SEAL: ‘we get a little crazy’

by | Aug 27, 2010

I’ve been looking into a curriculum subject introduced by New Labour in 2003, called Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL). It began as a voluntary primary school subject, and in 2007 was also made a voluntary secondary school subject. Over 90% of primary schools and over 60% of secondary schools now teach it.

SEAL teaches five emotional competencies: self-awareness, managing feelings, motivation, empathy and social skills. It’s the biggest example of the new ‘politics of wellbeing’, and  of the new confidence governments have in managing their citizens’ emotional development.

What I’ve discovered, to my surprise, is that this new national subject was almost entirely based on one book – Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence (EI).

Goleman, then a journalist at the New York Times, wrote EI in 1996. The book was a huge hit and spent a year and a half in the New York Times best-seller list. It captured the 1990s fascination with the emotions, the role they play, and how we can manage them.

Cut to Southampton, in 1997, and Peter Sharp, the local authority’s chief educational psychologist, read EI and was so “inspired” by it that he and Southampton’s chief schools inspector decided that “emotional literacy should be an equal priority with literacy and numeracy for all children in Southampton”. The book must have made quite an impression.

Sharp drew up an EI educational programme, based almost entirely around Goleman’s book, with the aim of teaching children to become more “emotionally intelligent”, better-behaved, and therefore less likely to be thrown out of schools.

This programme was then implemented, and evaluated by the University of Southampton’s Katharine Weare, another Southampton psychologist and friend of Sharp’s. She decided it worked, because it reduced exclusions.

The fact that exclusions in Southampton schools went down following the introduction of EI courses doesn’t actually prove that pupils became more ’emotionally intelligent’, of course, only that Southampton schools decided not to exclude so many children. Indeed, Weare admits that problem behaviour in schools had become “so widespread that exclusion is no longer an option.” And yet the lower rate of exclusions was also used by Weare as the main evidence that the EI course really ‘worked’.

Meanwhile, other local education authorities (LEAs) got the EI bug and started to follow Southampton’s example. New Labour, newly installed on on a manifesto of ‘education, education, education’, and buzzed up to the sounds of M People’s ‘Things can only get better’, started to look at introducing the EI approach into the national curriculum.

In 2002, the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) hired Weare to write a report to examine “how children’s emotional and social competence and wellbeing could most effectively be developed at national and local level”. The report, unsurprisingly, warmly endorsed Goleman’s “seminal work”, and trumpeted the evidence base for it.

The evidence included “strong impressionistic evidence” from the LEAs themselves who were providing emotional literacy courses – though of course, they would say it worked, wouldn’t they. The report also uncritically passed on Goleman’s own bold claim that EI  is “more influential than cognitive abilities for personal, career and scholastic success”.

DfES embraced Weare’s proposals, and SEAL was introduced in 2003, and rolled out to secondary schools in 2007. So now, children will be taught Goleman’s ideas from the ages of 3 to 18. What an incredible feat for a pop psychology book, to become enshrined in the education of an entire nation.

Now, as it happens, I am a supporter of the idea of educating children to manage their own emotions. That was a cornerstone of ancient Greek philosophical education – and indeed, Goleman begins and ends EI by citing Aristotle, who was “so concerned with emotional skilfulness”.

Nonetheless, I find the story of how Goleman’s book became a staple of national education slightly chilling.

First of all, this was a book of popular psychology, by a journalist, who threw together research from all kinds of different psychological approaches – the multiple intelligence school, the neurological approach, CBT, Positive Psychology, psychoanalysis, the emotional intelligence school of Mayer and Salovey – without recognizing that often these schools directly disagree with each other in their theories of emotion and their ideas of how to manage them.

Goleman’s main debt is to the work on emotional intelligence by Jack Mayer and Peter Salovey. However, he made claims based on their research that were far wilder than they ever made. His central claim, that EI is a better predictor of career success than IQ, is “nothing that you will ever find in anything we wrote”, says Mayer. And Goleman included so many different ideas, theories and approaches into the catch-all term of EI that “the concept loses its power when it’s anything and everything”, in the words of Salovey.

In fact, for a book about emotional intelligence, EI is remarkably confused about what emotions are and how they arise. Goleman passes on several therapeutic techniques from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which is a form of therapy based around the cognitive theory of emotions. This theory, pioneered by the Stoics, suggests that our emotions follow our thoughts, beliefs and appraisals. By changing our automatic thoughts and beliefs, we change our emotions. So the Stoics rejected the distinction between ‘head’ and ‘heart’ – in fact, one’s heart follows one’s head. As you habitually think, so you habitually feel.

So Goleman draws on CBT heavily for his ideas of how we can manage our feelings. And yet he also explicitly rejects CBT’s cognitive theory of emotions.

He says that the cognitive approach “leaves unexplored the rich sea of emotions that makes the inner life and relationship so complex”. Cognitive scientists, he writes, have too computational a model of the human mind, and have forgotten that, in reality, “the brain’s wetware is awash in a messy, pulsating puddle of neurochemicals”, and that it is “the wash of feeling that gives life its flavour”.

As it happens, CBT doesn’t deny that our minds are “awash” with neurochemicals. But it says we can manage the neurochemical wash by focusing on what is in our control – our thoughts, our beliefs, our body, our behaviour, how we view and frame reality.

You don’t have to accept the Stoic / CBT model of emotions. But then don’t use their techniques. It suggests an incoherence in your theoretical foundations.

Despite the looseness of Goleman’s definition of EI, despite the fact that the scientists whose research he popularized explicitly disagree with his conclusions, New Labour seized on his book and made it a new subject in the national curriculum. I find that amazing.

And hardly anyone has made a fuss. Hardly anyone has even noticed. One of the few exceptions is the Centre for Confidence and Well-Being in Glasgow, who wrote a report in 2007 warning that:

Daniel Goleman was a journalist and his book has been seriously, and extensively, critiqued by a large number of psychologists. His claims for the importance of emotional intelligence have been discredited. Goleman now tacitly accepts some of these criticisms. What’s more, the way that Goleman defines emotional intelligence has also been undermined. Critics claim that his notion of emotional intelligence is a ragbag which includes any positive human characteristic other than IQ. They also point out that many of the characteristics he cites are at odds with one another or largely emanate from personality. Yet Secondary SEAL has at its core Goleman’s ideas as they base this whole programme on Goleman’s ‘five domains’.

In short, Goleman cannot be used as the intellectual foundation, and justification of large- scale work of this type in school, but this is exactly what is happening in SEAL.

The rapid embrace and dissemination of Goleman’s ideas is an amazing example of the expansion of the therapeutic state – an expansion that we’re often hardly aware of, that has happened with minimal publicity, because after all, our children aren’t being force-fed moral beliefs, like children in fundamentalist Islamic madrasahs. No, this is science. There is ‘a clear evidence base’. And therefore we don’t need to debate the ethics of making ’emotional intelligence’ as important a priority as numeracy and literacy.

We may like the idea of teaching young people how to govern themselves. But the confusion and sloppiness of Goleman’s own work shows that, while many of us may agree that education should teach young people how to manage their emotions, it gets much harder when one gets down to specifics. What do you mean by emotion? What is your core theory of how emotions arise, and therefore how we can manage them? What is your model of a ‘good life’ or a ‘good character’, and what ethical assumptions does it involve?

The lack of consensus on these issues, and the weakness or lack of the evidence base to definitively answer these questions, means governments at the very least should be cautious before diving into children’s minds.

But the expansion of SEAL shows that they are being far too hasty. And they typically seek ‘objective evaluations’ of the effectiveness of such programmes by psychologists or sociologists from those institutions which promoted the programme in the first place, and who now profit from them – it’s like asking Price Waterhouse Coopers to evaluate the effectiveness of PPP programmes.

In a few years, we have allowed a whole caste of priest-like psychologists operating at local and national level to tell our children how to think, how to feel, what is normal and healthy, and what is aberrant and pathological. And we accept their diktats unquestioningly, because ‘the evidence is clear’ – even though it is often extremely shaky or, in the case of Goleman, plain wrong. No one voted for these priests. No one debated their claims. No one even noticed their takeover of power.

It reminds me of Plato’s Protagoras, in which the celebrity-sophist Protagoras arrives in Athens on a wave of hype, promising to teach any one who pays him the ‘skills’ of virtue and rhetoric. Socrates warns his fellow Athenians:

are you aware of the danger which you are incurring? If you were going to commit your body to someone, and there was a risk of your getting good or harm from him, would you not carefully consider and ask the opinion of your friends and kindred, and deliberate many days as to whether you should give him the care of your body?

But when the soul is in question, which you hold to be of far more value than the body, and upon the well or ill-being of which depends your all, – about this you never consulted either with your father or with your brother or with any one of us who are your companions. But no sooner does this foreigner appear, than you instantly commit your soul to his keeping. In the evening, as you say, you hear of him, and in the morning you go to him, never deliberating, or taking the opinion of any one as to whether you ought to intrust yourself to him or not.


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    Jules Evans is a freelance journalist and writer, who covers two main areas: philosophy and psychology (for publications including The Times, Psychologies, New Statesman and his website, Philosophy for Life), and emerging markets (for publications including The Spectator, Economist, Times, Euromoney and Financial News).

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