Teaching empathy: why and how?

Empathy is an important skill in todays interconnected and interdependent world with vast cultural diversity. Understanding others helps one to define oneself as well. That’s why teachers should emphasize empathy skills during teaching also subject teachers, who in my opinion ever so often rely too much on their respective subjects.

In best-case scenario teaching empathy…

  • Prevents exclusion and enhances team spirit (you become aware about how no-one should be left alone)
  • Prevents bullying (you don’t feel the need for bullying because you realize how others feel about it)
  • Improves multiperspective thinking and broadens cognitive skills (you learn to inspect e.g. global phenomena on multiple aspects)
  • Develops anti-violent behaviour (e.g. naturalistic first-person shooter videogames blur the lines between fact and fiction and don’t usually pose moral questions for the players, but practising empathy helps one to see the deeper question of cause and effect)

How to teach empathy? Some examples:

  1. Practising emotions and how to express them
    The first step is attaining self-knowledge through inspecting one’s emotions. Too little time is spent dealing with various emotions inside a classroom. Especially those as a result of a conflict. In any case, knowing yourself preceeds the greater understanding of empathy.
  2. Historical empathy
    For instance teaching about world wars is difficult, since in many ways they remain distant – even story-like – for youth of these days. But if we include microperspectives and let students investigate world wars through a historical character (farmer in Soviet Union, young woman in Nazi-Germany) we can actually bring the world war reality closer to the students.
  3. Writing a letter
    Students can write letters e.g. for immigrants (could be fictional characters) and share their perspectives. Writing something is always a useful exercise and also helps to develop abstract thinking due to the fact that there are no model answers.
  4. Simulations
    Simulations offer a venue for argumentation and empathy. One can organize e.g. a United Nations simulation in which students need to represent someone else or another country and perhaps see things differently, through an unfamiliar ideology (also prevents xenophobia).