The Best Way to Teach Empathy (and How it Can Revolutionize Schools)

I blog because I feel strange compulsion to gather my wild thoughts together and to sort them into relatively neat little arrangements. Mostly, I order my ideas together beforehand and then offer snapshots of them as blog posts. They aren't always pretty, but I always feel better after I've sent them out into the world. Even after all this time, I am still surprised (and humbled) that so many of you seem to enjoy my various little thought-bunches.

But sometimes, my thoughts surprise me. Somehow, in the gathering and finessing, something totally new blooms to prominence, something I didn't even know was there.

Most recently this happened in a post I wrote on the things I think need to be added to school curricula. In it, I discussed the value of philosophy and chess and learning about the brain and a few other things. And then I added these thoughts on teaching empathy:

Empathy, tolerance and understanding difference is sorely lacking in the world. I will not rant too long, but I will say this: we cannot call ourselves civilized, and we cannot consider ourselves moral beings so long as we are in any way racist, homophobic and tolerant of the suffering of others. And we cannot call what we do in classrooms 'education' unless we are prepared to chip away at the bigoted, self-centred and small-minded notions many of our students have had embedded into their young minds.

But how to teach empathy?

What if I told you that the answer to this question touches on the very foundations of our education systems? And to better teach it, we need to reimagine schools?

Here's why:

For young people to best learn and understand empathy, they need to see it modeled in their teachers and parents. At schools, this means that educators need to be empathetic towards their students. Now take this a step further and you realize that empathy is not just saying “there there” when something bad happens to one of them, it is a heartfelt concern for the wellbeing of our students. And if this is a genuine concern, schools need to begin changing how they function in order to do away with hurtful practices like arbitrary, non-negotiable deadlines, standardized tests, pointless homework and syllabus-centred education.

In short: The best way to teach empathy by considering things from our students' point of view. And if we do this, we must be prepared to make significant changes to the way we do education.

The question then: Why aren't more schools taking this approach towards teaching kids to empathize. In my darker moments, I think I know the answer: We don't really want things to change in our schools (or in the world). And the reason for this? Inertia? Apathy? Selfishness? Tradition? Perhaps it's all of these. But at the heart of it, I think it's this: When we were young, we were educated out of a sense of agency. We were educated to be led and to be passive.

Surely it's time that changed?



(Photo by author)





About Sean Hampton-Cole

Fascinated by thinking & why it goes wrong➫ (Un)teacher ➫iPadologist ➫Humanist ➫Stirrer ➫Edupunk ➫Synthesist ➫Introvert ➫Blogger ➫Null Hypothesist.
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