Empathy and Education

Originally published with TheEducator.com on 12th July 2017

Last month, the UK witnessed heinous terror attacks, malicious hate crimes and the deadly consequences which come from years of neglecting poor communities. In the aftermath of these tragic events, politicians, the media and the general public have questioned why today’s society is prone to such grievous failings. While answering this question is fraught with complexities, one thing is apparent – too many individuals in our society lack a sense empathy, to understand the feelings of others, particularly those who appear different.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that any hope for our future society to be fairer, safer and more benevolent, requires empathetic citizens who have the ability to look outside of their own lives, and experiences, and place themselves in the position of others who are different and often less fortunate.

Empathy has been promoted in schools and educational institutions for decades, but it was often considered a soft skill. Fortunately, the ability to understand others is now becoming increasingly recognised as an essential “core life skill” for young people.

According to Miranda McKearney OBE, social justice entrepreneur and founder of The Reading Agency, “Empathy is made up of three main elements: emotional/effective empathy where we literally resonate with someone else’s feelings; cognitive empathy or perspective taking where we apply reason to work out how someone else feels and “empathic concern”, which is a powerful motivator for helping others and a force for social justice”

In Finland, Europe’s education powerhouse, empathy skills are already recognised as being of central importance in modern education, as Pekka Peura, explained at the HundrED educational conference,

‘Schools are becoming more humane – it is noticeable when following or actively taking part in the development work of schools. By intuition, my teaching methods keep developing towards more interactive and empathetic approaches. This change is happening around Finland due to teachers. Although our present societies can be quite negative, it is individuals who can effect change.’

Supporting the development of students sense of empathy prepares them for life in broader society, and also benefits the immediate classroom environment, as Bob Sornson, the award winning author and educator asserts, ‘Empathy is the heart of a great classroom culture.’

While the value of supporting students to develop empathy skills, is becoming increasingly recognised, the way in which this is done continues to be a challenge, because empathy is a complex concept and a difficult skill to ‘teach’.

Establishing and sustaining an empathic mindset in the classroom environment is an important starting point for teachers who wish to help their students develop these skills. However, it requires teachers to always be conscious of the example their own words and actions provide, and to ensure they model positive behaviour. When teachers treat students as respected co-learners, they model a belief about how all people should be treated. Teachers can also model empathy skills by taking the time to connect with each student and being available to speak with them privately, as and when necessary.

Developing a strong bond between student and teacher can also make a huge difference on children’s behaviour and academic performance, as an influential Swiss study concluded.

If educators believe empathy is important, then it is important that they also find ways to explicitly discuss these skills with their students, by putting them in the curriculum. For example teachers can ask students to define their understanding of the word ‘empathy’, and have them provide examples of it. During classroom discussion about empathy, the teacher can also have students consider why these skills are important. Teachers can also ask students to suggest ways in which empathy can be deployed in everyday situations at school and at home.

Some subjects, such as Civics and History, provide fertile ground for discussions about empathy, with students and teachers sharing ideas and opinions about individual and collective actions and behaviour.

One subject which can help students of all ages to develop their sense of empathy is literature. Elementary teachers can start by reading books from the classroom library which have characters and situations which can be used to prompt discussions about empathy, by asking questions such as, ‘Why do you think he did that?’‘How do you think she feels?’, and, ‘How would you feel in that situation?’

A UK based organisation, EmpathyLabhas been working with children and teachers in primary schools to explore the idea of empathy. Empathy Lab’s founder, Miranda McKearney is convinced that reading and the capacity of losing oneself in a good story is one of the most important ways in which children can develop their capacity to empathise. As McKearney explains, ‘Helping children learn about empathy through books lays strong foundations for resisting prejudice and intolerance. Neuroscience research shows that the emotions we feel for characters wires our brains to have the same sort of sensitivity towards real people.’

As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, it’s important that students are aware of other cultures and are understanding of perspectives different from their own. It is encouraging that more schools and educational organisations are providing students with the opportunity to develop this vital skill set, and as this continues, future generations have a better chance of living in a society which is fairer, safer and more benevolent.

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For teachers wishing to establish a positive classroom culture which promotes the development of empathy, the links below have some great ideas and activities –

  • Ashoka lists different strategies to incorporate empathy across different educational contexts, as well as a toolkit for increasing empathy within schools (PDF).
  • org offers lesson plans centered around empathy.
  • Karyn Gordon provides some practical tips in TEACH Magazine‘s article “Dr. Karyn Gordon: Creating Empathy and Gratitude in the Classroom.”
  • Teaching Tolerance describes a variety of strategies for helping to build a positive classroom culture that can include empathy.
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