July 19, 2023

Emotional literacy: a forgotten intelligence?

If you work in the public sector, you will tend to have opinions: about what works, what doesn’t work; who takes the credit, who takes the blame; where the money should come from, how it should be spent.

It would appear there are no concrete answers to these questions, which is why we defer to opinions (informed by our experience, research and intelligence) and act on those instead.

I’ve worked in and with schools for a number of years now, and I also have some of these opinions. About education. One big one, in fact. Well, it’s a question really… it’s whether we have forgotten a key intelligence: our skills of understanding ourselves.

Or emotional literacy, if you will.

We’ve left it unwrapped and untouched in its box. And instead, we’ve run solo with the shiny Pandora’s box that is the other key intelligence: our IQ. Our skills of understanding things outside ourselves; of reasoning, of memorising and problem-solving; of learning about and building stuff, so we can enjoy stuff. Incredible stuff. Like rockets and prosthetics and guns that appear out of printers. Wonderful stuff like deep-sea submersibles and extreme maths. Jaw-dropping stuff like The Colosseum (10 years to throw together) and Stonehenge (1,600 plus).

Which is to be lauded. On repeat. We, the collective peoples of the world, have developed – and continue to develop – fantastic IQ.

But we’re still not sure why we get angry. Or feel jealous. Or why we shout or hit or weep or scream or choose (yes, choose) to humiliate, hold grudges and avenge. Of course some more than others, but as a collective peoples – the same one who built the Pyramids and learned pi to the 10,000th digit – we are, give or take, emotional duds. In the remedial group, in old money; on the red table, in new. Year on year on year on year, we have the same arguments at work, the same conflicts at play, the same lack of compassion, the same lack of compromise, the same lack of self-awareness that afflicts humanity the world over.

Why do we need to improve our emotional intelligence?

Emotional literacy has a simple definition that belies its difficulty to acquire: the ability to understand why you feel what you feel and adapt yourself accordingly; the ability to be attuned and responsive to the feelings of others. And yes I know we’ve had Jung and Vygotsky and Goleman, and that fantastic Kiwi prime minister who clearly wasn’t in it for the knighthood (Jacinda Ardern, thank you Google) but these are our exceptions, not our rule.

And isn’t it the difficulty we all have in acquiring these insights, that explains our communal inability to grasp them? They’re too intangible, too ephemeral, too much of a minefield to even start on. Let’s just live and be happy. Except we can’t. Because we don’t know how to. Because what we thought would make us happy and fulfilled and give us meaning, didn’t. And doesn’t. Not sustainably so, in any case.

The place of EQ in school

School, to my mind, is a product of this forgotten intelligence. Not just a product, but a proponent: despite 1,400 years in the making, school still champions a pupil’s IQ far above its emotional equivalent, EQ. The former, to my mind, is just one half of education; the latter, the other. 

But we, as educators, can change this. We can unwrap the neglected box and start to acquire our own emotional literacy at the same time as teaching our pupils how to acquire theirs. We can learn what are our triggers, our biases and prejudices; our weaknesses when it comes to the self. We can model, and therefore share, how to confront and change them; how to look inside before out.

Imagine the impact on classrooms, on parents’ evenings, on achievement and relationships. Imagine educators helping to ensure that our collective EQ leads to solutions and inventions that are equivalent to what has been achieved by our collective IQ: the computer, the laser, the car. Imagine, one day, not just flying to Mars in a tube while still breathing, and then living there, but knowing how to live there with peace and with purpose – dare I say intelligence – when we get there. Now that would be an education to be proud of.

About the author

Richard Evans is a teacher and author who uses a resource called the passport to help students develop their emotional literacy. He runs a VNET course entitled ‘Emotional Literacy: A Passport to Increased Confidence, Engagement and Learning’, which you can see details of below.

Richard has previously presented sessions to educators at the World Education Summit (2023 and 2021), at Outstanding Schools’ Europe (2022) and Middle East (2021) conferences, and at SecEd’s Pupil Mental Health Conference (2021).

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