Embracing Empathy in Our Schools

Designing an Effective Training Program February 25, 2016

Empathy sometimes has trouble making friends. She roams the playground day by day but rarely receives more than a wave or a glance. The adjacent swing remains empty and no sneakers mirror hers when she skips around the field.

Empathy is a little different. She changes appearance depending on who she plays with and she’s eager to play with anyone and everyone.

“Empathy is the imaginative act of stepping into the shoes of another person and viewing the world from their perspective,” says Roman Krznaric, cultural thinker and author of, Empathy: Why it matters and how to get it. “That means really trying to understand where someone is coming from – the feelings, beliefs, hopes and experiences that make up their view of the world.”

Empathy is popular in theory but seldom taken by the hand in schools. She’s relatively new to the neighborhood, and can be challenging, confusing, and even difficult to approach. However, empathy can be an incredible classroom addition when welcomed with open arms and by open minds. If we can more deeply relate to students, staff, teachers, and principals, we can better design learning environments that enable each group to grow.

Those who have incorporated empathy into their programs have discovered profound value from it. Roots of Empathy, an award-winning charitable organization based in Canada, delivers a classroom program to help children build empathy. A cornerstone of the program is classroom visits by an infant and parent, in which students are encouraged to reflect on the relationship and feelings of their guests. Since 2000, nine independent evaluations of Roots of Empathy’s effectiveness have demonstrated reduced rates of aggression and increased levels of pro-social behaviour and emotional intelligence.

Just as developing empathy is valuable for students, it is equally important for the figure in front of the whiteboard. In October 2014, Grant Wiggins, President of Authentic Education, in Hopewell, New Jersey, published an article about one teacher’s experience shadowing a student for a day. “It was so eye-opening that I wish I could go back to every class of students I ever had right now and change a minimum of ten things – the layout, the lesson plan, the checks for understanding. Most of it!” After a day of shadowing, the teacher had identified nine immediate adjustments to make within her school, but had also realized just how difficult it is to be a student. Although anecdotal, this account garnered 150,000 views and over 800 requests for additional information.

What if we turned this anecdote into expectation? On February 29th, 1000 school leaders from 50 states and 15 countries will take the extra day to leap into the shoes of a student. The Shadow A Student Challenge, organized by Stanford University’s d.school, and IDEO, with support from the Hewlett Foundation, invites school leaders to clear their calendars and forget their clipboards for an empathy-driven day. They will follow the bells, grab a seat on the bus, bench, or desk and just listen, observe, and interact. This is not an excuse to evaluate performance, but rather an invitation to experience worldviews and school-views.

Upon completing their shadow day, participating school leaders will join an online “Hacktivity” tutorial to learn about turning insights into action using design-thinking. How might we deliver our curriculum with attention spans in mind? How might we leverage individual strengths to build motivation and self-efficacy?

How might we befriend empathy? Every school may have its own set of challenges, but perhaps our solutions don’t have to be so different. Amidst rubrics, evaluations, and parent-teacher conferences, maybe the best step is to grab the empty swing.