A Conversation on Teaching Emotional Intelligence in the Classroom

After a week of debating with Daniel Goleman, we round up our thoughts.

MERRYMAN: Goleman admitted that there was no real data to support his premise when he wrote his book in 1995 – that only now the science is starting to find out the truth. I'd expected to hear outrage from people who felt duped by Goleman.

BRONSON: I suppose if Goleman had sold five million copies of a diet book, then he came out a decade later to admit that he'd just sort of cobbled a bunch of things together – but that he didn't actually have any research that supported his actual diet, it would have been a scandal.

MERRYMAN: Instead, from the emails we've received, I've been struck by how deeply many feel that Goleman is a sacred cow. And that it was impolite of us to ask him such probing, "gotcha" questions – like we were bad hosts – ignoring the fact Goleman asked us to participate, and he publicly complimented us for the thoughtfulness and civility of our questions.

BRONSON: Let me say that it's plainly obvious we're all on a spectrum, in terms of our abilities to recognize feelings and nuances in other people, and in terms of our facility in dealing with the stressful moments when emotions start to run high. That's perhaps the core idea behind emotional intelligence, which is so appealing to people – and it still appeals to me. However, the science suggests we're not ready to put this idea into practice yet – we don't know how to teach it, we don't know how to measure it.

MERRYMAN: The appeal of the idea is that it's about the skill of dealing with "real life" human interactions. But once we begin to teach it in classrooms, that's by definition no longer "real life." Once we attempt to measure it with a paper-and-pencil questionnaire, that's no longer "real life."

BRONSON: As a society, the pull of the idea has led us to race ahead of the science, basically dumbing down the concept of emotional-savvyness into something far more neutered, so that it can be taught.

MERRYMAN: Looking at how "emotional intelligence" is taught to schoolchildren, it starts to look like a repeat of the self-esteem movement's policies. It doesn't teach kids to deal with complicated, emotionally-charged moments. Rather, it tries to iron those emotionally-charged interactions right out of kids' lives. It polices their behaviors, all to protect kids' feelings.

BRONSON: If kids grow up in that kind of sanitized world, they'll never develop real emotional intelligence because they'll never be trained to deal with hot emotions.

MERRYMAN: As Carol Craig and some other commentators have put it, the premise that we need to teach emotional intelligence in schools is really pathologizing emotion in children.

BRONSON: We're demanding kids act more like grownups – to grow up faster – and never act like kids. We don't seem to want to accept that there is a gradual developmental process in emotional regulation and social learning.

MERRYMAN: I remember, it was maybe the first or second year of tutoring, and all the kids were running around -- it was a total zoo. And I got so frustrated that I finally yelled out, "Why don't you kids act your age?!" And they started laughing at me -- and I started laughing at myself, because I remembered that they were kids, and they were indeed acting their ages.

BRONSON: The thing is, kids should be coached in how to deal with their emotions. But we do this already – every parent and every teacher helps kids with this, in real time, as real life is happening. I believe that's how kids learn to deal with it. Very gradually. Through thousands and thousands of real interactions. I don't see any evidence it's something that can be taught with a few orchestrated rehearsals of mock-interactions in a classroom.

MERRYMAN: The premise of the emotional intelligence curriculum proponents is that you – you children – are not able to sufficiently develop emotional regulation and appropriate social skills and decorum on your own. Your parents are ineffective teachers. You cannot be trusted to learn how to behave from your experiences with friends and family and colleagues. You need to come to class for it. Those who don't get these classes will lead hollow, hurtful, and overly-emotional lives.