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How to Be Really Smart

20 April 2017

The world economic forum (WEF) published a list last year of the top ten skills that would be needed in 2020, compared to those needed now. It features in the thinking behind Nord Anglia Education’s amazing partnerships with MIT and The Juilliard School.

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Of course we would expect ‘complex problem solving’ to top both lists (that is precisely why we are investing so much in our new MIT inspired STEAM centres). However, amongst other skills on the list such as ‘coordinating with others’ and ‘people management’ there was a remarkable (and long overdue) new kid on the block of top 10 skills: emotional intelligence.

You don’t have to have been in the world of work for very long before you start to wonder why this hasn’t been seen as a vital skill before. For that matter, you don’t have to have been in any social environment before the awful reality is revealed about how people treat each other, speak to each other and judge or gossip about one another. The most sobering aspect to this is that it is hardly a new phenomenon: each generation perpetuates the notions of prejudice, exclusive cliques and back stabbing, even though the exact content of whatever distinguishes these various unkindnesses might change from era to era. Little wonder that the WEF identified emotional intelligence not only as a top 10 skill for the future, but also noted that it did not make the list in previous years.

What fascinates me (apart from people’s comfort at so clearly displaying a lack of emotional intelligence) is that so many of the other skills in the top 10 skills for 2020 are predicated on emotional intelligence. Coordinating others, people management, complex problem solving, cognitive flexibility, negotiation and creativity all benefit from a healthy dose of emotional intelligence. The whole idea of being ‘over there’ and empathising with someone else’s motivations, differing priorities and world view is crucial to escaping the smug warmth of believing that our own view is right and the only game in town. 

Of course, trying to create a guaranteed list of what will be necessary in the future is a fool’s errand. How could anyone possibly know? The answer is that the World Economic Forum can’t know of course. But what motivates their future list is the reality of the skill absence now. The impact of the poverty of emotional intelligence, perhaps more snappily titled ‘emotional unintelligence’, is writ large around us. As we reel from news of political posturing and brinksmanship with terrifying consequences, as we cope with the feelings of rejection from those we thought loved or cared for us, as we struggle with the weight of unreasonable expectation or blame from those at adjacent desks, we experience the lived reality of the need for emotional intelligence. Seldom has it seemed that our society is more in need of emotional intelligence than now. It’s an easy motto: to be smart, be kind.

Emotional intelligence is very difficult to teach, it resists the usual ‘curricular’ programming. However, it is not difficult to learn: our social brains are wired to adapt, change towards and adopt the values of those around us. So, the absence of emotional intelligence in the current WEF list of skills, and its prominence in desired future skills, is a wakeup call for all of us. To prepare our children for their future requires us to up our own emotionally intelligent skills now. Our actions, our behaviour, our words are the lessons that implicitly teach our children how to be emotionally intelligent. Only when our children are inspired by our own emotional intelligence will they be able to get the full benefit of incredible initiatives within the curriculum, such as our STEAM centres.

Dr Neil Hopkin FRSA, Principal