppets, reports Ed Week. Researchers analyze each child’s imagination, emotional expression, actions, and storytelling.
From BigStock

Children who rate highly in imaginative and emotional play “show better coping skills, creativity, and problem solving than students who rate low on the play scale,” according to Sandra Russ, a psychology professor who co-authored the study.

Children average eight fewer hours of unstructured playtime each week than they did 25 years ago, according to David Elkind, a professor emeritus of child development at Tufts. That excludes video games or organized sports. He blames overprotective parents.

Russ thinks children are finding ways to “sneak in” pretend play. “Children are resilient,” she said. “It’s possible they are playing more than we think they are, that they’re squeezing it in somewhere during the day, at night, when they’re not being taken to sports or dancing class.”

‘Depressing idiocy’

Leonie Haimson slams the “depressing idiocy” of Common Core’s English Language Arts standards, which favor “informational text” over fiction.

Fiction stimulates children’s brains and lets them “enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings,” writes Annie Murphy Paul.

 

Learning by fooling around

Anthony Esolen’s Ten Ways To Destroy the Imagination of Your Child is the roar of the lion father, according to a Washington Times review. While “tiger mom” Amy Chua wants structure and parental control, Esolen thinks children need free time for playing, reading, tree climbing and fooling around.

If we want to destroy children’s imagination, we should fill up their time with scheduled activities, tell them what books to read and what instruments to play and, above all, stress that none of this is to be enjoyed for its own sake but merely as steppingstones to eventual admission to Harvard or Brown.

The structure of Mr. Esolen‘s book is 10 chapters titled by mock “how to” lists to deaden your child’s imagination. For example, “Keep your children indoors as much as possible,” “Never leave children to themselves,” “Replace the fairy tale with political cliches and fads,” “Cast aspersions upon the heroic and patriotic” and “Cut all heroes down to size.” He castigates the bland gender-neutralism of modern society (“Level distinctions between man and woman”) and the general elimination of faith from modern society (“Deny the transcendent”).

For some children, free time is used for climbing trees and inventing games. For others, it’s spent sitting on the couch watching TV or playing video games.

Too much knowledge?

There is nothing like knowing it all to kill the imagination,” write Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon, authors of Imagination First, on the Education Nation web site:

“When we become expert, or think we have, we get the benefits of intellectual shortcuts and far greater processing efficiency-but we suffer the cost of closed-mindedness. Having seen it all, we stop looking. Having been there, we stop going. Having done that, we stop doing.”

“Seriously?” asks Robert Pondiscio in Idiot’s Delight on Core Knowledge Blog.

As an alternative to mind-numbing knowledge, Liu and Noppe-Brandon praise GeoDome, an “experience of pure wonder.”

Using Google Earth, real-time NASA data, state-of-the-art animation designed by a Pixar veteran, a single laptop, a projector, and an Xbox joystick, McConville takes the guests on a journey to . . .  anywhere they want in the known universe.

“We did not dream our way to Google Earth, NASA, Pixar or the Xbox,” Pondiscio points out.

A deep knowledge base, years of training and expertise enable us to create the things that inspire awe in others. And I can’t help but wonder if physicists, engineers, and scientists of every stripe would be surprised to learn that their hard-earned expertise has resulted in “closed-mindedness.”

My husband knows a great deal about electrical engineering, a field in which he earned a PhD. Knowing a lot has enabled him to come up with new ideas, for which he holds several dozen patents. Ignorance is not the mother, father or brother-in-law of invention.

If I were to make a list of the problems afflicting American education, excess knowledge would be very low on the list.