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Emotional literacy: whose business is it?

Dr Thomas Dixon looks at the part emotion plays in UK education

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Word cloud of responses to Embodied Emotions
Word cloud of responses to Embodied Emotions

With the current UK Government attempting to capture the nation's mood in a happiness index – a measurement of our collective wellbeing – it seems that emotion has fully entered the political sphere. Dr Thomas Dixon, director of the Centre for the History of the Emotions, might argue that this is nothing new. An area of particular interest for Thomas Dixon is the place of emotional education, both in the present day and within a historical context.

Emotional literacy on the curriculum

Emotional literacy currently has a place on the UK national curriculum at both primary and secondary level. 'Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning' (SEAL) is "a comprehensive, whole-school approach to promoting the social and emotional skills that underpin effective learning, positive behaviour, regular attendance, staff effectiveness and the emotional health and well-being of all who learn and work in schools". (

However, Thomas Dixon points out that the idea of educating human emotions has a long history: "Teaching children about their feelings is by no means a new thing. Going back only as far as the nineteenth century we encounter Samuel Wilderspin for example, a pioneer of infant education who is credited with inventing the playground. Wilderspin was very motivated by the Christian ideal of love. He carried this ideal into the classroom, and believed that all education should be driven by love. Children should be taught to express kindness – as well as learn to keep their passions in check."

Although there can seem to be little harm in teaching children to be kind, share when playing, and learn how to express their anger and disappointment safely – that is to say refrain from using physical violence – the policy of educating children emotionally gives rise to many different points of view. Thomas Dixon summarises the situation:

"Those who deny that emotional education is a proper goal for schools tend to endorse one or more of the following views: first, that thought and emotion can be separated and trained independently of each other; secondly, that feelings, unlike intellectual ideas, are provided by nature and will merely develop unaided; thirdly that emotions fall into broadly the same category as morality and religion and should therefore be taught by families or religious groups rather than by state schools, whose proper business is purely intellectual." ('Feeling differently, a preliminary report on Embodied Emotions: History, Performance and Education')

Thomas Dixon adds: "It could even be argued that emotional education reinforces societal and national divisions and allegiances. Children are taught who to love and trust, and who to vilify and hate. In this way the political agenda is driving what we teach children to believe, through the way we teach them how to feel."

Read the preliminary report:

Embodied Emotions: History, Performance, Education

At the heart of the Embodied Emotions project is a series of workshops in Osmani School, a primary school local to Queen Mary in the east end of London. Funded £100,000 by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) as part of their Beyond Text projects, Embodied Emotions is a collaborative venture led by Dr Alistair Campbell in the Department of Drama, along with Thomas Dixon, as well as a choreographer, a filmmaker, and of course the many schoolchildren who took part in the workshops.

The workshops were designed to: "develop classroom activities that allow children to explore their feelings and emotions in ways that are led by their own experiences and vocabularies." ('Feeling differently, a preliminary report on Embodied Emotions: History, Performance and Education')

As well as working alongside Ali Campbell to facilitate child-led drama workshops, Thomas Dixon engaged children with a series of images showing human (and some animal) expressions of emotion. The images were all taken from scientific or artistic works produced between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Children were encouraged to discuss the emotions shown by the images – was this man smiling, grimacing, or was he in mortal danger?

Rather than look for a 'correct' answer, Thomas Dixon was interested in opening up a lively discussion of the emotions depicted, and perhaps enlarging children's 'emotional vocabularies'. He also noted the overlap – and lack of – between what was originally intended by the illustration, and how it was interpreted by a twenty-first century audience. For example, a picture of a horse was labelled 'thoughtful and suspicious' by Charles Bell in the nineteenth century, but the schoolchildren deemed it 'happy', 'excited' or 'bonkers' among other responses.

The Embodied Emotions project gave Thomas Dixon the opportunity to be part of leading emotional education in schools. He concludes: "My provisional view is that it [emotional education] should be pursued, but not necessarily for the reasons or through the educational programmes and academic disciplines that are currently dominant, in the UK at least." ('Feeling differently, a preliminary report on Embodied Emotions: History, Performance and Education')

Centre for the History of Emotions

Thomas Dixon has been director of the enormously successful Centre for the History of the Emotions since it was founded in 2008. The only research centre of its kind in the UK, it brings together academics from different disciplines to explore the expression of emotion as it plays out across the ages, as well as in public and private life, from law and politics to medicine and religion. For more information see:, as well as the lively and thought-provoking blog:

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