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.

On Creating a Taxonomy of All Human Knowledge for HAHA Academy

When I started the quixotic journey to create a taxonomy of all human knowledge the most common (and well meaning) questions people asked me were: Why? What’s the point (you know Wikipedia exists right)? And the more obvious: Are you bonkers?

These are fair enough questions to ask. When we think of a taxonomy of all human knowledge we instantly think that we’ve been there and done that in the form of encyclopedias or the Dewey Decimal System. But I’m not interested in creating or remixing a reference resource- if it ain’t broke I ain’t fixing it (although we really need an open-source Dewey Decimal System, just sayin’). What does interest me is creating a taxonomy of human knowledge as a teaching resource: a ‘road map’ of every topic so that anyone that wants to can learn a specific subject in its entirety. And you can’t do that with an encyclopedia, be it on or offline. 

Why? For two reasons:

1. A knowledge taxonomy needs to differentiate between knowledge types


Encyclopedias have been designed, conceived and constructed as reference resources, not teaching resources.

One of the first attempts to categorise the sum of human knowledge was the tree of Diderot and d’Alembert with its three categories:  History, Philosophy, and Poetry. More recently, Wikipedia has 12 categories, Encyclopedia Britannica has 20 , the Dewey Decimal Classification system has 10, and the Library of Congress Classification Outline has 21. Some recent efforts to recategorise human knowledge,  Jose Sanchez-Cerezo de la Fuente‘s map for example,  has 15 sections and is shaped in the form of a globe (worth checking out!).

So what’s the problem? Well, none of the systems of categorisation mentioned above differentiate between  knowledge types. This is a problem because different knowledge types require different instructional strategies appropriate to each. In other words, encyclopedias are wonderful to reference knowledge, but not to teach knowledge. As Robert N. Carson (2004) demonstrates in his paper A Taxonomy of Knowledge Types for Use in Curriculum Design, the distinctions governing different types of knowledge are fundamental to good teaching:

Let us consider the following statements, all of which might be regarded as valid, or true, by at least some people. As you read them, consider why and in what sense each might be considered true:

“When placed in water, rocks sink.”
“This is the symbol for five: 5 ”
“Five plus five equals ten.”
“The word programme is spelled p-r-o-g-r-a-m-m-e.”
“Water boils at 212°, and freezes at 32°.”
“The Greeks in the time of Pericles discovered the standard for aesthetic beauty.”
“A circle has 360°.”
“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
“The angles of a triangle always add up to 180°.”
“If you mix yellow and red paint you get orange.”
“Two wrongs never make a right.”
“Earnest Hemingway was one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century.”
“In music, an A and an E will sound in harmony, but a C and a D will be discordant.”

All of these statements represent knowledge claims seen, by some at least, as valid. But if true, they are true for different reasons, and it makes a difference whether teachers and students understand this. While it may be possible to assert all of these statements as if they are solid, Platonic truths, it is poor practice to do so … the potential richness and depth of our teaching is dependent upon the extent to which distinctions between different kinds of knowledge are part of the conversation.”

Because HAHA Academy’s knowledge taxonomy is designed, conceived and constructed as a teaching resource, it thus takes into account the different types of knowledge which are so fundamental to good teaching. These include:

  • Rational Knowledge
  • Conventional Knowledge
  • Conceptual Knowledge
  • Cognitive Process Skills
  • Psychomotor Knowledge
  • Affective Knowledge
  • Narrative Knowledge
  • Received Knowledge

Each of these knowledge types highlight a different way in which knowledge is created, and effective teaching simulates this process:

“It made a difference whether the key transformation was taking place because of an act of reason, an act of keen observation, an experiment, an invention, the development of a new procedure, the advent of a new way of characterizing what was being looked at, and so forth. The way a given quanta of understanding enters the scene very often reveals the kind of knowledge it is, and, significantly, there are different kinds of knowledge. Each knowledge type, we concluded, could be taught in a way that mimics the way it came on the scene originally, and often that is the best way to teach it” (Carson, 2004, 74).

Of course, categorising subjects into what knowledge they belong to wasn’t easy as they are not mutually exclusive. As Carson admits himself, all these domains are intertwined. For this reason the HAHA taxonomy was built to specifically highlight ‘intertwined’ subjects and topics from various knowledge categories. This is why when you hover over a particular topic in the HAHA taxonomy, a different section ‘lights’ up from different knowledge types. Give it a try!

And if you find related subjects that are not currently highlighted in the taxonomy, we’d very much appreciate it if you add them to the HAHA Academy wiki.

2) A knowledge taxonomy needs a course of study for each topic.


Another difference between a knowledge taxonomy used as a reference resource compared to one used for teaching, is that the former cannot provide you a road map to learning the fundamentals of a particular subject. What does it mean to know physics? Or World War II? Or poetry? What fundamentals do you need to understand (and be able to apply) to master a subject?

In 1974, the 15th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica sought to resolve this issue with the publication of the Propaedia: a separate volume which was to replace the Index, and function instead as an outline of knowledge. But in its attempt to be all things to all men, the Encyclopedia Britannica misjudged its primary function as a reference resource. The kickback was so bad that the Propaedia was scrapped and the 15th edition had to be completely re-organised and indexed for a re-release.

This is why HAHA Academy has attempted to crowdsource a course of study for each subject . By incorporating different types of knowledge, HAHA Academy also includes a course of study for different skills which haven’t been emphasised in encyclopedias to date: be they cognitive, affective or psychomotor skills. This is a huge undertaking. HAHA Academy, like Wikipedia, relies on crowd-sourcing content, so if you can add anything to the existing taxonomy, please do! To contribute to the ‘road map’ for your subject please click here.

I will discuss the process of creating ‘road maps’ for knowledge in the next post. I’m a comparative education scholar specialising in social and emotional education, and as part of HAHA Academy’s Affective Knowledge category I created a taxonomy of social and emotional aptitudes. This process involved over 750 teachers from four different countries – the first hivemind taxonomy for social and emotional skills to date.  More on that soon!