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

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