Empathy: It’s on the decline, how can we help?

October 3, 2010
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Empathy in the Classroom

“College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait.”

This statement solidifies the need for teachers to develop empathy, one of Dan Pink’s aptitudes from A Whole New Mind.  How are students going to compete in a global economy if they are lacking in empathy?  Will they be able to design products that are meaningful to the world market?  And even more importantly, what will become of the “have-nots” in the world as this next generation begins to play a more central role in business and government policy?

But before we attack our young people, take a minute yourself to take the same quiz and see how you compare with 14,000 college students.  I got a 53/70, which ranks me as slightly more empathetic than the average 51/70.

So we all could use a little more empathy, but how do you teach it?  Can you teach it?

We can “teach” empathy.  I hesitate to say that we are “teaching” empathy, because I personally believe that it is an innate human trait to be empathetic towards others.  I prefer to think about creating opportunities for people to develop their innate empathy, not teach them how to be empathetic.  Or, if you look at Bloom’s Taxonomy, create lesson plans that let students “evaluate” different points of view.

The people at Qualtrics, the company that is responsible for collecting the survey data, recommend reading this article from eHow.com.  The article covers seven basic approaches to developing empathy, which could easily be used to upgrade a current lesson plan.  Here are a few quick ideas.

  1. Understand your own emotions.  Anything that teachers can do to help young people get in touch with their own feelings will help our students develop empathy towards others.  There is a great childrens game called “That Takes Me Back” that would work nicely as a lesson on its own.
  2. Interact with a wide range of people.  Even with budget cuts across the country, there are still opportunities for guest speakers and field trips.  Try to find someone who is an expert in the content of your course, but has a different ethnic background than you or your students.   Then ask them to speak to your class.  Just the experience of seeing an expert with a different ethnicity should help to break down barriers.
  3. Seek out similarities between yourself and others.  For another childrens game, check out “I Know Just How You Feel”.  Or, use a plain old Venn Diagram.  If you are talking about a group of people or an individual, have students draw a Venn Diagram showing what they share in common with the famous person or group of people.
  4. Practice taking on another’s perspective.  Think about role playing.  Look at both sides of an argument and have students take one side or the other.  Then have them switch.
  5. Examine the lives of empathetic people.  Have your students find an activist within your curriculum and research their life stories.  Sometime if you can personalize something it will create an impact.  Scientists, mathematicians, and political figures usually have more than a few activists within their ranks.
  6. Read good fiction.  There are plenty of opportunities in all subject areas to use fiction.  I use historical fiction in my history classes.  I am sure you could find short stories or excerpts from fictional accounts of your own subject matter.  Or you can have kids write their own fiction using story boards.
  7. Encourage empathy in children and in those around you.  This is the easy part for us teachers.  I think that each of us is an empathetic person.  We have to be or we wouldn’t be teachers.  We should be proud of the model that we provide and not be afraid to encourage the same behavior in our students.

These are just my own thoughts.  I’d be interested to hear your own stories.  How do you encourage empathy in your students?

Empathy: College students don’t have as much as they used to, study finds.

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