Do You Teach Empathy?

Indirectly, all the time.

But what about a full-on lesson or lessons? Teaching empathy is one of the 6 Habits of Talented Teachers.

Cambridge academics reckon that children should be taught empathy after a study found that pupils who are more empathetic are more creative. A new study published in Improving Schools is well worth getting to know more about.

Shaping emotionally intelligent learners seems to be all the rage at the moment as moral compasses have bust and society is in meltdown.

Well, perhaps.

So what’s this study all about?

The findings are from a year-long University of Cambridge study with Design and Technology (D&T) year 9 pupils (ages 13 to 14) at two inner London schools. Pupils at one school spent the year following curriculum-prescribed lessons, while the other group’s D&T lessons used a set of engineering design thinking tools which aim to foster students’ ability to think creatively and to engender empathy, while solving real-world problems.

Both sets of pupils were assessed for creativity at both the start and end of the school year using the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking: a well-established psychometric test.

The results showed a statistically significant increase in creativity among pupils at the intervention school, where the thinking tools were used.

The research is part of a long-term collaboration between the Faculty of Education and the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge called ‘Designing Our Tomorrow’ (DOT), led by Bill Nicholl and Ian Hosking. It challenges pupils to solve real-world problems by thinking about the perspectives and feelings of others.

empathy and creativity should go hand in hand through taking the perspective of and employing emotion in order to immerse oneself in the subject matter.

The particular challenge used in the study asked pupils at the intervention school to design an asthma-treatment ‘pack’ for children aged six and under.

Pupils were given various creative and empathetic ‘tools’ in order to do so: for example, they were shown data about the number of childhood asthma fatalities in the UK, and a video which depicts a young child having an attack.

They also explored the problem and tested their design ideas by role-playing various stakeholders, for example, patients, family-members, and medical staff.


Asthma kits designed by pupils in study

Child-friendly asthma treatment kits designed by pupils who took part in the study, which gave them various empathetic ‘tools’ to inform their D&T lessons.

Image: : Designing Our Tomorrow project.

Helen Demetriou, a lecturer in psychology and education at Cambridge’s Faculty of Education, said: “We clearly awakened something in these pupils by encouraging them to think about the thoughts and feelings of others.”

Nicholl, Senior Lecturer in Design and Technology Education, who trains teachers studying on the University’s D&T PGCE course, said: “Teaching for empathy has been problematic despite being part of the D&T National Curriculum for over two decades. This evidence suggests that it is a missing link in the creative process, and vital if we want education to encourage the designers and engineers of tomorrow.”

What we can learn from this fabulous study is that affective learning can inform effective learning and critical emotion can feed critical thinking whereby innovation and creativity are set free to solve some real-world problems that can be life-changing.

Taking this into the wider world, consider the work of James Allison and Tasuku Honjo. They lost family and friends to cancer and they both asked themselves what they could do to help. It was their experiences and their empathy that led them to save lives through their ground-breaking work on immunotherapy.

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2018 was awarded jointly to James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo “for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation.”

Making Caring Common

Beyond this study have you heard about the Making Caring Common Project from the Harvard Graduate School of Education?

They reviewed existing research on empathy and the strategies of evidence-based programs that promote it.

Our work shows that there’s more to developing empathy than simply asking students to “walk in someone else’s shoes.”

That’s probably too simplistic anyway but walking in someone else’s shoes isn’t a bad starting point. It’s what Atticus tells us anyway.

So what is empathy?

According to the Making Caring Common Project

Empathy is a concerned response to another person’s feelings. It involves thinking, feeling, and even a physical reaction that our bodies have to other people when we relate to how they feel. To have empathy, we have to notice and understand others’ feelings, but that isn’t enough. We also need to care about and value them. Con men and torturers are very good at taking others’ perspectives, but they don’t have empathy for them.

Clearly, if we can help children develop empathy skills then this is going to have benefits. Various studies show that when children and young people have empathy then they display:

  • More classroom engagement
  • Higher academic achievement
  • Better communication skills
  • Lower likelihood of bullying
  • Less aggressive behaviours and emotional disorders
  • More positive relationships

The Making Caring Common Project say that schools can follow 5 essential steps. They are:

  1. Model empathy
  2. Teach what empathy is and why it matters
  3. Practice
  4. Set clear ethical expectations
  5. Make school culture and climate a priority

Other things you might want to consider include an Empathy Lab and also something called the jigsaw technique.


Learning To Be More Like Atticus

Children Just Have No Empathy These Days

Empathy, Emotion and Education by Helen Demetriou

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