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Do we care about our emotional culture in schools?

January 17, 2016

We work continuously in schools to think about, design for, and implement collecting data that pertains to students’ cognitive achievement.  In fact, if we include formative and summative assessment measures, we collect cognitive data weekly, daily and sometimes hourly.  We are asked to report on the students’ cognitive development on a regular basis through report cards, end-of-course assessments, and high-stakes tests of all types.  An article in the Huffington Post in October 2015 entitled, This is How Much Time Students Actually Spend Taking Standardized Tests, presents a comprehensive look at the amount of time students spend taking tests.  They write:

According to a comprehensive study of 66 of the nation’s big-city school districts by the Council of the Great City Schools. It said testing amounts to about 2.3 percent of classroom time for the average eighth-grader in public school. Between pre-K and 12th grade, students took about 112 mandatory standardized exams.

That is about 5 test days per 180 day school year.  Of course that only accounts for high-stakes tests and doesn’t take into account all the other formative and summative assessments students take in school on a regular basis.  In addition, this study’s figure represents an average, so some schools spend a great deal more time giving students NAEP, ITBS, and state-mandated tests.  The point is we spend upwards of 10% of a student’s life in school measuring his or her cognitive development.

So, what is our commitment to paying attention to and measuring a student’s emotional development?  I would argue that we spend little to no time measuring students’ emotional development or their emotional mindset as they experience school on a daily basis.  Yet we know that the emotional state that students’ bring to school or develop at school directly impacts the quality of their cognitive experience and achievement.

In a comprehensive study conducted at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, the authors write:

How educators and students process and respond to emotions influences children’s education in ways that affect their social, emotional, and cognitive development. A recent meta- analysis of research on programs focused on social and emotional learning (SEL) shows that a systematic process for promoting students’ social and emotional development is the common element among schools that report an increase in academic success, improved quality of relationships between teachers and students, and a decrease in problem behavior (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011).

Why do we spend little to no time and energy thinking about and collecting information on students’ emotional life at school?  Could it be because we have insufficient training or knowledge about students’ emotions and how to measure whether their emotional development is being nurtured through their school experience?  Could it be our society is so cognitively oriented that we don’t really care about a person’s emotional experience in his or her school or work environment?  Finally, could it be that in our society talking about emotions or working through emotionally difficult situations is “taboo?”  We relegate the work with emotions to the private offices of therapists.  The answer to why might reside in all of these questions and others.

There is saying that if you want to understand what people or institutions value just look at what they spend their time on.  Since we spend “75%” of time in school on cognitive development and “22%” of time on physical development (athletics), we only spend 2-3% of time on other aspects of a person’s life, their emotional developmen, that determine how they feel.  I made up these numbers to make a point, but they are probably fairly accurate.

In an article in Harvard Business Review, Manage Your Emotionl Culture, written by Sigal Barsade and Olivia O’Neill, the authors discuss that some businesses are spending time and energy collecting information about how their employees feel after a day at work.  They’re recognizing that understanding how the workplace impacts peoples’ emotional state influences their ability to function effectively in their jobs.  In schools, we should be concerned about every child’s emotional experience on a regular basis.  How is school impacting a child’s sense of self, mood, and emotional state?  If we pay attention to a child’s emotional life in school, we might alter our approach to how we allocate time to their education.  I found this quote to be particularly insightful:

Despite a renaissance of scholarship on the ways that emotions shape people’s behavior at work, emotional culture is rarely managed as deliberately as cognitive culture–and often it is not managed at all.  Companies suffer as a result.  Employee who should be showing compassion (in health care, for example) become callous and indifferent.  Teams that would benefit from joy and ride instead tolerate a culture of anger.  People who lack a healthy amount of fear (say in security firms or investment banks) act recklessly.  The effects can be especially damaging during times of upheaval, such as organizational restructuring a and financial downturns.

So what is the equivalent in school?  Could it be that our focus on “getting good grades,” the demon in disguise, keeps us from truly building a culture for students that failure comes along the road to success?  I would again argue that for every two steps we take to promote an emotionally healthy culture in school, we take three steps backward with our fixation on “getting good grades.”  What is it we want students to learn?

Schools show their care for a student’s emotional development through their design and implementation of curriculum that addresses emotional needs.  But is it sufficient to just offer programs like morning meeting, assembly programs, or teacher-led discussions about issues that impact students’ lives?  I would suggest that the answer is no.  There is more we can learn but we would have to allocate time and resources to collect data regarding a student’s emotional experience to inform our thinking and actions.

Barsade and O’Neill present models and data from corporations that are investing time and resources in collecting data on their employees’ emotional experiences while on the job.  They refer to the design and implementation of apps, like Niko Niko, used to collect emotional data.  The data is then used to make decisions about how to best support employees in the workplace.  They also reference the importance of alignment of mission with what a person’s experience is in the workplace.

 

 

 

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