Cultivating Empathy In Learning

Author: Steven W. Anderson
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Empathy: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

As a father and an educator, an important aspect of learning that is difficult to teach is empathy. I taught middle school for my entire classroom career. Pre-teens and teens are often consumed with themselves and their immediate circle of friends. It’s just how they are wired. With my own daughters, the lessons of understanding the challenges and struggles of others, especially those different from them or located halfway around the globe are difficult for them to grasp.

When I talk to teachers about social-emotional development I am consistently told that one of the hardest things for students to see and understand is empathy. With the focus on curriculum and content, little time is left for students to explore the world beyond their desk and understand what is happening around them. Yet showing empathy for others is a skill that will take students far in life.

And perhaps, more importantly, students could hold the solutions to many of these problems if schools and classrooms were places where they could explore and ideate.

Kids not only need to understand the challenges of daily life in their local community and other parts of the world, but they also need the chance to see the world through the eyes of others. Learn their stories, their triumphs, and struggles to better understand how they can help even though they might be a world away. They need to see the impact they can have in the lives of others.

Kids are incredible. Just because they are kids doesn’t mean they can’t change the world.

Teaching empathy and giving students the opportunity to cultivate empathy doesn’t have to be something extra or a way to fill empty time at the end of the school year. There are plenty of ways to weave empathy into the everyday curriculum while showing students the impact they can have on their local and global communities.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals-One of the best ways to have students understand empathy is to know what the major issues facing our globe are. That’s where the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals can help. Made up of 30 pressing issues facing every society and culture, the SDGs are a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.”

The SDGs address the global challenges we face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate, environmental degradation, prosperity, and peace and justice. The Goals interconnect and in order to leave no one behind, it is important that each Goal and target is met by 2030. You can learn more about the SDGs through a free course offered by Participate. Microsoft also has a free course and tons more resources to explore like Skype in the Classroom Events, Virtual Field Trips and more.

WE Schools-I learned about WE Schools during a recent trip to Paris where I saw several teachers who were participating in their classrooms. One project had students in the US learning the Spanish language writing books for emerging readers in South America and 3D print toys to go along with them. WE Schools aims to connect classrooms around the world which “challenges young people to identify the local and global issues that spark their passion and empowers them with the tools to take action.”

The WE Schools program provides educators and students with curriculum, educational resources and a full calendar of action campaign ideas. Through WE Schools, students gain an understanding of the root causes of pressing issues like hunger, poverty, and access to education, as they explore how they can make positive impacts. They also plan and carry out at least one local and one global action to improve their communities and the world. Joining is free and they offer a free OneNote notebook that has everything you need to get started.

Empatico-Aimed at our youngest learners, Empatico is a free platform that gives “teachers of students ages 6-11 everything needed to build meaningful connections through video exchanges: a partner classroom, activity plans, and built-in video, messaging, and scheduling tools.” Empatico empowers teachers and students to explore the world through experiences that spark curiosity, kindness, and empathy. The activities align with standards and can easily fit into the existing curriculum. Topics include weather, energy use, folktales, and festivals.

Little Free Library-A project I have been a supporter of for a very long time, Little Free Library is a local movement to provide more access to books. The idea is simple. You provide a space for books and make them available to the local community. Typically they are housed in a “book nook” that is built but could just be a space set aside anywhere. Anyone can come and take a book or two and leave a book or a few. Ultimately these become self-sustainable.

My daughters built one for our neighborhood that houses just children’s and YA books since our neighborhood is populated with young people. Many schools have built them to encourage literacy and accessibility to books, as well as organizations like Girl Scouts. This could be a great project for kids; not only is it hands-on through the building of the library (put that makerspace to use!) but also helps spread the love of reading.

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Cultivating Empathy In Learning
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