How do we teach empathy?

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?”

The Power of Words

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.

  1. 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).
  2. 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).
  3. 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 .
  4.  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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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?
  12. 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.
I want to add more.  Can you help?
When I first published this post, I originally had 4 items in the list.  With each comment came another idea and the list is now sitting at 10 as I write this reflection.  I’m happy with that. very.
I read about crowdsourcing, liking the idea even and benefitting from it through works of others like @tombarrett and his Interesting Ways series.  I didn’t think I could pull it off but here is proof.  I’m amazed with all that. very.
I am richer for the many perspectives that my PLN have shared with me.  I’m grateful for that. very.
This is not to say I’m closing this post.  All input welcome.  More ideas. More examples. More learning.
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23 thoughts on “How do we teach empathy?

  1. Summer says:

    The ICUN has recently rebranded biodiversity. The move came after reviewing the true success of conservation of nature. The findings pointed to the fact that people are moved by images of animals in danger, but they feel very removed. While it might open some wallets, real, sustainable action was not widespread. The rebranding aims to move away from feeling s of apathy, brought on my constant messages of destruction and doom. These messages are also incidentally pushing kids away from choosing Geography studies. The new push looks to connect people with nature and their local; human connection with wildlife. The message can be interpreted in so many ways as educators for change, simply in using the message for conversation, to thinking about empathy building and capacity building in a range on contexts.

    Worth a look, I’ve used it successfully!

    • malyn says:

      Thanks Summer. It seems that my point #4 above is exactly along the lines of “Love. Not Loss”. I will update the post to link to that video as an example.

      Thanks to your comment, I’ve now got a point #5 as well. Cheers!

  2. Britt Gow says:

    Thanks for suggesting these four ways to teach empathy, Malyn. I think my question was out of frustration of constantly modeling empathy to Year 8 and 9 students, without being explicit about my behavior. I agree that adolescents feel peer pressure to belong and sometimes that results in going against their better instincts to show compassion. One of the controversial practices from the “Reach Foundation” requires students to do a kind of meditation, in which students put themselves in the shoes of the victim of bullies. It is very powerful, often resulting in strong emotional responses from bullies, victims and bystanders. While I am not sure I entirely agree with the process, it has been effective in some schools.
    Some schools advocate animals, such as chickens, dogs or hamsters in the classroom, to encourage students to be responsible and compassionate towards other living beings – does this necessarily carry through to members of our own species? I follow the “wonderment in nature” approach – taking students outside and giving them opportunities to appreciate the natural environment and the amazing diversity of living organisms. However, after reading this, I realize I need to go further to make empathy a core value in my classroom.

    • malyn says:

      Thanks Britt. As you see, your question was one of the prompts to actually write this post.
      I love that your approach echoes your love of nature. Transference (applying to different contexts) is a skill that needs teaching; I’m sure i’ve read somewhere that it’s also a factor of cognitive development, i.e. some kids may not be ready to see other contexts let alone be able to apply knowledge gained from a previous context.
      This is why explicit teaching is important. We cannot assume they see it, no matter how powerful the media is.

  3. Jeannette James says:

    Take first comment just disappeared (perhaps I wrote too much?) my initial response is that educators ought to share basic human rights knowledge with their students and discuss situations where this may or may not occur. Nick C a student in my yr 9 RE class shared a wonderful video with us about what we should be grateful for and why. This led back to the basic rights of all humans. Community service, or giving back to the community can be another way to teach E. Students are afforded verbal and written reflections after their community service experiences. A challenging situation can encourage empathy. Truly wonderful empathetic responses by 14 yr old young men are given. Priceless.

  4. Britt Gow says:

    Thanks Malyn and Jeanette (7Mrsjames) for number 6 – Immersion has articulated my idea of taking students into the environment. It is getting more and more difficult to organize excursions, but they are a great way of “stepping in the shoes” of other people.
    Perhaps number 7 could be guest speakers – bringing people into the classroom who can speak directly to students. We had a paraplegic come to our school, to teach the students to play wheel chair basketball. One comment that students remember was “It’s fun to be in a wheelchair for a day, but not for the rest of your life.” I hope they took away some understanding of physical disabilities and perhaps a reminder to be careful on the road.

  5. Tomaz Lasic says:

    Great list, great clip, great post, great replies.

    My 2c?

    Really drill down if you can to what humans need most (after of course, food, shelter, water, safety).

    It is the need to be recognised, in some way cared for by the world.

    Of course, it can be overblown (anxious ‘celebrities’ anyone?) but we just want to be secure and acknowledged by someone.

    I often say to the teens I teach: The worst thing that can happen to you is not to be poor or physically ill, while both serious and undesirable of course, but it is to be completely ignored or at least not taken seriously.

    Best way to overcome it? Care. Listen. It is the best thing you can do for yourself, best gift you can give to others, let alone the world you live in.

    And if you think it’s soft – it is one of the hardest things to do well (that’s why not many/enough people do it).

    Good post Malyn.

    • malyn says:

      Fantastic comment and you’ve given me inspiration for idea 9 – an obvious one really. Thanks for pointing it out. You are so right in that the need to belong is indeed that, a need….for most of us, anyway. There are hermits after all.
      I don’t think it’s soft. It is hard to do acknowledge the otherness of the other.
      Thank you again.

  6. Jeannette James says:

    Absolutely Tomaz. Care, in my opinion is one of those little, simple words that is loaded with much weight. I believe most educators decided to enter their profession as they care. I reflected upon this last month in one of my posts on motivation. As I was reading Britt and Tomaz’s last comments my 4yr old taught me a lesson. He was trying to explain an incident that happened today with a friend at care. He said “I just wanted him to listen like Miss F does, she cares!” How relevant to what we are discussing. MODELLING is yet another way to teach empathy! 

    • malyn says:

      Thanks for popping in again Jeannette and affirming many of the thoughts here, including Modelling as a way to teach empathy. Mr4 seems to me a wise man already (visited your link). Cheers.

  7. Britt Gow says:

    WOW Malyn – number 10 really caps it off nicely! Don’t know why I didn’t think of that, but in a small rural school, it is a strategy we would like to use more and more. When our dynamic ICT teacher, @murcha, connects with students in other countries we often do a ‘show and tell’ – an object centered discussion about our Australian icons. For example, a jar of vegemite, bushman’s hat, Australian rules football or even a bearded dragon (lizard pet). Sharing things that are important to our culture helps students to understand our differences, but more importantly, what we have in common.

    • malyn says:

      Yes, number 10 is fantastic. As for not thinking of it, I could say that from #5 onwards really. This makes #10 all the sweeter, i.e. it is a product of the process (connection as process and product)!

      I didn’t realise you worked with @murcha. How lucky you are. Maybe you could show her this shared experience?

      And finally, yes, we need to see similarities and differences but not let the latter get in the way of building relationships, appreciating individuals and togetherness.

  8. Anne Mirtschin says:

    What an interesting but essential list! I have enjoyed reading how you have all shared and collaborated on this. Another thing I try and do is look for the strengths in each student and try to find real projects that might allow them to succeed when normal reading and writing activities may not allow them to do so. eg Some of our students are really good with photography or writing songs. If a competition or exhibition comes up, we try and encourage them to enter that. eg One year 11 student struggles with normal school work, but is gifted with photography. Her work is going to be featured in the local art gallery in October. A group of young girls who can be quite challenging in the classroom came up with a fantastic book trailer video. Successes lead to confidence and therefore coping abilities with areas where they may be weak. And so on…. I alway think that students are someone’s child and precious baby at some stage!

    • malyn says:

      Thanks for stopping by Anne and your lovely suggestions. I think these fit in nicely under acknowledging individuality which leads to celebrating diversity, especially along the lines of “Love. Not Loss”. I shall call it – let them shine – in so doing, they are noticed and valued.
      Thanks again.

  9. Edwin Rutsch says:

    May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

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