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This weeks readings had me thinking about two important concepts for our youth today:

  • How did you learn to be empathetic?
  • How can we empower students and other stakeholders to use technology to positively impact the world?

When I look at empathy and building empathy, I see it as part of our emotional intelligence. Recently, there has been much written about EQ and the fact that building EQ in youth is just as important as IQ, if not more important. There is lots of great literature out there that speaks to this, but I want to highlight a couple of very quick resources. The first is entitled 10 Reasons Why Emotional Intelligence Is Critical for Leaders This article nicely encapsulates the reasons as to why emotional intelligence is necessary for the success of anyone in leadership, without it, we cannot connect with those that we lead. Of course we see synonyms for empathy in this list such as “leading with the heart”, and “compassion”, but we also see other key traits, such as “respect”and “communication”.

The second article, entitled The Importance of Empathy in Leadership, does a nice job of explaining the why behind the importance of empathy, simply put: “I thought that my goal was to get my associates to follow the exact outline that we knew would bring them success, but in reality, my role was to enable them to be successful by taking barriers out of their way and supporting them. I needed to learn to be more of a coach than a manager. My job wasn’t to tell them what they need to do, because they already knew. Part of my role was to be a sounding board, an in-office therapist and the person that they could come to who would build up their ego. Someone who could push them to their goals and put them in a position to succeed.” It might seem odd to label oneself as a therapist when in a leadership position, but understanding the people that work for you or that you collaborate with, means listening to them, like a good therapist would. It also means empowering them to be the best version of themselves.

One last article I wish to point to is from the World Economic Forum, entitled The 10 skills you need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (seen above). Listed there is EQ, as one of the necessary 2020 skills for success in the world of work. Again, further evidence that empathy and EQ should be taught in schools and in the home.

I find it interesting to note that the list in its entirety consists of what some would call soft skills, but I would rather label them as essential skills. I think the terminology of “soft skills” tends to detract from just how important they are. The below video from Edutopia does a nice job of capturing this argument.

So we know that empathy and emotional intelligence are key to being a successful leader, but how do we go about building empathy in our students? In my opinion there are three ways to do this, by bringing empathy building literature into the classroom, by engaging students in service learning trips, and by providing them with a variety of experiences in order to build empathy.

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We know that what our students read, and what literature we bring into a classroom can have a profound impact on our students. Bringing in both fiction and non-fiction texts that have a social justice lens can open our students to a completely different world. Beyond just reading these texts in class, having students reflect and discuss what they read can take their learning a step further, and solidify the experience.  In the journal article Preparing Students for Global Citizenship in the Twenty-First Century: Integrating Social Justice through Global Literature, this idea is summarized quite eloquently: “Through exposure to this type of literature, students gain multiple perspectives and learn about the social, political, and moral conditions under which people around the world live. They also develop respect and understanding of socially and politically oppressed peoples and learn why it is important to promote social justice”. Although this particular example takes place in a grade three classroom, it can be applied to other elementary classrooms, and really the whole school, using grade and stage appropriate texts.

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Another way to build empathy with students is to take them out of the normal classroom and school environment and participate in service learning trips. These are called a variety of things from schools around the world: service learning, classroom without walls, experiential education, etc. A nice working definition comes from Vanderbilt University: “A form of experiential education where learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection as students seek to achieve real objectives for the community and deeper understanding and skills for themselves.” This definition comes from the article What the Heck Is Service Learning?. Again, like the literature above these intense experiences can be solidified through reflection and discussion, both during and after the trip takes place. As is mentioned in Chapter 2 of How to Establish a High School Service Learning Program, “The rationale for service learning is that students learn best (1) by doing, (2) by serving, and (3) by reflecting on the experience”. What separates Service Learning from other types of trips or experiences is the time for students to reflect, and the deep ties to curriculum; this is what makes these experiences so powerful for students in terms of building empathy.

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The third way to teach empathy is through experiences. I am using this third method as a catch all category for what the previous two do not cover. This could be volunteerism, charity work, fundraisers, guest speakers at the school, or documentaries, just to name a few examples. To me, these are not as powerful as the previous two, however, they can still be effective, especially when coupled with the previous two. Let me provide a working example here. One organization that has done a good job of this with students is MetoWe. What started as a 12 year old who was determined to help end child labor, had developed into a huge global charity that has a massive impact. They offer training sessions for teachers, students and parents, hold large conferences, support social justice clubs and charity work in schools, and support service learning trips for students and families around the world. When a school is able to partner with an organization like this, there are many experiences that teach empathy and emotional intelligence that they can tap into.

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Knowing that these three methodologies can work, where does technology fit in? Technology can offer our students a broader voice to express themselves and reflect upon the experience that they have had. Whether it is about a social justice text, a charity event at school, a guest speaker from a local NGO, or a one week service learning trip, there are lots of great tech tools to provide students voice, and to help them amplify that voice in a broader space to allow for greater feedback and audience participation. The TedTalk this week from Scott McLeod is full of great examples. Entitled Extracurricular empowerment, Scott highlights several students that used blogs, Twitter, created documentaries, online zines, YouTube channels, and other methods to amplify their voice, share, and gain feedback. On Scott’s blog dangerously irrelevant, he offers some more great examples to look at of students amplifying their voice through technology. There are so many great tech tools that exist for a variety of grade levels. These allow students to truly have a voice and share with a broader community.

I am most interested in hearing from both parents and teachers this week. How do you build and teach empathy in the classroom, at school, and at home? What tech tools are you using to allow your students and children to amplify their voices?

4 thoughts on “How Do We Teach Empathy?

  1. Hey Ryan,

    Yet again another stellar post. I really enjoy seeing your perspective when we write on similar topics and you look at things from a different and deeper perspective. I book marked a few of those great resources you came up with in your post too 😉

    A question popped up in my mind while reading the 2020 competencies list– are teachers preparing students for the futures of the past? That is to say, are we preparing students to be leaders in the same way that we thought we needed to be when we were students? That was a significantly different list of things from when I was a kid; teachers seem to be heavily influenced by their upbringing more so than what they learned in teacher’s college.

    Empathizing online was the ISTE standard for this week and it really got me. I kept going back to it this time around. How can kids be empathetic online when empathy is what happens when you deeply connect with someone? The online world is a place of numerous but shallow connections with people that are limited to specific types of relationships. Deep, empathetic relationships would not necessarily be at the top of my mind of things that we can establish online.

    Take you and I for example. We’ve got a bit of a bromance going on in Unit 2. It seems that you and I jive in terms of our professional outlook, work habits, and thirst to learn. But to get to that deep and empathetic place, meeting face to face, looking in your eyes and sharing a story would create that level of rapport that is necessary to divulge something that would require empathy.

    You mentioned in your post this week that as a leader, you’re more of a coach than a boss. Is it possible to coach people online? I’d be curious to hear from Tanya or Kim Cofino as people who are face-to-face coaches, but who are also active online.

    Questions! 🙂



    1. Hi Alex, I love that you mentioned “bromance” in your post, LOL! We certainly have been on the same wavelength this unit 🙂

      The 2020 list by the WEF is something that I have looked at many, many times, and shared many times. Like you, I often ask myself, am I, and are we, doing enough to prepare our students for the 2020 world of work. Think about this; those precious kindergarten kids that we see so carefree at school will be entering the workforce after 2030!

      When I answer the question about preparing our kids my answer is “yes” and “no”. As we continue to standardized test our kids with such vehicles as the SAT, PSAT, ACT, IB, AP, MAP, etc. we are only looking to measure them as a singular person and fit them into a box. At the same time, I see schools offering authentic assessments, project based learning, service learning, design thinking, and progressive education like this. If we can continue to push the envelope, then we will prepare them.

      When it comes to empathy building and relationships, I agree with you that face to face makes a huge difference. For me, anytime I have had the chance to meet someone from my PLN in person, for example at a conference, it has taken that relationship to the next level. I think you can definitely have a digital PLN or work with a coach digitally, but I think that the opportunity to work face to face is even better. I am really interested to hear what our coaches have to say about this?


      1. I wonder if the way we prepare kids for the workforce of 2030 is to make them adaptive today. We don’t know where the exponential growth of technology will take us in 10 years’ time, but we do know that finding flexibility in times of rapid change could be one of the most beneficial things we can do.


  2. Thanks, Ryan for a great post and some fantastic resources to think about building empathy in the classroom. I wholeheartedly agree with using literature containing social justice themes to create empathy, almost like shocking the students with situations that force perspective taking and help them to think about others.

    I also love the fact that you brought up service learning. For some reason, I forgot to talk about this in my post even though I am the service lead for the elementary school. I think that service, in particular with local relationships is a fantastic way to build empathy. If you look up the 5 stages of service learning you can find ample opportunities for technological integration. Through investigation of the needs and who we are working with, we can help students to develop their research skills, through preparation and planning we can use a variety of online organizers and planners to work effectively as a group (my class uses google slides and Padlet), and during the action or implementation phase you or students can document the learning. After the action, we can start reflecting and this is a stage to use blogs or online learning journals to process and consolidate the learning that takes place during the service experience. The demonstration phase is another opportunity to celebrate learning with the school or a wider community.

    We work closely with local groups at my school from cleaning out the cemetery to planning games and activities with orphans, to collecting fruit and making onigiri for the local homeless shelter. The older students visit the shelter, prepare food, and serve it. Some of the students have taken it upon themselves to create a documentary about it and through extensive research about the homeless situation in Japan, and video editing techniques are able to be excellent advocates for the center we work with. Other students graph electronically the number of different fruits we collect each week.

    I think that by keeping the relationships local we can develop that face-to-face relationship that you and Alex mention is so important to developing a stronger relationship, therefore stronger empathy.


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