Independent Teacher Chats with Daniel Goleman

Spring 2021

Editor’s note: This Q&A was originally published in the fall 2013 issue of Independent Teacher.

Daniel Goleman, an internationally known psychologist, lectures frequently to professional groups, business audiences, and on college campuses. A science journalist, Goleman has reported on the brain and behavioral sciences for The New York Times for many years. His 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence was on The New York Times bestseller list for a year and a half and has been a best seller in many countries. He is a co-founder of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. Apart from his books on emotional intelligence, Goleman has written books on topics including self-deception, creativity, transparency, meditation, social and emotional learning, ecoliteracy, and the ecological crisis.

1. Independent Teacher: Your new book is Focus: The Hidden Ingredient in Success (published October 8, 2013).  According to Amazon, "combining cutting-edge research with practical findings, Focus delves into the science of attention in all its varieties, presenting a long overdue discussion of this little-noticed and under-rated mental asset. In an era of unstoppable distractions, Goleman persuasively argues that now more than ever we must learn to sharpen focus if we are to survive in a complex world." 

Can you give us a few hints about what you have to say about "focus" and why it is so difficult for many students to pay attention these days?  How did you come to this topic?

Daniel Goleman: Focus: The Hidden Ingredient in Success, argues that today’s children are a generation whose concentration is under siege by an unprecedented barrage of distractions – texts, tweets, Facebook updates, you name it.  The faculty of attention, so crucial to learning and life, develops throughout childhood as the brain matures. Neuroplasticity means the more we use a mental ability, the stronger the circuitry supporting it becomes – larger and with more connections between neurons.

Helping children pay sustained attention and ignore distractions exercises this ability. There are now several schools engaging in pilot programs that train attention skills, often under the name “mindfulness.” Early data suggests this approach strengthens circuits in the prefrontal cortex that manage both attention and emotion.

There are many ways to focus – not just the concentration that comprehending lessons in school requires. I also make the case that leadership at its best involves three kinds of focus: inner focus to our guiding values, self-awareness, and the kind of self-management that working toward goals requires; other focus, including empathy and social sensitivity, as well as social competencies like collaboration, listening, and influence; and an outer awareness of the larger forces and systems within which the organization finds its ecological niche.

I.T.:  Some educators believe that "focus" and access to all the technology students have today are fundamentally incompatible.  They would argue that, while students may need laptops or tablets for schoolwork, perhaps the combination of computers, tablets, iPods, and cellphones is too much.  Do students have too much technology at their fingertips all the time for them to stay focused on schoolwork?

D.G.: I fear they may be right. The question is, what lessons are they learning from the distractions of too much tech? The brain’s circuitry for attention develops from birth through the 20s. The brain is plastic, changing with repeated experiences. The more young people are able to sustain focused attention – reading a book, for example — the stronger the brain’s circuits for that become. But if their attention is continually disrupted by a flow of texts, tweets, emails, and the like, then those circuits for sustained focus may not mature in the best way.

2.   I.T.: Going back to Emotional Intelligence.  This topic, and your books and lectures about it, have been much talked about by parents, teachers, and educators of all stripes since you first started discussing the subject nearly 20 years ago.  From your prospective, have your insights been put to good use in education in America?  If so, how?  If not, why not?

D.G.: I’m very pleased with how the movement in schools based on teaching this skill set – social and emotional learning, or SEL – has blossomed. Led by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, or CASEL – the programs have spread through thousands of schools and districts worldwide. CASEL has paid attention to both research, so that the movement is evidence-based, as well as implementation practices, so schools can get help and learn from others how to do this well.

I.T.:  Can you describe how a typical school, say a middle-school, might integrate SEL into their curriculum?

D.G.: I don’t design curricula, but I’ve visited a middle school where SEL is woven into the standard topics. In the “social development” program I saw at work in a New Haven, Connecticut middle school, the lessons were part of standard subjects like eighth-grade math, or were given in two 15-minute special sessions per week. In those sessions, students would share ideas about, e.g., how can you say no to drugs and keep your friends? And SEL was woven into the culture of the school. For instance, on every classroom wall was a poster of a stoplight – red light: when you’re upset, pause and calm down; yellow, think of a range of responses; green, pick the best one and try it out. That’s a lesson in cognitive control of emotional impulse. The teachers, even the gym coaches, would use the stoplight exercise when a student acted up; the vice principal would take them through it if they were sent to him. The vice principal told me the numbers of kids sent to him for misbehavior was dropping every year.

3.   I.T.: What one or two things would you do, if you were Secretary of Education, to most improve public education in America?

D.G.: If I were Secretary of Education, I would use my position to encourage schools to teach children focusing skills explicitly, rather than assume they will learn them. The brain growth children undergo from birth to the 20s includes the center for concentration, ignoring distractions, and managing unruly emotions and impulses. The brain – and mental abilities like concentration – is like a muscle: the more you exercise it, the stronger it grows. 

As it happens, I met Arne Duncan recently, and we talked about “non-cognitive” factors in students’ success. Call it grit, tenacity, or focus, they all depend on the growth of that neural strip in the prefrontal cortex. Schools can give direct lessons in improving it, from K-12.

I.T.:  What are some "focusing skills" and how can teachers teach them to their students?

D.G.: The simplest focusing exercise is watching your breath go in and out. I’ve seen second-graders in Spanish Harlem do this as a daily practice – their teacher says it keeps the classroom calm and focused. There are tapes a teacher can play that are designed for such use.

IT: Also, speaking of Arne Duncan, where do you stand on standardized tests?  Many educators, parents, and students see reliance on such tests as a scourge.  In your view, does the current emphasis on testing improve or diminish the quality of education?  Also, do you think that politicians are too involved in shaping education policy?

D.G.: Yes and Yes. I think the emphasis on test scores has hijacked education, forcing teachers to “teach to the test” and distorting the curriculum. It cheats kids who get a stunted educational menu a result, and ups the levels of anxiety, which in itself harms their ability to learn. And if this is the result of politicians shaping education policy, I think they should leave that policy to educators.

4.  I.T.: In an article, "Social Intelligence: The Power of Mindsight," published online in winter 2007-8, you ask the question, "How can we free ourselves from prisons of the past?"  The answer, in part, you say is, "When parents consistently practice empathy toward a child—that is, they tune in to the way that child views and feels about her world—they help instill in that child a sense of security and an ability to empathize with others later in life."

I assume the same is true for teachers.  This seems to me to be an absolutely critical, yet much under-appreciated subject.  Can you expand a bit on the role of "mindsight" in the classroom?

D.G.: “Mindsight” is Dr. Daniel Siegel’s term for empathy and self-awareness (which he argues share the same real estate in the brain).  When students feel seen, understood, and cared about, they like school more. In a sense, teachers can play the same emotional role as a good parent, providing students a secure base from which they can explore the world – that is, learn.

The other benefits for the students – empathizing with others, for instance, are life skills of the kind that social and emotional learning (SEL) programs try to instill.  And the data from a massive meta-analysis (more than 270,000 students) showed that when students in such classrooms improve on pro-social behavior – one of the items is feeling that “someone at school cares about me” – anti-social acts drop, and academic achievement tests bump up 11 percent.

I.T.:  The numbers from the study you cite are impressive but for "students [to] feel seen, understood, and cared about,” teachers need to be empathic and self-aware themselves.  What can schools do to create an environment that supports teachers in this very important task?

D.G.: It starts with leadership. School leaders themselves need to be empathic and self-aware, and create a nurturing environment where teachers can teach at their best.

5.  I.T.:  Do you ever get the urge to be a classroom teacher yourself?

D.G.: Yes, I love teaching. Both my parents were college teachers, and the short time I taught formally, I found it a joy. I miss it. My lectures give me opportunities, and I see my books as a form of mass adult education.