"When someone has an idea, you respect that idea and you learn in a respectful way to challenge that idea, without hurting their feelings, without calling them a lot of names, without punching them in the face."
Credit: Bart Nagel
Daniel Goleman and George Lucas may have taken very divergent career
paths -- one is a renowned psychologist and author of the best seller Emotional
Intelligence, and the latter is a celebrated filmmaker -- but they share many
things. In addition to growing up near each other in the hard-baked farmlands
of central California, they both believe the classroom should be a rich emotional
environment that frequently touches and teaches the soul. They recently had
a chance to sit down and talk about these issues.
Daniel Goleman: You and I grew
up in adjacent towns in the Central
Valley in a sleepy time in American
history. It was the 1950s, and school
was very conventional. OK, it was
boring. Wasn't it?
George Lucas: Well, it was organized
in a way that was designed to mass-produce
education. It was boring in
that, if you really weren't that interested
in getting great grades, and that
wasn't your motivation in life, it was
very hard to get to the root of what you
were learning, because it was mostly
It wasn't really arranged with a
consideration for what makes kids
excited about learning. What happened
to you that got you excited
When I went to college, I was allowed
to have much more say in what I was
learning. For instance, I loved social
science, and I could take a social science
class, whereas in high school, we were
so focused on math skills, science skills,
language arts skills, the sorts of things
I wasn't very good at. It wasn't until I
had a wider range of possibilities at my
disposal that I was able to say, "I like
psychology, sociology, anthropology.
I like these classes, and I want to learn.
I'm curious about this stuff and I want to
know more about it."
Today, I think we
need to focus on three things: teaching
kids how to find information, figuring
out how to test that information, and
using that information in a creative way
to do something tangible, as opposed
to teaching abstract concepts, which
never seem to have much relationship to
a student's daily life. This is put forth in
processes such as project-based learning
and cooperative learning.
What do you mean by "project-based
An assignment like, say, to design and
build a house. You use the house as a
way to get the kids interested in math
and science and design and lots of other
things. PBL also promotes integrative
studies, so that students are learning
lots of subjects at the same time -- not
just portioned out, learning this at this
hour and that at that hour. So we say,
"Here's your project: Build your house."
The students then have to control the
environment in a particular way. For
instance, they may have to build it for a
particular price; maybe the house has to
withstand a tornado, or it has to be cool
inside when it's 105 degrees outside. You
set a bunch of restrictions that have to be
dealt with, so the kids have to figure out
thermodynamics and math and all these
things in order to build the house. Then
they present what they've figured out.
What you've done is to get someone
excited and motivated about
a goal that they have to achieve in
order to learn.
Right, and the goal is not necessarily
simply a grade. It's something more
tangible. We have discovered that abstraction
in education, while favored by
the ivory tower, doesn't really work that
well for most kids. They want to have
a practical, straightforward reason for
what they're doing.
One of the other issues is that a lot
of education in the past has been taught
in isolation: each student learning by
himself, the teacher not having much
contact with the students other than
through lecturing, the teacher not having
much contact with other teachers,
the school not having much contact with
the city it's in, and, most importantly,
the students not having much contact
with one another.
We have discovered that in teaching
social and emotional learning, rather
than saying, "We'll have a class on it, and
it will meet Tuesday at 4 o'clock," you
simply embed the social and emotional
lesson into the educational process by
saying, "You have to do this project
with four other people. You'll be graded
individually, you'll be graded as a group,
you'll be graded on the intellectual
quality of the project, but you will also
be graded on your emotional relationships
with each other. How did you get
along? How did you manage to work as a
team?" These are the things ultimately in
the real world that are the main factors
in getting hired and getting fired.
I remember some years ago talking
to people at computer companies,
high tech companies, who were saying
we have a problem with people
coming out of schools like MIT, which
is that they don't realize that they
have to collaborate here. We have to
regroove them so they can work on
There are human skills --
how to get along, how to cooperate,
how a group can have emotional intelligence,
be self-aware -- that are off
the standard academic curriculum.
They're part of what we call social and
emotional learning, where kids learn
self-awareness, how to manage their
emotions, how to handle impulse,
how to empathize, how to notice
other people, how to see things from
the other person's perspective. They
learn social skills, how to get along, to
work out conflicts. These are the skills
that we find make people successful
over the long haul.
Definitely. Anybody who's an adult,
working in the adult world, realizes that
your ability to encourage other people,
form groups, and get the best out of
everybody is the secret to success. One
of the things we discovered is that the
primary driving force for young people
is curiosity: They naturally wonder
how things work. And the other one
is that they want to be adults. So, you
give them adult projects like building a
house, building a rocket ship, running a
newspaper. You've got to give them an
actual goal, and it has to be a goal they
enjoy. Kids love to create things, and
they'll learn if you let them create.
From a neuroscience perspective,
you're talking about helping kids
get in an optimal state for learning.
You're talking about projects that are
exciting, that move them -- projects
that they want to do, instead of the
boring, rote learning you and I had to
put up with.
Well, it's also about changing the learning
process, which is the gathering of
information, learning the facts, learning
the processes, learning the rules.
But if you have a purpose -- I need to
read the instructions to know how to
turn on my VCR, for instance -- you'll
The next step is to have a skeptical
look at the facts, which is this: No
matter who is telling you something, no
matter where this information is coming
from, always sit back and look at the
facts. Can I prove it? Can I test it? How
accurate is it? You know, when you put
the board across a chasm, don't just run
across it. You slowly walk out and make
sure it's not going to break. And then
use this information you have tested in
a creative fashion.
Creativity and the
creative process demand that you think.
You're not learning, you're not learning
facts and laws -- you're thinking. You're
saying, "How can I create something
completely new or use this information
in a completely different way and be
creative about it?"
I like your pointing out that kids
need to learn to question the value
or the truth of what they're told,
particularly today, when the kids are
going to the Internet to get their information
because that's the way you
can get the most access to the data.
One new learning skill is learning
to evaluate the source itself. I think
that's absolutely crucial.
It also puts the kids in the driver's
seat, which is where they want to be,
especially when you get above the sixth
grade. They don't want to be subjected
to the authority figures that have usually
been presented to them -- mainly their
A really good teacher is not a
person who is dictating information to
students. We have discovered that if a
teacher approaches teaching saying this
to the student, "You are a bright intelligent
person who can figure this out on
your own, and if you need help, I'll help
you" -- if you take the teacher out from
the front of the classroom dispensing information,
and you encourage students
to find the information on their own
with the teacher as a guide or facilitator
in their information-finding adventure --
the students will learn a lot more and be
much more empowered.
The best thing that a teacher can be
is a human being. There is nothing more
powerful for students than to have the
teacher pat them on the back and tell
them they're doing a great job. It works
wonders if a teacher asks a student,
"What are you doing? Explain it to me."
Or, "Have you ever thought about this?"
For the teacher to be a guide, to send
students off in different directions, or to
be someone a student can go to for help
when they really get desperate, it makes
them, dare I say it, a mentor rather than
Credit: Bart Nagel
Isn't it a paradox, George, that in
the digital age, when more and more
of what in education is becoming
looking at a video monitor -- gathering
information and getting the data -- the
teachers are still important?
The teachers are even more important.
The digital age allows the teacher to get
to know the students, to be on a one-to-one
basis with the students. There are
some teachers who like to be protected
by the screen of a plan that they do every
day and that they've done every year.
They don't talk to the students; they
just deliver their little spiel, and that's
the end of the class. But there are a lot
of teachers who understand that the
students are discovering something, and
they like to watch that process. They like
to actually watch the lightbulbs going off
over the students' heads.
The human connection is more vital
even as kids are learning to use their
Yes, and that's also where emotional
intelligence comes in, because, if you're
working in groups, you really do have to
learn the process of argument, the process
of presenting facts, of proving your
point of view, not just sort of demanding
it, or hitting someone in the face, or
taking it at face value. You have to learn
to let go of your beliefs when they are
proved to be erroneous, and not let your
pride and other factors get in the way.
You have to learn to admit when you're
wrong about something, like, "The
information I gathered is wrong, and
we're all going to use this other information,
because it is better."
That is a very,
very important thing to be able to do. It's
something that is not taught in schools,
and it is extremely important in the
outside world. Otherwise, you have a lot
of organizations that refuse to change,
and change is the name of the game in
the twenty-first century.
The important thing is that you are
always questioning what is going on
and that you are respectful of other
people who are also questioning. And,
when someone has an idea, you respect
that idea and you learn in a respectful
way to challenge that idea, without
hurting their feelings, without calling
them a lot of names, without punching
them in the face.
So, you're talking about people
in school learning the ingredients
of a healthy give-and-take. But let's
unpack the personal ingredients you
need for that. You mentioned that
social and emotional learning (SEL)
helps kids with this component of success:
working together collaboratively.
And SEL teaches the skills of emotional
intelligence and self-awareness. In other
words, first you need some introspection,
you need some self-insight;
you need to understand what you are
feeling about things and why you are
feeling that way.
Again, it's like project-based learning.
It's one thing to learn these things in the
abstract, but it's another thing when you
are sitting in the middle of an argument.
They learn in a very practical way that
we're not going to get anywhere unless
we readjust our relationships. And the
way we readjust our relationships is to
take and use the knowledge that the
teacher has given us and that we are
learning about our own self-awareness.
It's much more effective to teach this in
a situation where kids are actually confronting
an issue and say, "Now, think
about what you're thinking about here.
Why are you doing it this way?" And
you're also teaching the group, because
in this situation, if you're the student,
you aren't by yourself.
In other words, SEL puts into
the classroom a live situation kids can
extract these lessons from.
Well, also, one of the problems of the
modern age is the remoteness from
which people deal with other people.
And it's true on the Internet and on
computers, but it's also true on talk
shows and on radio where bad manners
aren't called out. We don't say,
"Hey, you can't say that; that's hurting
someone's feelings." Some of these
talk show hosts believe that if they're
talking to thousands of people, millions
of people, and they're hurting a few
people's feelings, so what?
You can have
that rationale, but when you get down
to five people and you're modeling that
behavior from these other situations,
someone has to say, "Hey, wait a minute.
If someone said that to you, how
would you feel?"
And that's a lesson in empathy.
A very valuable one.
These people, on some
talk shows, trash people
for fun; but in the end,
when you're the one being
trashed, it isn't much
fun. You can make the
decision to trash someone,
but no one is going
to want to work with you,
nobody's going to respect
you, nobody's going to
pay attention to you. If
you are working on a
team, what does it do to
your team? This is something
you can learn in physical education;
sports teams are all about this sort
of thing. But it's time to bring it out of
the gym and put it into the classroom.
I think so, and one of the greatest
hopes for me is that kids will get,
and everyone will get, SEL and learn
how to respect other people, how
to empathize, and how to get along,
rather than these other lessons mass
media -- particularly junk television --
is teaching, which is just the opposite.
Well, they're pandering to the worst
possible aspect of the human animal,
which is to inflict pain on other people
and enjoy it.
Doesn't this require something new
of teachers? Is there a way to prepare
teachers for that future?
Again, it would demand that teachers
are trained much more in the world of
SEL and awareness, and know how to
teach it and how to deal with difficult
situations. I think it also means being
more one-on-one with the students.
need to have interpersonal skills that are
stronger than are demanded in today's
classroom, which means you really do
have to become interested in the student
beyond his or her name. You have to be
interested in the students' home lives
and be able to reason with them and be
able to take into account their personal
lives and how that affects all this. So, it
is a much deeper relationship between
the teacher and the student, in which,
ultimately, I think you can be much
more effective, because you can get at
the root of some of the problems.
This kind of teaching goes beyond
our standard model. It goes into caring
about kids in a deep way.
I am completely convinced that most
teachers really want to make a difference.
The way the system is set up now, however,
teachers feel like parents of a teenager:
You talk, but you don't know if they
are listening. This is not very gratifying.
teachers can become more involved with
the everyday lives of the students and
their learning process, the teacher gets
to experience the tiny, tiny victories. And
those are the victories that represent the
reason they got into teaching in the first
place. They get to experience the joy of
that student overcoming a problem and
being proud of it. That student then gets
to show it off to somebody personally, not
grandstanding in front of the classroom,
but in the moment of discovery, being
able to say, "Look, I figured this out." For
everybody involved, it is a much more
rewarding and joyful experience.
What Is It?
An experiential method of instruction
that engages students in group-oriented
projects, providing active
instruction in an interdisciplinary
array of skills, including math,
technology, language arts, fine arts,
geography, and science.
Social and Emotional Learning
A process through which children
and adults develop fundamental competencies
to recognize and manage
emotions, develop caring and concern
for others, establish positive relationships,
make responsible decisions,
and handle challenging situations