Growing Empathy in the Classroom


Shared on Flickr by Marie Grey

“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” Henry David Thoreau

Do we start from empathy when we set out to solve educational challenges and design learning pathways for our students?
How do we foster empathy and make it a starting point for problem solving and the design of new solutions for both ourselves and for our students?

Empathy over sympathy
Lately it seems all roads lead to empathy: Tony Wagner in Creating Innovators identifies empathy as a necessary characteristic for innovators; David Kelly of Stanford University identifies empathy as the starting point for all problem solvingDaniel Goleman states leaders with empathy do more than sympathize with people around them: they use their knowledge to improve their companies in subtle, but important ways.

Not only is empathy vital for solving problems responsively and meaningfully, empathy is an underpinning for connection. Brené Brown in The Power of Empathy (embedded below) sums it up: “empathy fuels connection, sympathy drives disconnection.”

And we want connection in our classroom and schools, right? But do we start from and with empathy? Or do we start with sympathy? As, if I am honest with myself, I think I did on most occasions (I know this topic is boring but we’ve got to do it, I know this book is challenging but that’s part of life, I know this is a slog but I did it too).

How might we grow empathy in our students and school communities?

Empathy Activities

1. Empathy Map*


Invite students to explore various aspects of a person’s experience and move through the categories from seeing to thinking:
Imagine what the person would be thinking, seeing, saying, hearing…
Alternatively they could imagine the perspective of a character in a book or play, an organism they are studying, or member of their community or family.

The goal of the map is to develop empathy for the person. After the map is complete ask students to synthesize: What does this person want/need? What factors are influencing this person?
Alternatively put the map on the whiteboard at front of class and ask students to brainstorm on stickies to complete the activity as a class or large group.

Teachers could complete a map as they begin to plan a unit or lesson for students: Imagine what your student’s would think, say etc, when they are fully engaged and excited about their learning?
Students could complete a map as they work to design a product or a design. For example, students building flower boxes for elderly members of their community could create a map to imagine what the person might be thinking and feeling before they set out to design the flower box.

Empathy Map form

*(adapted from the book Gamestorming)

2. Monk Whiteboarding 

Materials: large whiteboards, chart paper or poster paper

Work with a partner, to silently answer the prompt provided using only symbols and pictures (no written words or numbers).
Then, explain your partner’s story to them (while they remain silent). You can smile and nod to encourage, but no feedback just yet!
Afterwards partners can fill in their stories for each other.

Prompts could be: summarize the book, chapter, movie, unit. Alternatively use this activity as an icebreaker at the start of the semester or school year. 

More on whiteboarding

3. Blindfolded Puzzle

Materials: 24-piece puzzles ($1.25 at dollar store and 1 per partnership), scarves

In groups of two students/adults assemble a puzzle, but with a twist. Each partnership has a director and a blindfolded puzzle assembler. Director and assembler will sit across from one another and with verbal cues only, the director will direct the assembly of the puzzle. Half way through the puzzle assembly of the puzzle switch roles to allow for empathy to develop.

More on Blindfolded puzzle here

4. Interview

This activity is useful when trying to understand a problem and get to the root of the dilemma.
For example: How might we design classroom spaces to better meet the needs of our students?; How might we better format staff meetings to better meet the needs of staff members?

This may sound like a ridiculously simple activity but it is amazingly empowering to have the opportunity to explain a problem and deceptively challenging to listen. This activity is not about getting interviewed (as in questioned) but to listen to someone else and to hear their point of view in an effort to connect to them as a person.

Working in partners one assumes the role of interviewer and the other the interviewee. The interviewer composes a couple of key questions in advance. The interviewee gets to talk uninterrupted for a set period of time. The interviewer may pose additional questions if needed, but does not interrupt to add on or extend thoughts of the interviewee.

Interview for Empathy

5. Listen Sketch and Summarize

Working in partners, one student will be the listener and the other person will tell a story. Story teller summarizes a key concept, a problem, a chapter from a novel etc. The listener, listens to to the story (problem or summary or dilemma) of the other. When the story finishes the listener gets a chance to synthesize the story by drawing a picture or series of pictures. Using the pictures the listener then summarizes the story back to the teller: “I think I heard you say…”

More Empathy Resources

D School Bootcamp

d school Empathy Map 

David Jakes‘ – Design Thinking

Assessment in a time of abundance


“Never push a loyal person to the point where they no longer care”

I clearly remember a staff meeting from my first year of teaching. The discussion was “lates.” Our principal suggested the “have a quiz at the start of class” strategy to hold kids accountable. This was brilliant! We had curriculum to deliver or push at our students and a fixed amount of time in which to push said curriculum at them. We needed kids in their seats. Period.

Just in case curriculum delivered via push

When I began teaching content was bound by textbooks and the notes I gave in class. It was a time of information scarcity with limited opportunities to expose students to the knowledge pieces they might need in the future. As such, we relied on practices to push students to where the just in case curriculum could be delivered to them. Assessment was used to push students to the just in case curriculum. Assessment was used to determine the success of pushing the just in case curriculum at students. Assessment allowed students (and the system) to demonstrate the successful acquirement of the just in case curriculum and readiness for further investment of the limited resources. In a time of scarcity, procurement of limited resources was a requirement for further investment. Standardized common assessments allowed us to quickly determine who should move on to the next level of investment.

Scarcity shaped our present day assessment tools

Quizzes held students accountable to the knowledge pieces they might need for the test. Tests held them accountable to the just in case pieces they might need for the final exam. And so on.
In a time of scarcity it was not wise to invest in understanding or synthesizing until students indicated (through our assessment tools) mastery of the just in case curriculum (that would not be available to them later).
Fill in the blank worksheets, non-original assigned work, work with time penalty, all created in a time when the itty-bitty knowledge pieces might prove useful in the future.

Reconsider assessment tools designed for just in case and scarcity

Almost 30 years later the textbook and my notes are now the least relevant sources on content. The abundance of information is mind-boggling to say the least. My students show up with encyclopedias in their pockets, experts at their fingertips and the potential of networks waiting to be tapped.

Yet…the assessment landscape of middle and high schools remains unchanged.

The majority of the assessment tools used in high school today were designed to measure mastery of a just in case curriculum pushed at students. Homework asking students to answer already answered questions, in order to copy a line of thinking already thought. Quizzes designed to hold students accountable to a predetermined pathway of just in case content acquisition. Final exams designed to measure the amount of just in case curriculum in the student’s mind (all be it only temporarily), to determine whether they should move to the next level of the pyramid scheme.

Do these tools meet the needs of our students in this time of abundance?

Just in time and pull

In a time of abundance students need skills to pull the knowledge pieces just in time. Projects solving real and authentic problems create the pull and in turn students pull as needed. Students create the need to knows, the just in time schema, through the problems and puzzles they are trying to solve.

Problems, real and authentic need to pull students in. Students need to pull information and knowledge just in time to solve problems and create answers. Students need to be made responsible (rather than held accountable) with the skills, the opportunities, the know-how to pull the information they need, when they need it. Students need to do the pulling.

Holding students accountable to something no longer valuable devalues the system

The steps of mitosis, organelles of a cell, states of matter, dates of the world wars still matter. They do, of course they do. But they matter in context. In context of solving a worthy problem, in struggling with a dilemma, in writing a piece to understand ourselves, in creating a movie, etc.

But knowledge pieces lying in an extracted heap and pushed at students. Valueless. Completely valueless.
Pushing these knowledge pieces is no longer the why of school.

Instead of wondering how we can hold students accountable, shouldn’t we be wondering how we can make them responsible for finding and solving worthy problems?
Instead of designing assessments to validate our ability to push curriculum at our students shouldn’t we be wondering how to help student assess what pieces of content they need?
Instead of trapping students in a quagmire of knowledge pieces shouldn’t we be providing them with the skills to find and access the knowledge pieces when they need to find them in context?

Our challenge in this time of abundance is to create an environment that pulls students in. Not one that pushes them out.

Is busy the boss of you?

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice. It is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.

                                                                                                                       ~Tim Kreider

It starts innocently. It’s just dinner…they won’t even miss you, and it’s only ONE dinner. That leaves 6 more.

Next it’s getting up early. Just an hour or 2. To fit it all in. You tell yourself: “I function better with a little less sleep anyway. All successful people get up early right?”

At first it feels good, it feels right, efficient, productive, getting it ALL done. Woot, look at you…doing the balance thing.

Then it’s Sunday afternoon. Just to put a dent in the week, to make it all smoother.
Then a couple of hours on Saturday morning. No big deal.

But then one night. You wake up in the dead of night. Wide awake.
And there he is, staring you right in the face, gripping you in his stronghold, glaring into your soul…he wants your whole life. Not just parts of it…but all of it, every last little shred.
In that dark moment you realize you have fallen for his tricks, his promises, his cachet….and busy is now the boss of you.

Busy is a bully. Busy wants to take over and tell you what to do. He wants you to submit to his demands without question. He wants you to believe he is more important than you. Busy does aim for quality in the minutes of your life…he cares only for sheer quantity and like a greedy landlord, he is ever demanding an increase.

Not only is busy is bully but he is a liar too. Some of his lies you may have heard include:

1. Busy is how to make a difference in the world

2. Busy will pay you back one day.

3. Busy excuses you from being present.

4. Busy has a higher purpose.

5. Busy has your best interests at heart.

6. Busy is a sign of toughness.

7. Busy wants to help you be “successful.”

8. Busy is the same as quality work.

9. Busy offers fulfillment.

10. Busy is for important people.


A quote from Chris Kennedy’s blog I read last year stayed with me and provides a good compass point:

If the president of the United States has figured out a way to be home most evenings by 6:30 to join his family, surely I (and those who work with me and have jobs like mine) can find new ways to be home for dinner a couple of nights a week. It is about choices and priorities.

Other people who have taken time to contemplate busy:

Tyler Ward:  Busy isn’t respectable anymore

Dean Shareski :  Let’s stamp out busyness 



How do you talk assessment?

“The most important assessment that goes on in a school isn’t done to a student but goes on inside students…
Changing assessment at this level should be the most important assessment goal of every school.
How do we get inside students’ heads and turn up the knob that regulates quality and effort.”

Ron Berger


Trying to change assessment practices in your classroom? Where do you start? How to begin?

Part of changing my assessment practice was driven by altering the words I used with students. When I first embarked on this change, I was intentional and purposeful with “assessment talk.” Like learning a new language, I had to stop and think rather than reflexively rely on words I had used in the past. I found the intentional and consistent use of these words over several months helped to shift both my mind-set and students’.

Previously, my “assessment talk” had consisted of numbers on a spreadsheet, printed up, neatly tacked on the classroom wall and emailed to students and parents. I saw numbers as unemotional, objective and transparent. I believed sharing numbers frequently made me an effective teacher. Over time I realized I had blurred together assessment (which comes from the Latin assessus meaning to sit besideand evaluation. Regretfully, the predominant use of numbers to talk assessment, did not help students learn at all. Numbers signaled the learning as done and the numeric calculation was my evaluation of it. Numbers indicated a finality which made the focus of class culture centered around how to collect of points…rather than on understanding, exploring and unpacking the cognitive processes occurring for and inside each student. To explore learning with students, numbers had to be removed from the everyday conversations and I had to find simple direct words to signal this shift.

I now realize my practice of using numbers to talk assessment prevented, rather than encouraged, meaningful dialogue about student learning. Evaluation of the student learning had to happen later in the learning journey (when students were ready) after a significant amount assessment. But how to talk assessment? What words could replace the numbers I had grown dependent on? I had to find them. I had to practice them. I had to learn a new language to talk assessment with students


Below are some of my favorite catch phrases and convo snippets:

1. This is not for marks…it is for learning.
Student’s query to any activity is “Is it for marks?” Students use this question to decide on where to focus their efforts. To shift their focus to learning strategies rather than on point accumulation strategies, activities need to be about learning and in the service of student learning … choose to do these activities in the service of your learning not in the name compliance and playing school.

2. YET…
When a student says: “I am not good at writing, reading, graphing.” Offer the simple word, yet, to the end of their fixed mindset sentence to change it to a growth mindset one (Watch Carol Dweck’s short video on yet here).

3. Explain to me how you think your learning is going in this unit, topic, or semester.
If I had a dollar for every “What is my mark?” question I have heard I would be a rich woman! Every time a student asked me this question I had to clearly put it back on them. They had to be able to talk about and describe how the course was going for them and if they couldn’t explain this, then we had to spend more time talking about their learning (this is not to say I withheld marks, it is to say evaluation has to come when it is relevant and useful to do so).

4. Are you ready to show me what you know/understand? When do you think you can be ready to demonstrate your understanding? How can I help you get there?
Many struggling students are not willing to engage; it is too risky to try only to fail yet again. Allowing students decide when they are ready to be evaluated removes the stress and game playing that goes along with avoiding it.

5. What does quality…writing, presentation, conclusion, lab design, questioning…look like, sound like, and feel like?
Students need to recognize what quality looks like, feels like and sounds out.  Understanding quality comes from experiencing the process without fear of  being penalized for not being at quality yet. Students need to know they will get another chance or opportunity, they need to know they have time to grow and develop towards quality.

6. Show me your evidence for/of your learning.
I recognize my learning  when I develop a mental picture or story about of a concept or idea. When I can explain or map out this picture, I feel like I have done some learning. The mental picture is my evidence, the tracks of my thinking. Students need to make tracks of their thinking in their own way and have a chance to talk about this process. Learning is not a set copied teacher notes, or a set of worksheets they mechanically and thoughtlessly filled in.

7. Show me how you figured it out.
Asking students to unpack their thinking, makes learning about what is going on in their brains, not something a teacher does or does not do. 

8. What is your plan to get there?
Many students are uncertain how to navigate to quality. Providing them opportunities to make and talk about specific actions portrays learning not as accidental (or just for gifted people) but requires strategies, habits, and specific situations. Many variables contribute to learning. Students need to know and decide what variables they need to support their learning.

9.  Let me know when you are ready for feedback.
Having the opportunity and time to do quality work is intrinsically satisfying. Quality work is not work done by gifted students but by students who have the gift of time with useful and specific feedback.

10. What do you notice about your brain when….you get confused, you feel confident, you are engaged, you are make sense of the problem.
Talking about what goes on inside our brains, invites students to connect with the mental process they are experiencing.  Learning is a process going on actively inside of them rather than something passively happening to them.

What are your fav words or phrases to use with students? What words have shifted your mindset and invited students to explore their learning as a journey rather than a destination?

Navigating Uncertainty #rhizo14

uncertainty (2)

Image shared on Flickr by Matt Curr

The best learning prepares people for dealing with uncertainty.

                                                                                      David Cormier

In week 3 of #rhizo14 we have been invited to “come down the rabbit hole” to a place with “no centre. Multiple paths. Where we have beliefs and facts that contradict each other. Where our decisions are founded on an ever shifting knowledge base.
Our challenge this week: how do we make our learning experience reflect (and celebrate) this uncertainty?”
In my exploration of uncertainty I describe what I see and feel inside a system that to a large degree is defined by certainty. This is in no way meant as a criticism of the people and efforts within the system, rather as an observation of where we are at, at this uncertain point in time.

Meanwhile…the exoskeleton sits propped up like a swaying circus tent; the exterior imposingly large but inside vacuous and lifeless; sucked clean as learning has leaked out…into other spaces. Obsessive data collection (aka certainty) the main mechanism of propping. The tyranny of busyness baffling the pained creaking and cracking as the propped structure precariously sways. If we were to let go, the facade would collapse, leaving those inside flattened and trapped. In the name of accountability we nail learning to us and in doing so we suction out all the raw materials necessary for learning to thrive and flourish….curiousity, questioning, uncertainty, mystery…banished.

We are certain…so certain we keep all the feedback loops dialed on the status quo of certainty. New behavior patterns eradicated if they disrupt the system’s ability to maintain homeostasis; the life of the system extinguishing any uncertainty it meets.

Meanwhile. Here we stand Education. Standing on hierarchical particle based shores; silo-ed groupings guarding their meager piles of sand as the grains rush out to sea, lost to the abyss.

Stand here! We will not venture into these unknown waters! We are certain! Foot stomp. Arms crossed. 

Meanwhile…uncertainty continues to grow, and like fog, rolls in. We on the shore, statues of “analysis paralysis,” growing ever more hesitant to launch into the uncharted dark waters.

We can’t launch…now. We need more…more…more certainty. Produce it and THEN we will launch.

Meanwhile…classrooms remain centered around asking, teaching, memorizing Google-able factoids. The primary focus to provide “bits” of just in case certainty to students, who remain decidedly uncertain about their relevance.
The message unspoken but loud:
You will get something interesting later on (when and if you deserve it) but first jump through these hoops. This is training for what REALLY matters (life, job, university)!  Later you will see why and how it matters; we are doing you a favour!  We are here to indoctrinate you into certainty. We are certain that all the facts in this book matter and are relevant. Don’t venture beyond this book and you will be successful! 

Meanwhile…students are holding massive garage sales, piling and reallocating the treasured chachkas of our silo-ed disciplines, only to have them sold off again for far less than we want to imagine possible (What do you mean you copied this!; What do you mean you want to use Google on the test?) Like trinkets we lug home from Mexico to proudly show family, only to have them silently wonder: “Why the heck did you buy that?”  Students wonder the same: “Why the heck am I learning this, it’s worthless!” In Mexico the trinkets WERE treasures, in context the knowledge was relevant.


It’s cold and wet, dark. I finally and painfully decide to launch. I lie prone against the cold surface. I paddle, I paddle for dear life. I will, I will, leave the shore…for the open, interconnected fluid ocean beyond, even seeing the immense dark of it.

And then…”it just goes. It goes where the environment allows it to go.


I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason — Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.

                                                                                                                                                                                                           John Keats