Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Benefits of Investing in Developing Emotional Intelligence

Many educators and policymakers may scoff at the thought of making room for something as “unnecessary” as emotions in the school curriculum, because it’s jam-packed as it is with standard testing and efforts to prepare for said exams. But contradictory to popular belief, our emotions aren’t irrelevant at all. In fact, emotions are the tendons that attach the facts we learn in class to our brains. Emotions govern our ability to think and learn. Emotions operate the very thought process that students use to analyze the information they’re receiving from their teachers. Emotions can also inhibit the same material from properly digesting. Our minds are driven by emotions. Emotions couldn’t be more relevant, and yet we pay no mind to them.
I think we should.
Not only should emotional intelligence be implemented into public education, I believe it should be mandated as well. The way things stand, students are taught to keep emotions to themselves, to handle feelings on their own time and not to trouble anybody with them. Emotions are to be dealt with privately. This is the implication (however unintentional) simply because we’ve been excluding the study of emotions from our schools. Are they not worthy things to learn? Are we supposed to understand them on our own? I know I don't. Was I the only one who didn’t get an owner’s manual for my own mind?
Of course not.
The trouble is that making sense of our emotions doesn’t come as naturally to us as you might think. Just look at you. You’re probably a total mess emotionally, and if not, you’re one of the lucky few. Most of us need guidance just to operate our minds without disturbing our emotions. Plus, most known effective methods of taking the reins of our emotions are entirely counter-intuitive, and often times the opposite of what we’re naturally inclined to do. We seem to have a nasty habit of aggravating our emotions rather than relieving them, which is why more and more students are cracking under the strain of the emotions they’re expected (and try desperately) to suppress. Suicide rates rise as ADHD and depression and a score of other mental maladies sweep across another sorry generation.
Rather than pump this bunch with Ritalin, perhaps instead of treating them, we ought to teach them how to deal.
For one thing, students may not even realize they’re wrestling the same emotions all their peers are also facing, and, despite appearances, we’re not alone! And if we just had one class dedicated to developing our emotions, we would finally be able to acknowledge that we’re, all of us, affected. Currently, the only resource students have to get emotional support (at school) is their appointed counselor. But seeking out a counselor comes with a stigma, singling the student out as “someone who needs help,” something he or she may be reluctant to admit or even realize. However, mandating a class to teach emotions and requiring that every student take it would indeed remove the stigma. This way, students would be open to receive the mental help they need without having to seek it out themselves.
And we all need it. Don’t act like you’re immune to your emotions. They are universal to us all, and that’s the beauty of it, really. Just imagine the camaraderie and trust that we could build if students tackled their emotions as a class instead of individually. They’d learn so many interpersonal skills that are currently woefully absent from the worldrespect, compassion, understanding, empathy, acceptance, and mindfulness of everyone’s emotions, not just our own. And most importantly, implementing such a class would also redefine emotions as something we are free and open to express, and encouraged and accepted to discuss, not something to be ashamed of or suppress.
The most striking fact about this is the proven effectiveness of tuning in with our emotions and its impact on students’ academic performance. A study led by Geoff Cohen (Department of Psychology, University of Colorado) and several associates revealed some astonishing results. Four hundred seventh graders from a socioeconomically diverse school were selected and split into two groups. Both were given similar writing assignments at the beginning of the school year. Half the students were instructed to write a brief essay about a personal value they hold dearly, why it's important to them and how they express it. The other half, as a control group, were instructed to write about a personal value they themselves do NOT possess and write instead about why it might be meaningful to someone else. As it turns out, the students who were asked to write about their own values “narrowed the achievement gap between black and white students by 40 percent, and the effects lasted through the eighth grade (two years)” (Winch 211).
Now think about it. That was one single assignment, which may have taken half an hour to complete but made a lasting difference in participants’ performance across all disciplines. Developing emotional intelligence is the most cost efficient way of raising educational standards and test scores nationwide. The study I discussed specifically empowered those affected by negative stereotypes, however, exercising our emotions is generally beneficial to us all, considering they’re something everybody has in common. Just think of the depression and aggression and distress that we could save ourselves if we learned to embrace and manage our emotions. What a better education that would be. It would instill the qualities the world so desperately needs to cultivate. Students are the future, and there’s plenty of stress ahead of them, so they had better be equipped to handle it.
Fortunately, this reform is already in the works, as an increasing number of private and experimental schools are shifting their focus from strictly academia to “Social and Emotional Learning” programs (SEL). This is not enough however, for the schools who most desperately need to implement emotional intelligence don't have the resources to do so. Social and Emotional learning will have the most tremendous impact on underprivileged students attending underprivileged schools. These public schools are penalized financially because their students statistically score lowest on standard tests, and thus the schools must then cut down on necessary resources students depend on to reach their optimal performance and intellectual potential. They are reduced to outdated textbooks and badly paid professors, and an educational environment that deprives them of the opportunities that other students see in higher-scoring public schools and wealthy private institutions. This reinforces the growing achievement gap between minorities and privileged students and perpetuates the growing socioeconomic divide, which is reaching breaking point. These students see no future other than what they’re born into: gangs and drugs, ghettos and slums, prostitutes and hustlers. They don’t aspire to be CEOs or presidents of companiesthese jobs are too far out of reach. No, they aspire to be pimps and gang-bangers and drug lordspositions of attainable “success.” These are the students who most desperately need to see the light at the end of their educational tunnel, and the only way to show them is through self-affirmation, and shifting the focus from strictly academia to include social and emotional intelligence as well. Likewise, these are the students who will be impacted and benefit the most from implementing SEL. This is why Emotional Intelligence must be implemented and mandated into standard education nationwide, in every public school, especially the underprivileged ones. It will be the most cost-effective avenue of actually increasing quality of education and test scores across the nation.


Winch, Guy, Ph.D. Emotional First Aid. New York: Hudson Street Press, 2013. Print.

G.L. Cohen, J. Garcia, V. Purdie-Vaughns, N. Apfel, and P. Brustoski, “Recursive processes in self-affirmation: Intervening to close the minority achievement gap.” Science 324 (2009): 400-403

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Book Buddies and Shared Studies

               How do these two programs close the generation gap, and in the process, open the door to a revolutionary learning opportunity?

The purpose of this blog, “A Better Education” is to illuminate the possibilities in store for public education, and how acutely they compare to the reality of it, and find new resources and methods of progressing education in the right direction. Most of these new methods and resources have been confined to “experimental” private schools and institutions, and so far have not been made available to the vast majority of students. We are in the midst of an educational paradigm shift, and it certainly can’t happen overnight.
The good news is, these private schools have done the heavy lifting of progressing education for the rest of us. They’ve taken the initiative and risk, and now they have the evidence to show their methods are effective. Phase one of educational reform is underway. The next step, naturally, will be to implement new proven methods of improving education into public legislation, thus restructuring the public school system.
This section of “A Better Education” is dedicated to discussing these new and improved learning models and imagining how aspects of these methods could eventually be adapted and integrated into public education. Experimental education has been in the works for quite a while, and the results are finally in, and they are undeniable. It’s time to analyze the facts and face the future.

Book Buddies & Shared Studies
Grace Living Center & Jenks School District

It all began in 1998, in Jenks, a suburb of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Almost as if they were fated to unite, it just so happens that the Jenks school district is located directly across the street from Grace Living Center, a home for the elderly. Due to their close proximity, the two institutions arranged an integrated program intended to benefit both parties—the students and the elderly alike--called Book Buddies, “which pairs rotating groups of elders and kindergarten students who read to one another for about 30 minutes several times a week” (Morehouse - “Senior Citizens Help Young Children”).
The partnership has been so immensely beneficial I don’t even know where to begin. The programs benefit the kids, of course, but do wonders for the elderly as well. The vibrant company of youth eliminates their loneliness and boredom. Not only this, but students are also more accepting of the elderly and their physical differences and medical needs than they might otherwise have learned to be. This setting brings the old and young together, in the process eradicating age discrimination at the source.
But each program has its own specific purpose, on top of all of the above.

“Book Buddies”
 Book Buddies employs the elders as the perfect audience for young new readers. They possess the necessary patience and appreciation for the students as they tackle tricky sentences and words that they’re still learning. The program has so far produced “remarkable results,” according to Ken Robinson, the author of The Element, who says that “the majority of the children at the Grace Living Center are outperforming other children in the district on the state’s standardized reading tests. More than 70 percent are leaving the program at age five reading at third grade level or higher” (204-205).

“Shared Study”
 This program joins small groups of students and elderly to work together on hands-on activities, including crafts and dramatic reenactments of events in correspondence with their studies. These activities are educational, of course, but also highly creative, and from the students’ point of view, constitute play.
 “To promote connections between the generations,” according to Morehouse, “teachers look at class themes through the lens of ‘then and now.’” For instance, during the Healthy Habits unit, the students and the elderly compare the lunch options available today to those available to kids “back then.”
This partnership employs the elderly as mentors for the youth, helping them read, engaging them in fun activities, and discussing the differences between the world today and the one that they grew up in—a scarce and invaluable perspective the next generation desperately needs to be exposed to, considering how rapidly the times are changing. But more so than anything, this partnership makes productive use of a highly wasted human resource: old people. “Instead of whiling away their days waiting for the inevitable,” as Robinson describes it, “they have a reason to get up in the morning and a renewed excitement about what the day might bring” (205). Not only that, but “medication levels have been plummeting” (Robinson 205).
The reason I find this so inspiring is the elderly who have so much to offer have gone so woefully neglected. They have the better part of a century of life experience behind them, and so much wisdom and knowledge to share, and yet the younger generation is kept mostly separate from the old. We siphon the elderly off into homes in the same fashion we pack up unused Christmas decorations into cardboard boxes. We stowe them well out of the way and take them out only on special occasions.
Why are the elderly so widely regarded as such burdens? Sure they need some extra care physically and medically, but like I said, their minds have so much more to offer than we give them credit for. Also, they do possess one asset that the rest of us are desperately lacking: That is time, and as we all know, time is money. And the elderly have oodles. They have the perfect disposition to work with kindergartners because they’re patient, and because they’re not scrambling to manage thirty to forty kids at once, the children have someone to actually take the time to stumble over words with them, one on one. “Here, we have elders,” says GLC president Don Greiner, “who our society has parked somewhere, having that impact. This is an opportunity for them to mean something and be something” (“Senior Citizens Help Young Children”).
 The partnership between the school and living center and the subsequent advances in the students’ academic and social development are impressive evidence that integrating generations can be hugely beneficial to everyone involved. Luckily, we needn’t base all kindergarten classrooms in the middle of assisted living centers. Weekly visits by bus would do just fine. Another possibility would be to offer programs at boys and girls’ clubs and recreation centers and libraries that bring the elderly together with young students in a similar fashion.


Morehouse, Lisa. “Senior Citizens Help Young Children with Reading and Relationships.” Edutopia. Web. 19 January 2014.

Morehouse, Lisa. “How to Build Intergenerational Opportunities for Learning.” Edutopia. Web. 19 January 2014.

Robinson, Ken. The Element. New York: Penguin Books, 2009. Print.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Power of Choice

The most fundamental purpose of education, last I heard, was to empower us to reach our full (professional and intellectual) potential. However, public schools strictly adhere to an outdated educational design, which was built to suit the needs of the industrial revolution, but which fails to satisfy the needs of many if not most students today, not to mention their future employers. I worry the very infrastructure of education is causing just the opposite effect of what it set out to do. Rather than empower us to reach our full potential, our education is depriving us the very qualities it set out to deliver--confidence in intellect, critical thinking skills, creativity, and the ability to see numerous perspectives on the same material.
However, we need only change one basic element of the infrastructure of education: Everywhere that we deprive students the ability to choose, throughout their education, we must offer them varieties of options from which to pick from, rather than submit them to something they have no say in at all. This will empower students to personalize their education, steering them well away from the assembly-line-style standardized design to which students are currently subjected. For instance:
  • Rather than requiring one all-inclusive one-size-fits-all PE class, schools could mandate a minimum requirement of Physical Fitness credits annually, meaning students choose from numerous available sports and classes as long as the total credits meet the yearly minimum.
  • For summer reading, rather than assigning the same reading to every student in the class, teachers could offer a selection of relevant reading for students to choose from. Follow-up assignments would either be general enough that they apply to all the options, or individual alternative assignments must be offered for questions regarding a specific text. Ultimately, this will benefit the students because they will have to structure their responses and analyses in such a way that they make sense and still have relevance to those who didn’t read the book, and to be brief enough in summarizing context that they don’t lose their interest.
  • Instead of everybody taking plain-old “History” (or the “good students” taking “AS or AP History” and the “bad ones” taking the dreaded “Regular”), students should be able to choose from a vast array of history classes geared toward different types of learning, such as:
    • History through Music,” which would explore the impact of history on dance and music and vice versa, and would appeal especially to musical and kinesthetic learners.
    • “History through Literature,” which would explore written accounts of history from different points of views, and would appeal to linguistic intellect.
    • “Art History,” which would of course attract visual learners and is already offered in some schools.
    • Rewriting History,” which would empower students to realize the individual impact of different leaders and how their actions reflect their values and personal priorities.
    • “Rewinding History,” in which history would be explored in reverse, starting in modern times and going backwards, identifying which historical event resulted in our current legislation, and ultimately opening students’ eyes to the lasting impact people have.
    • ...To name a few. And those are just the ones Sarah and I came up with. The possibilities are limitless, and that’s the beauty of it.

But to achieve this choice-based education I describe, state legislation would have to radically slim down the existing standardized curriculum required of all public schools statewide. Requirements would have to be revised so as to be adaptable enough for schools to diversify and customize their classes to satisfy their students’ vast array of learning needs and particular interests. This would show the students that their individual talents and passions do have value and are worthy to pursue, so much so that there’s a whole class dedicated to their very needs and preferences. No doubt, fewer students will report boredom or lack of motivation in their classes, and although it isn’t given very much priority, I believe it’s critical that students’ have a genuine interest in the things they learn. This is essential for them to fully take in the information and make creative, original use of it.
Schools would need to be open to cross-disciplinary collaboration. For instance, the music teacher may not be the ideal candidate to teach a class on history, unless of course the class in question consists of musically driven students, in which case the music teacher is indeed more capable of reaching them by showing them the relevance of history by means of music, a medium they love and understand, than your standard history teacher.
Each school would construct its own menu for students to choose from, but instead of appetizers, entrées and desserts, they’ll offer Fitness, History, and other disciplines. And underneath each category will be a list of different courses, and in the place of the price will be the number of credits. I imagine it would somewhat resemble a college course catalog. This change may not be feasible unless schools stop sorting their students by their ages (grade level) and start sorting them instead by interests, because to offer a variety of courses for each subject every year would be impossible, unless we let students select classes regardless of their age or “grade level”--an arbitrary label--and qualify or place them based on their experience instead.

Customize. Don’t Standardize. It’s simple. Give students the power to choose and take control of their education for a change. Empower them to reach their individual potential.