the great debate of facts versus feelings
Dr Helen Street
Over the past twenty years, schools and colleges Australia wide have increasingly embraced strategies for improving youth mental health. No longer do we define a teacher’s role purely in academic terms. Now-a-days we aim to incorporate a focus on social and emotional learning (SEL) in our classrooms and school communities.
This focus on SEL is partly fueled by concern over the alarmingly high prevalence of mental health problems in our young Australians. It is also led by a belief in the important contribution of SEL to overall school and life success. We understand that EQ needs to be considered alongside IQ, and that skills like creativity, resiliency and mindfulness are all vital life skills for the success of tomorrows graduates. If Google is now the font of knowledge, students need emotional skills to stand out from the crowd… or do they?
As a passionate supporter of youth wellbeing, I am thrilled that so many teachers are so enthusiastically helping kids to thrive at school and beyond. The need for schools to support SEL is undeniable. Yet when it comes to exploring overall life success, how really important is social and emotional competency (SEC) compared to simply getting good grades? After all, most university admissions procedures still consider grades before they consider anything else.
The question does not come with an easy answer.
First, consideration of the independent elements of childhood development is in itself a difficult task. Social, emotional and academic learning are all interlinked variables. Happier kids learn more effectively than sad or distressed ones. Similarly, kids that fit easily into the school academic system have greater self-confidence than those struggling with learning. It is also important to consider the many other variables impacting on the ‘big IQ versus EQ’ debate. For example, physical health influences both mental health and academic learning as do parent attitudes and education, geography, income and cultural background, to name but a few. In many ways, it is futile and unhelpful to separate SEL from academic learning. Such is the premise of positive education. The best recipe for overall effective learning includes many vital, interacting ingredients.
A second difficulty with understanding the elements needed for life success, is the difficulty of understanding what life success actually means. Research has shown us that there is a strong correlation between high school grades and getting into university. There is also a very significant correlation between high school grades and final university grades (as identified in several recent studies in the US). But of course it would be limiting, not to mention inaccurate, to consider university grades as an overall measure of life success. School and university grades do not predict adult wellbeing, physical health or the quality of adult relationships. They are not even a good predictor of long term career success.
In contrast, SEC relates significantly to relationship longevity, reports of personal fulfillment and long term professional achievement. It appears that good grades can lead you to water, but only social and emotional competency can help you to drink.