Beyond Emoticons

Winter 2016

By Josh Cobb

In 2010, Alan November, a renowned expert in technology and education, visited our school, Graland Country Day School (Colorado), as we explored the possibility, and opportunity, of a 1:1 iPad program. During his visit, he recounted a story that also appears in his book Who Owns the Learning?: Preparing Students for Success in the Digital Age.1 When November was in London working for one of the largest banks in the world, he asked the bank’s CEO, “What are the most important skills you look for in your employees?” The CEO answered in one word: “Empathy.”

Of the many proficiencies that were termed essential for this century — resourcefulness, problem solving, information analysis, and more — few educators mentioned empathy. Still, as I further considered November’s visit, I did not come back to his brilliant explanation of web navigation; I returned to empathy. How do you teach empathy? How do you teach students to understand the experience of others? How do you foster that type of emotional intelligence?

Fortunately, as Graland was exploring the 1:1 iPad program, it was also initiating a new advisory program, based on the Developmental Designs structure (see sidebar on page 45). I hoped that a renewed focus on how advisors and advisees used this time each day would provide answers to the questions above and enhance the culture of our school. As Graland executed both of these initiatives over the next few years, the 1:1 iPad program received much of the attention as a cutting-edge venture preparing students for the future; whereas, the reenvisioned advisory curriculum arguably accomplished more by quietly fostering the social-emotional skills that many now believe are crucial for success.

Why Emotional Intelligence Matters

Since the turn of this century, educators have been trying to envision how best to prepare students for an unpredictable economy. As students enter the workforce, the current environment inspires both exhilaration and anxiety. In a recent Harvard Business Review interview, “The Great Decoupling,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee discuss a Second Machine Age in which robots begin to learn on their own and quickly evolve to master many human capacities. When asked if there will be any jobs for humans as this age continues, McAfee and Brynjolfsson discuss three areas in which humans are “far superior” to machines: creativity, dexterity, and interpersonal intelligence. This last category, McAfee describes as “emotion, interpersonal relations, caring, nurturing, coaching, motivating, leading, and so on.”2

In another article from that same issue, “Beyond Automation,” Thomas H. Davenport and Julia Kirby argue that one way to enhance your employability in an automated age is to “focus on [Howard Gardner’s] ‘interpersonal’ and ‘intrapersonal’ intelligences — knowing how to work well with other people and understanding your own interests, goals, and strengths.”3

Educating students for the future demands a focus on emotional intelligence.

To thrive in this century, Daniel Goleman and Peter Senge believe the core abilities of social-emotional learning — self-awareness, self-management­, empathy, social skill, and good decision making — are vital. In their book, The Triple Focus, they offer “three crucial skill sets for navigating a fast-paced world of increasing distraction and endangered person-to-person engagement — a world where the interconnections between people, objects, and the planet matter more than ever.”4 The first is focusing inwardly on ourselves. The second is empathizing with others. The third is understanding the larger world. They see a social-emotional curriculum as the primary — if not the only — way to teach these emotional competencies.

Considering how quickly the world is changing, it is hard to disagree with the importance of these interpersonal and intrapersonal skills. In their Harvard Business Review article, “Teaching Teenagers to Develop Their Emotional Intelligence,” Marc Brackett, Diana Divecha, and Robin Stern conclude, “The reality is that the youth who will be tomorrow’s innovators, educators, politicians, and business professionals aren’t ready to meet such competitive expectations — not so much because they’re untrained but because they’re unequipped emotionally.”5

Though preparing students emotionally may be more difficult than teaching math formulas or even ­critical thinking, it is clearly essential for educators to engage in this work if they want students to thrive in their adult lives.

What Can Schools Do?

Refocusing a school on emotional intelligence is a holistic endeavor. At Graland, we began by committing 20 minutes each day to advisory in the middle school and to Responsive Classroom’s morning meeting in the lower school. After spending a year devoted to revising our schedule, we determined that our first priority was setting aside this time, each day from 8:10 to 8:30 a.m. Then we committed to an intentional curriculum. We used Responsive Classroom (see sidebar on page 45) in the lower school and Developmental Designs in the middle school, and required the majority of our teachers to receive training in these methods. Advisors then supplemented these programs with their own expertise on social-emotional learning. Though there were days when advisory devolved back to “hanging out,” teachers were devoted to using this time effectively and consistently.

A typical advisory lesson usually followed what Linda Crawford describes in The Advisory Book as the “Circle of Power and Respect (CPR).” This structure includes “daily news,” “greeting,” “sharing,” and “activity.” The greeting has two purposes: “Students learn the skills of formal, friendly, and fun formats for social encounters” and “everyone relates to everyone in the community.” Greeting includes activities as simple as looking a fellow classmate in the eyes and saying good morning.6 The sharing element deepens the interaction and builds connections among the students. For example, advisees may be asked to share their favorite sports team to the whole group or one of their pet peeves with one other advisee. Each “share” has a different format and different level of risk as students develop conversational facility and the ability to understand different perspectives.

As we attempted to enhance the emotional intelligence of our students, we found that advisory was just a component of this effort. Ideally, the proficiencies taught there were reinforced throughout our program, including in wellness classes, service learning projects, and overnight trips. For example, one of the guiding principles of our school is to “cultivate compassion.” In advisory, sixth-grade students follow the Developmental Designs curriculum, CARES (Cooperation, Assertion, Responsibility, Empathy, and Self-control). They then build on those lessons, specifically the ones on empathy, when they visit a soup kitchen once a month to help feed the homeless. In eighth grade, students are introduced to issues of social justice during their civil rights trip to the Deep South, and then continue to delve into the challenges facing our society in history, English, and advisory classes.

Though these dovetails are exciting, we have found that often our goals are well meaning but scattered. Although we can follow CARES or our guiding principles or our Graland guidelines or our mission statement, we often are left with too many threads to weave together into one coherent fabric. Sensing this difficulty, this past summer we reconvened the advisory committee — comprising the school counselor, our wellness teacher, and one advisor from each grade level — and tasked the group with making the curriculum more coherent, sequential, and focused. With their guidance, we have begun integrating at least one guiding element from our advisory program throughout our curricula.

The Responsive Classroom and Developmental Designs

Responsive Classroom and ­Developmental Designs are both nationally implemented, ­evidence-based programs dedicated to fostering social, emotional, and academic growth in students.

In order to enhance student achievement and improve school climate, Responsive Classroom focuses on four main components of elementary school education:
  1. Engaging Academics
  2. Positive Community
  3. Effective Management
  4. Developmental Awareness

Developmental Designs adopts a similar approach for middle school students and, like Responsive Classroom, believes that student success relies on engagement, social skills, and positive relationships. The primary purpose of Developmental Designs is to help students acquire skills in three domains:

  1. Social-Emotional
  2. Relationship and Community
  3. Academic

For more information, please visit www.responsiveclassroom .org and

What About "Real" Learning?

The greatest challenge to this initiative is the bias against the so-called “soft” skills. Some see an increased focus on social-emotional intelligence as too “touchy-feely” and a distraction to “real” learning. To stay committed to teaching traits such as self-awareness and empathy, it is important to see their connection to what others may see as more rigorous cognitive abilities. For many years educators have done their best to prove this relationship. In 2004, editor Joseph Zins compiled much convincing evidence in the book Building Academic Success on Social and Emotional Learning, and concluded that “there is a growing body of scientifically based research supporting the strong impact that enhanced social and emotional behaviors can have on success in school and ultimately in life.”7

Recently, at the Colorado Forum for Social-Emotional Learning, I heard Daniel Goleman and others provide even more proof that an intentional SEL curriculum can lead to both behavioral and intellectual improvement in schools, private or public. Specifically, Goleman stressed how cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, and empathic action lead to many benefits including academic success.

Many schools are now transforming how they teach to foster both academic and emotional intelligence. In his article “Power Down or Power Up?” (in Heidi Hayes Jacobs’s compilation, Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World), Alan November states, “If our children are to grow up to make important contributions to our society, it is essential that we provide them with powerful tools and experiences across the curriculum. This goal will require a new culture of teaching and learning that engages students as contributors.”8 He gives specific examples of these pedagogical changes when he describes the different roles students can take in the classroom, including tutorial designers, collaboration coordinators, and societal problem solvers. By encouraging more student ownership and facilitating a culture of contribution on both a school and global level, November argues that schools can “raise the level of engagement and provide more depth and rigor than was ever possible before.”9

As schools redefine academic rigor, many have transformed their learning goals as well as their means of instruction and assessment. Specifically, education is evolving to be more student-centered. In the article “Rethinking Curriculum for the 21st Century,” also from the Jacobs compilation, Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick discuss three essential shifts in how we think about education:

  1. from knowing right answers to knowing how to behave when answers are not readily apparent;
  2. from transmitting meaning to constructing meaning; and
  3. from external evaluation to self-assessment.10

To thrive in this new model of schooling, Costa and Kallick outline 16 essential habits for students, most of which relate to emotional intelligence, including persisting, managing impulsivity, and listening with understanding.11

Now that most educators have agreed on the essential higher-order thinking skills for this century — communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity — they need to appreciate the potent convergence of intellectual and social-emotional development. For example, creativity and critical thinking demand a level of empathy. Design thinking places empathy at the very center of innovation and problem solving. When solving problems, inventors need a deep understanding of the needs of others. Those who use a design-thinking curriculum must take time to generate this level of empathy before brainstorming, ideation, and creation can begin.

Recently, at Graland, we brought this type of curriculum into our Gates Invention Program and saw students stretch their invention ideas from the mundanely practical to the truly transformative. Two years ago, one sixth-grade student helped create a washing machine that was powered by gravity, not electricity, for people in rural areas of developing countries. Though we celebrate the inventiveness of all our students, this particular innovation, fueled by compassion, stood out.

This one example shows the impactful fusion of a social-emotional skill (empathy) and a higher-order thinking skill (creativity). The more schools can look for pedagogy that blends these two programmatic initiatives, the more they will deepen the learning of their students. Then, character education and rigorous academics will not be mutually exclusive. They will be powerful partners in the effort to fully prepare our students to be responsible and competent citizens of the world.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt stated, “We cannot always build a future for our youth, but we can always build our youth for the future.” The future — whether labeled the digital age, the automated age, or the second machine age — is unpredictable. We can’t know for sure what type of world our students will encounter in the next decades, but we can know that to survive in that world, they will need to have the emotional intelligence to be empathetic, resilient, and innovative. To foster these social-emotional competencies, we will need an intentional curriculum that goes beyond advisory to infuse lessons in social-emotional development throughout the entire school program.


1. Alan November, Who Owns the Learning? (Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press, 2012): 65.

2. “The Great Decoupling: An Interview with Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, Harvard Business Review, June 2015: 73.

3. Thomas H. Davenport and Julia Kirby, “Beyond Automation,” Harvard Business Review, June 2015: 62–63.

4. Daniel Goleman and Peter Senge, The Triple Focus (Florence, MA: More Than Sound, 2014): 9.

5. Marc Brackett, Diana Divecha, and Robin Stern, “Teaching Teenagers to Develop Their Emotional Intelligence,” Harvard Business Review, May 19, 2015: 1.

6. Linda Crawford, The Advisory Book (Minneapolis, MN: The Origins Program, 2012): 48.

7.Eds. Joseph E. Zins, Roger P. Weissberg, Margaret C. Wang, and Herbert J. Walberg, Building Academic Success on Social and Emotional Learning (New York, NY: Teachers College Press, 2004): 19.

8. Alan November, “Power Down or Power Up?” Ed. Heidi Hayes Jacob, Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2010): 193.

9. Ibid, 194.

10. Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick, “Rethinking Curriculum for the 21st Century,” Ed. Heidi Hayes Jacob, Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2010): 223–225.

11. Ibid, 212–213.

Josh Cobb

Josh Cobb is head of school at Graland Country Day School in Denver, Colorado. He was previously an English teacher and head of middle school at Graland.