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).

Where’s the fun in schools these days?

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New year celebrations — this year has begun hecticly, but insightfully.

During the autumn term I taught mostly in the upper secondary school, but I also participated in team teaching in elementary school (method that was pioneered by J. Lloyd Trump in 1952, more about this in future posts!). Long story short, based on my observations elementary school pupils (and teachers) seemed happier — something that might be totally obvious to you also from your personal experience. Elementary school lessons appear more fun and engaging whereas in upper school levels learning becomes more serious and uneventful. But why and should it be like that? 

Reasons behind why school becomes ‘more serious’ originate for instance in human psychology. First of all, let’s inspect the stages of psychosocial development one in general goes through during adolescence, according to Erik H. Erikson (1959). During early school ages 6-11 a child compares ones worth to others, for instance among pupils in a school class.
As such one questions: How do I fare compared to others?
Learning might feel then so fresh and exciting, yet the opinion and acceptance of others is regarded as highly important. Erikson stresses that a teacher should be aware of this phase and make sure that children wouldn’t feel inferior.

However, learning becomes more complicated the older one gets. During ages 12-18 a child might face identity and role confusion (even an identity crisis). Information is pouring in lightning-fast speeds and processing it all takes more and more time and effort. One might ponder then: Who am I? And when puberty hits one might come across depression and black and white thoughts might invade anyone’s mind. As teachers we should recognise these phases and wonder:
Are we demanding too much in school?
Are we sensitive enough for the needs of each individual?
Do we really know how the students are doing?

Moreover, especially in history topics like wars have traditionally taken a lot of class time. And those topics are tough to comprehend. It’s no wonder if students get depressed if they already go through an identity crisis and we keep pushing wars and conflicts upon them. We shouldn’t avoid difficult topics, but especially subject teachers should broaden their mindsets and surpass their respective teaching subjects.
A teacher I deemed wise explained to me that it’s sometimes not of utmost importance if students don’t learn everything from the specific subject(s) one teaches — rather it’s more important if they learn skills to cope in life. And that’s perhaps the greatest lesson of them all…