How Do We Teach Empathy?

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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?