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Teaching Empathy in a Post-Empathetic World

How do we teach "empathy"? It’s a fair question, followed up with, “How do we have the time to teach something like ‘empathy’ in our academically rigorous classes?” Often bundled up and pushed aside as non-compulsory “character education”, this sort of work can sometimes seem arbitrary and time-consuming. However, the science shows there is nothing further from the truth. In fact, an empathic school is a smarter school.

Multiple studies have now shown a strong correlation between student empathy and academic achievement. Vicki Zakrzewski, Education Director at the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, notes, "Scientific research is starting to show that there is a very strong relationship between social-emotional learning and cognitive development and performance." In fact, "Children as young as 18 months exhibit compassion, empathy, altruism, so these characteristics are part of who we are. But, at the same time, these skills have to be cultivated, because the environment can inhibit their development."

And the numbers say empathy is currently on the decline, which could put our students at a notable disadvantage. A study, done by Dr. William Axinn of the Populations Study Center shows that the average level of “empathic concern” declined by 48% between 1979 and 2009, with a particularly large decline between 2000 and 2009. The authors suggest that the decline might be due to a number of factors, including the rise of narcissism in youth, the increase in personal technology and social media, shrinking family sizes, and heightened pressure for young people to succeed academically. If this is true, our students are going to have a tough time participating and seeking advancement in an increasingly global economy without building the skills for understanding differing perspectives and deep collaboration.

How Does This Fit Into My Curriculum, Though?

Still, for many educators, aiming to work on skills around “empathy” might feel like too much focus on “soft skills”, especially as we move into the academically competitive world of high school. Despite the data above, it might feel counterproductive to work on what might feel like socio-emotional content when there are SATs, ACTs, reading levels, Common Core or state standards, and high-stakes mastery tests to conquer. Or perhaps the worry is selling this sort of content to administration staff. But the truth is, these two things aren’t completely mutually exclusive. The question should not be, “how can I fit this into my curriculum?”, but rather, “how can this work help me to meet my curricular goals?”  

For schools and districts aiming to improve their 21st Century Learning competencies, you’ll find global awareness at the forefront. When our students access the online world, they immediately become a part of a diverse, multicultural, multilingual world. When our digital literacy skills ask for “critical thinking and problem solving”, “communication and collaboration”, “information literacy”, “media literacy”, and (to the point) “social and cross-cultural skills”, we would do our students a disservice to not help them to better comprehend the complex intent behind the differing points of view being shared in the global discussion.

In the world of Common Core, it is clear that in order to effectively participate in this discussion, our students need to be able to read, write, and speak in a way that shows a full appreciation for and deep understanding of the logic, history, and cultural intricacies of an argument. In order to make a claim in the modern world, you need to be able to pay respect to the counterclaims in order to gain any clout with a disagreeing or unsure party (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.1). To access this kind of information, our students will need to be able to read deeply in order to analyze “a particular point of view or cultural experience”, specifically from a wealth of world literature (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.6). Not to mention that they are being asked to “respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives” (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.1.d) and “initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions with diverse partners” (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.1). “Empathy” is not supplemental work. This is the work of our modern education systems. We are actively building an educated community that will be asked to collaborate across borders, and without this kind of work in our classrooms, the potential for miscommunication, misunderstanding, and intolerance multiplies exponentially.

Resource Highlight: A Mile in Our Shoes

In response to “a recent spike in bullying and hate crimes in America’s schools, as well as the ever-increasing divisiveness in our political discourse”, the text-leveling gurus at Newsela have recently partnered with Teaching Tolerance and DonorsChoose to create A Mile in Our Shoes: a K-12 program designed to “promote empathy and inclusivity through reading”. Not only does this program “give students the opportunity to read about different perspectives and lived experiences: people of varying backgrounds, skin colors, religions, sexual orientations, socioeconomic statuses, and nations of origin”, but helps educators to “gain the tools to foster rich discussions to promote identity, diversity, justice, and action within and beyond their classrooms”. Alex Wu, Director of Marketing at Newsela, notes, “The Southern Poverty Law Center report about the rise in hate crimes in education environments post-election really made us think hard about what we could do to support teachers during these tumultuous times. Our solution was the ‘Mile in Our Shoes’ project in order to help teach empathy to young minds.”

Kicking it all off with a webinar, “Building Empathy in Classrooms: A Partner Webinar with Teaching Tolerance”, the program provides text sets, reading challenges, and a wealth of teaching resources. Edging the line between information and politics, Wu suggests that teaching empathy goes well beyond a merely political response: “we were mainly concerned with our community of teachers and what they are dealing with in the classroom and wanted to help put a program together that would help support them. Reading has always been a channel of teaching empathy, and teachers on Newsela have been doing this already for a while. We hear stories like this from a teacher in Georgia and this story from a teacher in Texas. These are just a few of the inspiring stories that are shared with us every day about how Newsela is helping.”

The text sets themselves include differentiated readings that “share some of the experiences, challenges, and accomplishments of a wide range of communities in America and abroad”. Some of these even include “empathy annotations”, designed to broaden student thinking. Read about the undocumented teen whose valedictorian speech went viral. Hear the inspiring tale of the American Latina experience with a full biography of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor. Learn about the experience of Jay Collins, an openly gay man in the NBA. Or perhaps a swimming club that is giving hope to disabled Bosnian children. The sets are organized by the narratives of a number of diverse communities, and include discussion questions around identity, diversity, justice, and action. Having students study these many perspectives enforces the reality that we all interpret the world through different eyes. The better our students understand these perspectives, the more effective they will be at communicating and collaborating.

The reading challenges add the element of action to the program. In a partnership with DonorsChoose, Newsela plans to fund a number of potential projects related to diversity and inclusion...based on how much students read! Check out their National Reading Drive here!

Finally, Newsela is providing solid resources for teaching this sort of content. Aside from support with integrating their online content, Newsela is planning more webinars with organizations like Teaching Tolerance, which is a treasure of resources in of itself.

Where Do I Start?

If you’re just getting started with empathy work or want to begin integrating it into your current curriculum, you might feel overwhelmed at the sheer breadth of the content. Just know: every little bit helps. Every time students get exposure to differing perspectives or are given the opportunity to grapple with a new point of view, it is building their empathy. Start small, and work your way into it. The suggestions below talk about increasing exposure through text choice, being mindful of how we communicate our ideas, and practicing listening. These are perhaps the staple skills for empathy work, and only require minor adjustments to your current lessons. Here are some quick tips:

1. Teaching Point of View

This is exactly what the above “A Mile in Our Shoes” program is addressing. Expose your students to what is going on in the world outside their community. Get them hearing the diverse voices within their community. Every time we hear of experiences that are not our own, we broaden our understanding of the greater world. Choosing reading material that shares narratives that highlight the rich diversity of our world places value on understanding differing perspectives and exposes students to the power of building empathy. To think about ways to make this seamless, think about what you’re already doing in your classroom, and perhaps ask yourself some of these questions:  

Where in your current curriculum can you choose a narrative text that explores a more diverse perspective? A short story? A short piece of non-fiction? A particular social issue, either within or far outside of your community?

Where in your current curriculum can you have students doing interviews in their neighborhoods? Perhaps around a debatable local issue or the impact of an environmental action? Could they collect local data?

Where in your current curriculum could students spend even just a little bit of time trying to write narratives from another’s point of view, just to imagine what it could be like? How might a Confucian approach this issue? A Harlem Renaissance poet? A Syrian refugee? Perhaps they can debate each other, attempting to take on the voice of one they have researched. You don’t need to take a personal stance as an educator here, and their interpretations might not be completely accurate, but the exploration itself and the reflection is the key: other people in the world sometimes think differently.

Where in your current curriculum would it be helpful and natural to bring speakers into the room that might bring a new perspective into the conversation? Who is tackling social justice work in your community? Who is committing their lives to a particular issue in our world? And don’t be afraid to invite parties with differing views. This allows your students to truly understand the complexities of any issue, and allows them to make a choice without indoctrination.

Where in your curriculum could students do a statistical analysis on an issue, and weigh that against the diverse perspectives and rhetoric around it? How do the numbers help us to both support and refute claims being made in our community?

2. Argument vs. Persuasion: Civil Discourse

Across the country, standards are leaving behind the “persuasive” speaking and writing, and replacing it with the art of “argument”. We do not want to teach students how to push an agenda without a solid foundation of facts to support it. Argument is about participating in a conversation, not winning it. Argument may intend to help someone else to see your perspective, but in that journey, you are exposed to another’s perspective as well, likely integrating the two into a collaborative solution. It is the only logical way to move forward in our modern world.  

Teaching students how to have such civil conversations is a fantastic way to encourage empathy. How do we pay full respect to a counterargument, while also sharing our own point of view? How do we discuss the ideas themselves without making it immediately personal? How do we disagree without attacking? How can we be open to changing our own beliefs, based on shared evidence? How do we collaborate better, moving toward a solution to integrate all perspectives? Exploring the answers to these questions with your students is a great starting point to facilitating more open and globally aware conversations. Check out Teaching Tolerance’s fantastic four-part resource on teaching civil discourse here. Although identified for grades 6-8, it can absolutely be adjusted with little-to-no effort for both younger and older audiences.

3. Teaching Listening

As a part of this exploration into crafting healthier, more conscious discussion in the classroom, we might choose to spend equal time working on how we listen in these environments. So much of our energy in the classroom tends to focus on how we can express our own thoughts and ideas, but how much do we teach students to actively listen to others? This is a key component to teaching empathy. And there are a number of useful strategies to help promote this sort of work:

HEAR: This strategy has been making its rounds in the educational world as a means for having students actively engage in listening in a conversation: outlining the physical, emotional, and cognitive aspects of the listening process.

Mindful Groups of Three: Working in groups of three is also finding its way into the work of facilitating more difficult conversations. This sort of mindful listening includes a speaker, a listener, and a person to “hold the space”. For some it might feel a bit “out there”, but it’s based in a long history of empathetic work.

Active Listening Skills: From a life skills approach, this resource outlines best practices to both experience and show active listening. Students being aware that their body language is being interpreted by their partners and can both open up and shut down communication is a super valuable skill.

4. Empathic Civilization: Jeremy Rifkin

In a TEDTalk cleverly animated by RSA Animate, economist and activist Jeremy Rifkin makes the claim that we are at a seminal moment in human history and expanding our empathic ability will be necessary for us to move forward. It’s a compelling argument, and although fast-paced, could easily be integrated into most classroom environments, if only to initiate discussion around the value of taking on empathy in the classroom community.


Written by Keith Lambert, Education World Associate Contributing Editor

Lambert is an English / Language Arts teacher in Connecticut.


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