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September 1, 1999
Vol. 57
No. 1

How Innersense Builds Common Sense

When students consider what makes them different and what gives their lives significance, such understanding ultimately improves academic performance.

Every 7th grader in the social and emotional learning class expressed an understanding of the rules of belonging to a group. When I asked whether they knew which cliques they were in, all hands went up. The class chattered eagerly for five periods about how these groups work differently for boys and girls. "Outersense," those things that other people see and value about us, affects the position in which others place us within the school community.
While discussing the tragedy in Littleton, Colorado, I switched the topic to how it feels to be different: "Can you walk in the shoes of someone who feels like an outsider?" A hushed silence fell over the group. Although each student had experienced the anxiety of feeling excluded, they shared their discomfort only with their journals. Individuality is sometimes hard for a 7th grader to embrace.
Although our rules of inclusion and exclusion come from our "outersense," our appreciation for our individual difference must be known through our "innersense." Learning the balance between the two is a complex task for adolescents—and the focus of our social and emotional learning program.

Finding Your Innersense

What is it about the social and emotional learning class that draws students to discuss its contents in their free time? The class addresses the really important stuff in their lives: what makes them different and what gives their lives significance. In a three-year sequence offered to 7th through 9th graders as part of the developmental counseling program and to the 8th grade history class, the students learn that each of us has a unique way of experiencing the world and sharing gifts with other people. These qualities of innersense are our strengths and can help us understand how we distinguish our lives and our work.
Many educators have recognized different aspects of this special sensing ability. Educator Anthony Gregorc talks about four different learning styles (1985). Psychologist Howard Gardner describes multiple intelligences (1983). Psychologist Mel Levine discusses "an affinity toward certain inexplicable things you just naturally love to do" (1998). Researcher Isabel Briggs Myers refers to a "natural preference for viewing the world" (1980). Educator Janet Levine describes "your world view or life strategy" (1999). Sandra Seagal and David Horne discuss "the human dynamics or hardwiring that underlies distinctions in the functioning of people as whole systems" (1997).
What is your innersense and how does it work? How does your innersense differ from that of others in the class? These are the questions we explore through discussions, self-assessment tools, essays, and peer conversations.
Seventh through 9th graders seem to know exactly what I am referring to by the word innersense. I was enchanted to receive extremely descriptive two-page papers from 7th graders about the subject after we spent two class periods discussing it. By 9th grade, many of the students learn to recognize the different innersenses of other students. As one boy wrote, "I know exactly what you are talking about. I just didn't ever have a word for it. Nobody ever asked me about it before."
Students see their innersenses working very differently. One 7th grade girl writes, By body language and tone of voice, I can almost always tell that something is wrong with someone in my family. My mom says she can't think her private thoughts because I can sense what she is thinking.
A 7th grade boy says, I am an introverted person, which shows in almost everything I do. I like to think about my answers in class before I express them. True to my character, I enjoy things that involve creativity. I find that in music, I can express the mood I am in at the time that I create the piece.
In contrast, a more outgoing 7th grader explains, I think that your innersense is clearly dependent upon your outersense and what people think of you. Because when push comes to shove, your innersense is what you don't want people to see. So your innersense is not what matters to others but only to yourself.
What do we include in explaining the meaning of innersense? We discuss a range of qualities, such as learning style, communication style, natural decision-making approaches, values, intuition, individual stress factors, what gives our lives meaning, and our emerging senses of life purpose. The list of qualities will be different for each student.
Exact definitions are not as important as the shared discovery process that the students go through as they reflect on the qualities of their innersense. They also begin to realize that it is precisely the understanding of the innersense of others that supports them in reconnecting to the group in ways that make the group stronger.

Can Knowledge of Innersense Influence Academic Performance?

Since the publication of Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence(1995), many educators are paying attention to the connections between emotional and academic development. In my own work with adolescents, I am encouraged by the relationship between the recognition of a student's innersense and the student's motivation to achieve in life goals and in academic subjects.
Michael, a 7th grader diagnosed with ADHD, was struggling academically. In a one-on-one counseling session about the qualities of his innersense, he gave me a clear picture of his view of his future. I like adventure, action, and taking risks. I like to be with people who feel the same way. I want to own a mountain sports shop at 25. I don't need to live as rich a life as my parents. I need a simple cabin and an opportunity to go mountain biking and try high-risk outdoor activities. I like to be with people who enjoy the things that I enjoy. Academics just bore me.
Michael then described what it would take to get his dream business going. He was certainly a highly motivated and goal-oriented child.
Michael was earning Cs and Ds in school. In a conference with his concerned parents, I talked about the good news and the bad. The good news is that Michael has a clearer picture of who he is and what he wants to do in life than many college students. He is charming and personable and has a love of adventure and life—all of which are strong indicators of life success. The bad news is that we have to get him through 7th grade academically, which may be the part of his life that he is least interested in right now.
Michael's parents gained perspective by viewing Michael in this context. By clearly supporting the innersense qualities that Michael identified, we were able to see his academic nonperformance as just one part of his overall successful life. We could focus our attention on the qualities that Michael felt were most important and help him address the academics as secondary.
As Michael got more recognition from his parents and school about what he valued for himself, he gained more control over his academic inattentiveness. He began to see academics as one piece of his life, rather than as the measure of his worth—which can so easily happen for a child who spends most of a day focused on academic success. By 9th grade, Michael was on the honor roll. Although he still had attentional lulls, he was gaining control over his life, without medication.
One interesting benefit of the social and emotional learning class is the opportunity for students to hear the opinions of the "popular kids." They express the same concerns that other students have about who they are. Such frank discussion breaks down some of the myths about what it takes to be popular, enabling all students to be more comfortable with how they are different. Different does not have to mean weird or socially unacceptable.

Building Bridges in Social and Emotional Learning Programs

Our social and emotional learning program is a three-year curriculum for 7th through 9th graders. At the 7th grade level, we study individual learning, communication, and decision-making styles. Students work with the Student Styles Questionnaire to examine their own style. They reflect on the results of this self-assessment and decide whether the results fit what they know of themselves. They write papers about their findings.
In groups defined by similar style characteristics, the students build bridges. The bridges usually show characteristics reflective of the group style. For example, students who favor learning through concrete examples often construct a workable bridge that the group can climb over. Other groups that learn more easily through understanding overall themes may care less about a functional bridge, but may want to create a symbolic bridge that expresses harmony or friendship.
In their 8th grade history class, students apply the personal-style model that they learned in 7th grade to their study of U.S. presidents. For example, students compare and contrast the leadership of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Interestingly, students develop conceptual skills to do this type of leadership analysis faster when they have the background in personal-style analysis. Even students who are usually weak in conceptualizing skills perform well when utilizing the style model.
In the 8th grade social and emotional learning program, we explore personal values, virtues, and character issues. Each student identifies his or her life and daily operating values. We also contrast personal values with principles of character that transcend the values of one individual.
In 9th grade, we offer a one-semester graded course one day a week in the study of the Enneagram, a tool that has been used as a rite of passage for more than 2000 years to help adolescents understand their special place in the tribe. The Enneagram is a nine-point model for recognizing differences in personal style, including special gifts, interests, relationship to family and friends, stress factors, and life focus for personal meaning. Students complete a term paper about their innersense and how they see its influence in relation to friends, family members, and future career dreams.

The Benefits of Understanding Innersense

  1. As students gain an in-depth understanding of their innersense, we can help them support their priority interests with extracurricular activities in music, art, drama, community service, or other areas. In this way, students learn to be selective in choosing activities that support their personal preferences. This is an important time-management and stress-management lesson.
  2. Understanding innersense is a crucial conflict resolution tool. Once students understand that different people really may have different inner motivations, they find that conflict can often be resolved by better listening to a person's needs.
  3. Understanding innersense qualities can help students build personal direction for college and vocational interests.
  4. As students learn about models such as the Enneagram, they begin to ask their parents and other teachers questions about personal style. As parents and teachers become interested in the student's questions, they often ask for assistance in identifying their own personal style. As a result, we offer workshops for teachers and parents, such as the program taught at Teachers College, Columbia University, Social Emotional Learning Summer Institute (Cohen, Shelton, & Stern, 1999). This helps students, parents, and teachers better understand their differences.
  5. In the wake of increasing school violence, we have developed guided imagery and journaling exercises designed to help participants walk in the shoes of someone who is different or ostracized. This provides a powerful tool for discussions about cliques, empathy, and reaching out for help.

Cohen, J., Shelton, C., & Stern, F. (1999, May). Why social and emotional learning for educators? Journal of the New York City Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1, 23-27.

Gardner, H., (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.

Gregorc, A. (1985). Inside styles: Beyond the basics. Maynard, MA: Gabriel Systems, Inc.

Levine, J. (1999). The Enneagram intelligences: Understanding personality for effective teaching and learning. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

Levine, M. (1998, March). Unpublished presentation at the Community School of Naples, Naples, FL.

Myers, I. B. (1980). Gifts differing. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologist Press.

Seagal, S., & Horne, D. (1997). Human dynamics: A new framework for understanding people and realizing potential in our organizations. Waltham, MA: Pegasus Communication.

Claudia Marshall Shelton has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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