There’s a fascinating new study out in which researchers studied the injuries and aptitudes of Vietnam War veterans who suffered penetrating head wounds. Among their findings? That “the ability to establish social relationships and navigate the social world is not secondary to a more general cognitive capacity for intellectual function, but that it may be the other way around. Intelligence may originate from the central role of relationships in human life and therefore may be tied to social and emotional capacities.”
Let me repeat that: cognitive intelligence is not separate from social intelligence. In fact, our capacity to deepen the former is dependent on our ability to be deeply grounded in the latter.
For anyone who has spent time as an educator, we’ve always intuitively known this to be true. As the saying goes, unmet social needs lead to unmet academic needs. Or, put more simply, the three most important words in teaching and learning are Relationships, Relationships, Relationships.
And yet the recent flood of cognitive research that confirms this intuitive truth is striking, especially when one considers how slowly it has made its way into the minds of our nation’s policymakers. Indeed, as lead researcher Aron Barbey put it, “the evidence suggests that there’s an integrated information-processing architecture in the brain, that social problem solving depends upon mechanisms that are engaged for general intelligence and emotional intelligence. This is consistent with the idea that intelligence depends to a large extent on social and emotional abilities, and we should think about intelligence in an integrated fashion rather than making a clear distinction between cognition and emotion and social processing.
“This makes sense,” Barber continues, “because our lives are fundamentally social. We direct most of our efforts to understanding others and resolving social conflict. And our study suggests that the architecture of intelligence in the brain may be fundamentally social, too.”
So what would the next generation of education policies need to look like in order to be aligned with the emerging consensus about how the brain works, and how people learn?
They would need to start incentivizing the conditions that support holistic child development and growth, and stop disproportionately weighting literacy and numeracy.
They would need to start crafting policies in concert with other departments, from health to housing to labor, as a way to try and systemically support our country’s poorest families.
They would need to ensure that teacher preparation and evaluation programs are grounded in the latest neuroscience, not our traditional notions of what teaching looks like and requires.