Future education systems need to prepare children for an economy based on knowledge, rather than industry. This requires a focus on emotional intelligence.
As South Africa grapples with its myriad of challenges of its under-resourced education, many other countries around the world are also struggling with the problem of educating 21st Century children stuck within the Industrial Age education model. As educational institutions have failed to turn out graduates properly fit for the knowledge economy and skills shortages have escalated, it has become common for schools in under-performing countries (which includes the USA) to double-down on the drive for academic performance.
Many of today’s children experience longer school days spent in more rigorous lessons with less break time, much more homework and the scrapping of arts and sports programmes. In these school systems, the battery of typical right or wrong assessments has become more intense and more sustained.
The result of this has been that the educational system is still not delivering enough young people with the skills for today’s workplace; but additionally, these younger generations are now becoming known for bearing scars in terms of their mental, physical and emotional health, thanks to the extreme stresses of their school experience.
Purpose Coach, and researcher into emotional intelligence initiatives in South African primary schools, Karen Cohen, who is also a speaker on the upcoming Cape Town programme of the 7th annual SACAP Festival of Learning, points out that these stressors also heavily tax parents who want the best for their children, as well as teachers and school leaders.
“In addition to my learning vocation, I am a parent of a 19-year old and a 13-year old we have journeyed through so many school experiences in search of an environment that integrates multiple intelligences where they could succeed,” Karen says.
This focus on catering effectively to multiple intelligences versus the past concentration on just intellect is extremely pertinent. Today’s knowledge economy demands workers who are critical and creative thinkers, and rule-breakers who solve problems and innovate.
To meet the needs of the knowledge era, young generations need learning and skills far beyond reading and Mathematics, rote learning and memory. Companies are searching for tolerant, flexible and collaborative individuals with much higher levels of self-awareness. 21st Century workers need to be self-reflective, self-regulating lifelong learners who understand the ways they learn and are continuously committed to their self-development. In the workplace, they are expected to appreciate diversity, comfortably resolve conflict and be excellent when it comes to teamwork and communications. They also have to be emotionally resilient and able to adapt fluidly, at a break-neck speeds, to constantly changing work environments, team situations and new technologies.
Some countries, such as Finland, got this earlier than others and have subsequently become world leaders in 21st Century education. Finland acknowledged the importance of educators not just being purveyors of the facts, but highly qualified educational specialists who deeply understand the different ways that children learn and have the skills to adapt to them, so that every child learns. Every Finnish teacher involved in general education, which includes Primary School, has to have a minimum of a Masters Degree.
Karen points out that it is notable that Finland’s government was an early proponent of the idea of the country’s school system catering to multiple intelligences, and they integrated creative, social, intellectual, physical and emotional learning at policy level. While others heaped on school work, homework, and more and more tests, Finland took the road less travelled. They embraced no homework, shorter school days and more access to arts, special interest and sport programmes. They implemented richer, relevant, diagnostic assessments designed to gauge whole-person development and sharply pinpoint any learning deficits so that they could be remedied.
This drills down to the core of the Finnish education system which rests on the belief that every, single child can fully succeed in their education. Their system is purposely designed to develop goals, purpose and potential. They have proved that this belief is true of children’s capabilities by consistently dominating the top international benchmarks for educational performance by country, year after year.
It is certainly easier for a well-resourced, peaceful and largely homogenous country such as Finland to successfully bring about this sweeping transformation to its educational system. But South Africa, despite its many challenges, has to do this too so that our current and next generations can secure satisfying livelihoods in the knowledge economy.
There are some progressive government schools and some private schools that have implemented 21st Century learning in the country. There are a few social and emotional learning programmes delivered in some schools by non-profit organisations.
“Various studies have shown that a child’s performance at school can be negatively impacted by the traumas they experience in their young lives,” she reports. “Our emotions are linked to our nervous system which affects a child’s ability to concentrate, to manage themselves responsibly, to develop a healthy self-identity and to relate well to others in the classroom. Just as we know that a hungry child will struggle to learn, a child beset with strong feelings of anxiety, hurt, anger or fear also has less brain resources available to achieve in the classroom, academically, emotionally and socially.”
While a lot more research, including longitudinal studies, needs to be done to reveal all the benefits of integrating social and emotional learning from policy to school level, there is more research from the workplace that does show that emotional intelligence significantly rivals intellect as a basis of personal success.
“Perhaps what is even more important and exciting today,” says Karen, “is that the latest neuroscience research is revealing the incredible plasticity and malleability of the brain. It is no longer accurate to think of IQ as determined solely, and set for life, by our genes. Our brains are fully capable of developing new neural pathways and networks that can enhance our multiple intelligences.”
With so many schools still lacking the very basics, such as classrooms, desks and tap water, the current South African reality is an ongoing struggle to just achieve an equitable educational system. In the meantime, the vast majority of our children are receiving an education that can only fail to prepare properly them for the economy they need to find work in. What can we do?
“We need whole-person development to be entrenched by our educational policy,” says Karen, “There is evidence that social and emotional learning that is integrated into curricula, and in the entire school system, is more effective than add-on programmes. Right now, we don’t have the resources, understanding and aptitude to make that happen for all schools. In the meantime, there is a role that teachers, and especially parents, can play. A child’s education may formally come from school, but it is also happening in every aspect of their lives, each day. Parents are typically the most striking role models that children learn from. Parents and other adults in the community who model social and emotional intelligences are delivering highly effective education for the children. If you as the parent are an ongoing learner modelling curiosity, creativity, problem-solving and critical thinking you are facilitating this for your child and transferring vital 21st Century skills without the extra effort of formally teaching your child. If your family and social circle values and practices tolerance, respect for diversity and authentic communications, and questions bias and prejudice, you are inadvertently properly preparing your child for a 21st Century workplace. If, when dealing with your child, and others in their presence, you routinely regulate your strong emotions, show compassion and empathy, and responsibly express your honest feelings, you are already giving your child a huge advantage by providing them with a vital blueprint to model emotional intelligence.”
Karen comments that with our exceptionally high rates of childhood trauma due to poverty, crime, stress and abuse in South Africa, it can be argued that implementing social and emotional learning across the board is even more critical in our schools.
Karen Cohen will be presenting her thought-provoking talk on her research into emotional intelligence in primary schools as part of the Cape Town programme of the upcoming 7th annual SACAP Festival of Learning.
The Festival of Learning takes place in Johannesburg on 17th and 18th of May, and in Cape Town on 24th and 25th of May 2018.
Tickets for the 2018 Festival of Learning are available through Webtickets. Costs are R200 for the full-day programme which includes dialogues and panel discussion. Tickets for the short-talk evening programme which includes catering and networking opportunities is R200. There is a special offer for students at R80 per ticket.