Creating a ‘road map’ of social and emotional skills for HAHA Academy: a case study of decentralised knowledge creation

One of the aims of HAHA Academy is to give each person in the world a personalised ‘road map’ to learn any field. But is this even possible for social and emotional knowledge? Given that, as the neuroscientist Feldman Barrett (2017) explains, ‘emotions are real in the same sense that money is real—that is, hardly an illusion, but a product of human agreement,’ what would a ‘road map’ to learn emotions look like?

As part of my doctoral research I created a framework of frameworks of every scientific paper and policy document in the last 30 years that listed social and emotional skills to be taught in schools (you can see it online here, p.54). This was followed by asking a hell of a lot of people – 750 teachers in Sweden, the UK, Greece and Spain to be more precise – how regularly they actually developed these skills with their students in the last academic year.

And why? After working as a researcher in the field of social and emotional education (SEE) for many years, I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the centralisation of knowledge by a small number of elite organisations and universities. I was curious to discover what kind of social and emotional skills were more likely to be reinforced in compulsory education  and whether they were different from culture to culture. And I wanted to know how much (or as it turned out, how little) particular policy frameworks and theories regarding social and emotional education influenced teachers’ answers.

One of the questions I asked teachers was: ‘Are there any specific social and emotional skills that you concentrate on regularly in your class that aren’t mentioned in any of these policy documents and frameworks?’ The results? Well, the obvious: the skills the teachers said they taught in schools hardly resembled the ‘official’ frameworks prescribed by the white, male, Anglo, middle-aged, middle-class psychologists and policymakers. Instead, teachers from different cultures defined emotional intelligence completely differently, and this influenced how they developed the social and emotional skills of their students. In other words, whilst the teachers gave a forest of different answers:

The official frameworks were like a monocultural plantation:

This could soon be changing. In their recent report, ‘Skills for Social Progress: The Power of Social and Emotional Skills ’ (2015) the OECD concluded with the recommendation that a universal social and emotional skills framework should be created and applied in the schools of their 35 member countries. Similarly, in the United Nations/Centre for Economic Performance’s ‘World Happiness Report’ (2015), it was not only recommended that a universal SEE curricula should be created, but that it should be taught to every student worldwide throughout their time at school.

As these organisations continue to perpetuate the notion that there is a single model of emotional competency valid across all cultural contexts, they continue to ignore the research showing that ‘“what works” in one cultural context cannot be simply adopted in another setting with differing traditions, values, and meanings’ (Hahn, 1998, viii). For this reason, the relatively young field of social and emotional education is fast becoming another tragic example of the dangers of centralisation and monoculturalism. As the Polish linguist Anna Wierzbicka beautifully puts it:

English has been a conceptual prison for the science of emotion – English terms of emotion constitute a folk taxonomy, not an objective, culture-free analytic framework.”

What English-speaking monolinguals can’t understand (despite their best intentions I’m sure) is that a universal framework of emotional competencies risks creating a schematic oversimplification of reality that treats emotions normatively. To treat social and emotional skills in this way, or worse, to try and quantify students’ social and emotional skills like grades to be tracked and compared from country to country, school to school, and worse still, individual to individual, is a dystopian nightmare waiting to happen.

So how can we prevent and replace these schematic universals in education? I believe the answer is decentralisation.

By this I don’t mean the highly decentralised education systems of UK and Sweden where headteachers have become benevolent dictators (at best) who can influence everyone in their school (and whose teachers and students have nowhere near the same power to influence their ‘Head’). What I mean is the decentralisation of knowledge creation and organisation entirely.

So what would this kind of cross-cultural hivemind look like? HAHA Academy was created to answer this question: a non-profit whose mission is to co-create personalised road maps to learn any field, that can simultaneously show the learner how this knowledge differs from place to place, culture to culture, language to language and even person to person. This is because education, as conventional knowledge, is “generated by human imagination and agreed upon by a cultural community [whose] conventions are learned by a process of social induction into their usage, and do not depend upon logic or empirical observation for their validity” (Carson, 2004). This definition not only includes education, but also in large part the fields of law, psychology, politics, economics and sociology (all of which have been incorporated into the HAHA taxonomy of human knowledge).

And so here we are. It’s only the beginning of HAHA Academy, and this will take many lifetimes of work. So to return to the original question: what would a ‘road map’ to learn emotions look like? In the HAHA platform this has been created as part of the ‘affective knowledge’ category- the framework of frameworks made up of 30 years of centralised knowledge in the field now torn apart and put back together by 750 people. This initial cross-cultural framework is now up on HAHA Academy’s wiki ready for anybody else to fork and/or tinker with- not just academics experimenting behind paywalls, but any practitioner and self-directed learner. With time, old sources will be linked to each area to develop further, and new sources will be created were gaps exist. And I for one am looking forward to watching this wild forest grow beyond the control of any one person or organisation.

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