Please watch this video first – it’s less than 2 minutes long and well worth your time. I got on to this video via a tweet by @gcouros which led me to Shawn Ram‘s blog and eventually this post: Do your words say what they should?”
This video is an ad that capitalises on the power of words, particularly in evoking new meanings. The ‘new words’ were obviously more able to evoke empathy from passers-by.
I hear ’empathy’ a lot lately. Is it a new trend? Why is it even important?
I’ve always valued empathy, particularly because I am so anti-apathy. Empathy is generally understood as the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes. Empathy is an act of sharing, understanding and connecting. Being able to feel what someone feels, see what they see, be who they are, albeit temporarily – all help to build relationships. Empathy allows us to say “You matter. I care.” with more depth and meaning.
Empathy is having perspectives other than one’s own. As social beings in an increasingly hyper-connected world, it is an important life-skill to have and nurture.
But how do we teach empathy?, asks @Brittgow. How do we provide our students with more perspectives?
Here are my suggestions. Please add more.
- Modeling. Teachers can and often do model empathy. While making it explicit might seem ‘strange’ or ‘devalues the act’, it is important that kids understand that the act of empathy is a skill that can be learned. Learning vicariously – or by osmosis – is an acquired skill in itself (I digress again).
- Role-playing. Use imagination and/or research to build up ideas of what a particular character might think, feel, see in a particular context. I’ve done this as part of a pastoral care curriculum. It can also be done in academic subjects other than English and Drama. For example, I got my year 7 maths to imagine themselves as ancient Romans and operate with numbers using Roman Numerals – or even beyond that using tallies; they learned to appreciate Arabic numerals and even decimals (representation of fractions).
- Use different ways of expressing meaning. Use different words, like in the video above. Use multi-media like Claire who expressed her Irlen Dyslexia through art .
- Celebrate diversity. This has the pre-requisite of identifying our uniqueness and finding value in it. This step may be confronting for kids, especially teen-agers when the need to belong seem strongest. Being an individual yet somehow blend in is is one of the ironies of adolescence. Classroom discussions are good opportunities to encourage and support different perspectives. A line I often use is, “Who haven’t I heard from yet?”, which makes students feel their unique viewpoint matters. @edusum suggests in her comment below to watch this video:Love. Not Loss. It is a good example for celebrating bio-diversity, valuing what we have rather than what we’re losing is a shift in perspective; a concrete example of empathy.
- Change contexts. Admittedly, this is similar to (2 – role-playing) above but the emphasis for this is that the student remains who they are but the context is changed. For example, I have asked students to be ‘the teacher’. This was actually a revision exercise where students were asked to teach a particular topic of choice, given a list of choices. I acted as one of the students, mostly attentive but sometimes not and one prone to ask questions. Their reflections afterwards showed more empathy for the teacher.
- Immersion. A good way to present another perspective is to actually be in it – not pretend, imagine or research, actually BE in it. Jeannette (@7Mrsjames) suggests below to take students to do community service and then reflect on the experience. Reflection and discussion help students process the experience and manage the ‘do-charity-to-feel-good’ possibility. I think this is closest to the activism espoused by social justice principles, i.e. empathy that leads to action.
- Guest speakers. First-hand accounts are powerful and compelling. @Brittgow mentions below how a paraplegic speaker was brought in to teach students to play wheelchair basketball. Perhaps Britt is right that this strategy may be easier to arrange than Immersion. I think it also allows a bigger audience and a de-brief session afterwards will help emphasise points and deepen understanding.
- Story-telling. This is an extrapolation of idea #7 for really, the power of guest speakers is their personal story. But don’t we all have our own? Sharing one’s story is a powerful way to express individual perspectives and opportunity to celebrate diversity. One time I asked a year 8 student what she did in her school holidays and she said plastering. When another student piped in, “Was that fun?”, she answered, “I wouldn’t call building walls with gyprock (plasterboard) and plaster fun but it was ok; I was helping dad.” There’s an insight into the life of a country girl, and I thought she was creating or painting crafty plaster molds.
- Acknowledge individuality. Make it personal. Listen. Care. Tell them. I said above Empathy allows us to say “You matter. I care.”, yet failed to add it as a strategy. Let each student know that they matter and that you care. Help students think and believe “I matter. I care.”, starting with themselves and on to others. @Lasic says all this perhaps more eloquently and passionately in his comment below and certainly in his website, Human. @Murcha suggests giving students opportunities to show their strengths. Let them shine. When individual students are seen and valued for who they are, they are able to see and value others around them, too.
- Connect. There’s a whole world out there of individuals with different perspectives and connecting is easier now with technology/social media. Connect via video-conferencing (skype), blogs, micro-blogs, etc. Learn about other cultures and countries from the locals. Experience the cultural and language barrier and how these might be overcome. This idea evolved from a Twitter conversation with @pickledtreats pondering on the difference between expats and immigrants as well as growing Xenophobia over at the Netherlands.
- Fiction, movies, games. Research shows that fiction readers have greater empathy, possibly because they are able to relate with fictional characters (Research paper: The Science of Fiction via @whartonag). Reading fiction, and possibly watching movies and playing computer games, facilitates entering the simulated world of the protagonist/s which evokes comparable emotions. The research also said that better effects are gained via fiction than documentary. Isn’t that interesting?
- Participate in events. This idea came courtesy of @ktenkely who tweeted about a student’s empathy for orphans. Their school participated in Orphan Sunday and obviously reflected on the experience too. Find out what’s happening in the community (local and global) and see which ones fit in with your class or school. Such events create awareness, and with reflection can be a powerful way to develop empathy.