With the newly announced federal government reforms to teacher training announced this week, emotional intelligence is now firmly on the agenda for trainee teachers.
Under the proposed rules, prospective teachers will need to undergo emotional aptitude tests before they begin their training.
The idea has intuitive appeal and testing emotional intelligence remains a “hot topic” in psychology circles. But it is also a slippery construct and can be difficult to test.
This doesn’t mean the idea doesn’t have merit, but let governments and education faculties be warned, testing emotional intelligence will not be easy.
What is emotional intelligence?
There are a number of different definitions of emotional intelligence in the psychological literature, but in general, it is defined as an ability to identify, regulate, and manage emotions in the self and in others.
Good teachers need a strong emotional intelligence. Understanding what makes a particular student “tick” emotionally can be important in helping with individual learning.
Further, by being mindful of students’ emotions and helping students to regulate their emotions, teachers can ease interpersonal conflicts and contribute to the students’ emotional and social development.
Importantly, emotionally intelligent teachers also have the ability to perceive and regulate their own emotions, which might help to increase workplace engagement and reduce burnout.
Taking the test
But emotional intelligence can be tricky to assess.
Psychologists generally use one of two approaches. The first approach is to ask people about how they use emotion, and how good they are at using it. Yet if we look at the literature on more traditional forms of intelligence, this “self-report” approach to measurement is problematic; self-report and actual intelligence are not highly correlated.
However, the self-report method is still useful, as it results in a measure of “trait” emotional intelligence, reflecting how an individual might feel and be willing to act in a typical situation, as well as their emotional self-efficacy.
The second approach is to ask people a series of questions about emotion to which there is a defined correct answer. These are considered to be “performance” approaches, where emotional performance is gauged against an external criterion.
While not without its limitations (the defined correct answer is established by a panel of experts….make of that what you will), this approach results in a measure of “ability” emotional intelligence, and is considered to be more objective than self-report measures.
Impossible to measure?
Emotional intelligence is a construct still in relatively early days of empirical evaluation. It is not surprising that at this stage, psychologists are still in the process of refining its measurement.
However, just because something is difficult to measure, does not mean that it is not important. Ongoing work is needed to improve our understanding of exactly what comprises emotional intelligence and how to measure it.
The desire to help trainee teachers develop their interpersonal skills is laudable. But as the government continues talks with universities about how to implement these kinds of tests, extreme care needs to be taken and the difficulties of measuring emotional intelligence properly understood.
What is “correct” in an emotional intelligence test is not as clear-cut as it is in a numeracy and literacy test for example. In addition, intelligence is usually considered to be a relatively stable construct – you can’t teach someone to have more mental horsepower (though we do gain crystallised intelligence through experience).
From this perspective, attempting to train teachers (or anyone) to be have “more” emotional intelligence might be problematic. Instead, helping future teachers to develop a series of emotional competencies such as resilience, optimism, and effective adaption to change during their training might be more productive.