Daniel Goleman’s book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence (Harper) was published on Oct. 8, 2013. One of CASEL’s founders, Goleman is a former New York Times science writer and the best-selling author of numerous books including Emotional Intelligence (Random House, 1995) and Social Intelligence (Bantam, 2006). Shortly after the publication of Focus Goleman talked with CASEL about the implications of Focus for educators.
In August 2014 Goleman published a new book titled The Triple Focus (More Than Sound). Co-authored with the nationally known theorist on organizational development Peter Senge, who is also a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, the book provides educators with a rationale for incorporating three core skill sets in the classroom—understanding self, other, and the larger systems within which we operate—and shows why these competencies are needed to help students navigate a fast-paced world of increasing distraction and growing interconnectedness. The book also offers examples of model educational programs that include these competencies in their curriculum, and shares best practices for introducing them in schools.
Here we present both the interview with Goleman about Focus and a more recent Q&A about The Triple Focus. We begin with the more recent book.
Daniel Goleman on The Triple Focus (August 2014)
What does the systems thinking concept add to SEL?
Systems learning helps students see their actions in terms of interpersonal dynamics and helps teachers see their classroom as a system. For students this adds to SEL a greater understanding of the complexities of relationships and their patterns – for instance, how other people react to how I treat them, and then how I in turn react to them, and so on. In terms of the goals of SEL itself, a systems understanding adds to students’ abilities to see the ramifications of a given course of action, thereby allowing them to make better personal decisions.
Why should school administrators and teachers read The Triple Focus? Along the same lines, why should policy makers, boards of education and leaders in organizations be aware of The Triple Focus?
The Triple Focus is ideal for anyone who cares about preparing children well for the future. Peter Senge and I argue that SEL upgraded and combined with systems learning gives children tools for managing themselves, their relationships, and the world around them. For administrators and teachers, The Triple Focus offers a simple overview of three core domains of learning that can enhance student mastery and readiness to engage. These transcend grade and subject, and enhance learning abilities at all levels of K-12.
Systems learning also helps teachers see their classroom as a system. This might mean relying more on cooperative or team learning, for example. And for administrators, systems thinking can add to their toolkit for enabling change around innovation (like bringing SEL into schools). Finally, for schools as organizations there is much to be gained from the quarter century of experience in the field of organizational learning. This expertise can help answer meta-questions, such as, what are the alternatives to top-down driven change initiatives (receiving minimal compliance) that will tap people’s genuine passions?
What are the three most important new ideas that SEL practitioners should pursue as the field evolves?
The first is that self-awareness and self-mastery can be made stronger by attention-training exercises that directly strengthen the neural circuitry for “cognitive control” (i.e., learning readiness, concentration, and impulse control). A longitudinal study has found that this skill set—when acquired in childhood—predicts a person’s financial success and health in her 30s better than childhood IQ or socioeconomic status.
The second is that empathy—a key to social intelligence—can be enhanced to include a genuine concern for others. Known as “empathic concern,” this capacity when learned in childhood predicts better relationships throughout life. And this tool, too, can be included in SEL.
Finally, teaching children to understand systems dynamics better prepares them for relationships of every kind, from friendship and marriage, to work, life, and leadership. In addition, it helps them understand larger systems, like organizations, and how systems (e.g., manufacturing, energy, and transportation) interact as they impact environmental systems.
What are some best practices to incorporate focus-related learning into the classroom?·
- Treat students and teachers as co-learners. Foster students learning with and from one another, and encourage them to develop responsibility for their own learning.
- Use the real-life situations that students care about to foster reflection and growth, both emotionally and cognitively.
- Choose teaching tools that are specific for these applications. The attention-training methods being tried in classrooms today offer a well-tested way to help children enhance their cognitive control, which is central to self-mastery. Adding a focus on enhancing empathy and concern for others adds a fresh emphasis that should lead to better relationships and teamwork. And systems learning offers constructs that can help SEL students better understand relationships, families, schools, and organizations. All three together offer an invaluable increase in the life skills learning that is part of SEL.
There are already off-the-shelf tools for each of the three components. Here are some of the resources:
For attention building: http://www.mindfuleducation.org/
For empathy enhancement: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/training_kids_for_kindness
For systems concepts: “The Habits of a Systems Thinker” http://watersfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/habits-onepage.pdf#page=1&view=FitH
After writing Focus, why did you decide to write The Triple Focus with Peter Senge?
While I argued in my book Focus for the importance of this triple focus in general, there was much more to say specific to applications in education. And when Peter told me about the systems work in schools – which has a history about as long as SEL – I was delighted to join with him in writing our book for educators.
Daniel Goleman on Focus (October 2013)
Among the key points that you make in Focus, which do you think are most important for educators to know about in their role as facilitators of young people’s learning?
One of the main concepts in Focus that every educator should know about is cognitive control. It’s the ability to focus on one thing and ignore distractions, to keep your mind from wandering. Cognitive control is the basis for delaying gratification and emotional self-regulation. The strongest evidence for the importance of cognitive control was a longitudinal study done with more than 1,000 kids born over the course of a year in one New Zealand city. The children were assessed for cognitive control between the ages of 4 and 8 using a sophisticated battery of measures as well as teacher and parent reports. Then they were tracked down in their thirties. Cognitive control turned out to be a better predictor of their financial success and their health, and also whether or not they had a prison record, than their IQ or the wealth of their family of origin.
Did the study determine how individual kids developed better cognitive control than others?
No, but many other studies have looked at how children master cognitive control. The first teachers are the child’s parents. When you have a child wait for a reward or do something in order to get a reward or simply resist impulse, you’re teaching cognitive control. When you read a story to a child at night and you keep that child’s attention on the story, you’re teaching cognitive control. You’re teaching it if you play Simon Says or musical chairs with toddlers.
Given the importance of cognitive control and attention skills, how do you regard the role of electronic media?
Every parent and every teacher knows that kids today are highly challenged by the onslaught of the digital world. Whether it’s video games or Facebook or texting your friends, kids are more distracted than maybe ever before in history. That’s why it’s so important that we make a greater effort to teach them the core skills that will allow them to pay attention, which is a prerequisite for learning.
What’s your advice to educators about this?
In terms of getting students to pay attention to the work at hand, sometimes the digital media are the enemy. If kids are sneaking peeks at their texts during their time in the classroom, the technology is undermining teaching. On the other hand, more and more schools are using media to engage students in the learning process. But if you let students roam on the Web, you’re opening them to distractions as they search. It’s a complex question, and it will only become more complex as time goes on. If you hold as fundamental the ability of students to pay attention, it sorts itself out pretty quickly.
You have written Emotional Intelligence, Social Intelligence, and Focus. How do the three books complement and build on each other?
In Emotional Intelligence I make the case that human abilities like self-awareness, self-management, empathy and social skills matter enormously in life and should be taught in school. That became social and emotional learning (SEL). Social Intelligence explores the neuroscience related to two components of emotional intelligence, social awareness, or empathy, and managing relationships. Focus adds a new dimension by emphasizing why attention matters so much for all the core skills of emotional intelligence. It’s a new lens.
In Focus you repeatedly refer to the findings of neuroscientists. Why do you think neuroscience is so important for education, learning and the development of social-emotional competencies?
When you see the different phases that children go through as they age and grow, what you’re observing are the external behavioral signs of the growth of the brain. The brain is very plastic. It doesn’t reach its final form and size until the mid-twenties. SEL helps children develop their brains in the best way because we’re paying attention to children’s social and emotional skills in addition to their cognitive skills. What’s often missing is attention skills. That’s an independent developmental line, one that schools need to do a better job of helping children with.
So SEL programs need to work on that more?
SEL programs already have many lessons that help with attention skills. For example, a lot of the self-management tools in SEL curricula are also helping children develop attention. Developing the actual attention circuits in the brain can be done very simply. At a school in Spanish Harlem I write about in Focus, I saw a second-grade class doing what they call a session of breathing bodies. The children lie on the floor with a favorite stuffed animal on their belly and watch it rise and fall, counting 1-2-3 with each breath. That strengthens the circuits for concentration and brings the mind back when it wanders. That’s exactly the kind of activity that could be added easily to SEL curricula. Some SEL curricula are already doing this, particularly under the rubric of mindfulness.
You co-founded CASEL in 1994. What are the most important things that CASEL has accomplished? What would you like CASEL to accomplish during the next decade?
CASEL has done a remarkable job of bringing SEL to schools not just within the United States but worldwide. CASEL’s help with implementation is particularly important. I love that CASEL has focused on helping schools address implementation issues by establishing best practice standards and the like. In the next ten years I’d like to see CASEL go global. I think SEL is a powerful way to level the playing field when it comes to economic inequities, which are only growing worldwide. As the New Zealand study showed, when you help children master themselves and their relationships, you give them skills that will help them enormously during their adult life, not just during their school years.
More than Sound now offers a series of CDs related to Daniel Goleman’s new book that you can order online.
Cultivating Focus: Techniques for Excellence, is a series of guided exercises to help people of all ages hone their concentration, stay calm and better manage emotions.
FOCUS for Kids: Enhancing Concentration, Caring, and Calm provides exercises to sharpen children’s attention skills while enhancing their emotional intelligence capability.
FOCUS for Teens: Enhancing Concentration, Caring, and Calm provides exercises designed to sharpen teens’ attention skills while enhancing their emotional intelligence capability.
Videos featuring Daniel Goleman on the Edutopia website
From Daniel Goleman’s blog: