My menu


Empathy and Understanding

As a headteacher, I used to say that one of the most significant outcomes we should aim for in our students was open-mindedness. That is to say the capacity to see things from other people’s point view and to approach their relationships with empathy and understanding.

It is interesting to note that – in the current international debate about Character Education – people like the Nobel-prize winning economist, James Heckman, have demonstrated that attributes like

  • ‘openness to experience’ (related to concepts like curiosity and creativity)
  • ‘conscientiousness’ (related to concepts like grit, self-control and creativity)
  • ‘agreeableness’ (related to things like empathy, modesty and trust)

are just as important as IQ to educational attainment.

It is worth delving beneath the surface of each of these attributes but let’s take empathy as a starting point.

Often confused with sympathy – Oh, I know, I had the same thing happen to me – empathy involves something much deeper; a mind shift that enables you to stand in someone else’s shoes for a while, validate their feelings or experiences and acknowledge the impact these are having on that other individual. These are pretty high order skills and can’t be taught out of context. To be properly acquired, they need to be habituated through experience. As always, this won’t happen through a well-intentioned module within a tutorial programme or PSHE course. Students will acquire this habit if teachers across the curriculum provide opportunities for their students to have their initial impressions challenged, reviewed and reformed in a social context. This is easier than it sounds.

Any curriculum area lends itself to experiences that require students to re-evaluate their first impressions and to see things that others are seeing and take them on board. Take a lesson that I helped a teacher reconfigure recently. In a Year 9 History lesson, students were presented with an impactful picture related to 9/11 – with which I was already familiar and have used in workshops* – and asked to talk about what they thought was happening. I felt that a few opportunities were being missed – not only for the development of thoughtful historians but also for the capacity to see things from others’ points of view and empathise with them.

Rather than give them the whole picture, I suggested that he let his students see it bit by bit; working with evidence, adapting their opinions and coming to a consensus point of view. I am always inclined to get students to use those Visible Thinking Routines suggested by Ron Ritchhart at Harvard. Start off by getting them to use See-Think-Wonder as a starting point and then, as more evidence becomes available, use I thought ________, now I think________. Once students arrive at the whole picture they are always amazed and there is a palpable shift in the climate of the classroom. I then offer students a collection of words that might describe the attitudes of the people in the picture – Indifferent, Oblivious, Preoccupied, Confused, Alarmed, Insensitive, Unconcerned – and ask them to decide the nuanced meanings as they apply them to the evidence. My next suggestion is for the students to imagine the scene 20 minutes before the picture and 20 minutes after and to work collaboratively to re-enact the scenes. I’ve taken this a lot further into a sequence of lessons that work on a dual focus: assuring progress in curricular knowledge, skills and understanding and also in the habits of empathetic engagement.

I still maintain that in a world of uncertainty, one of the most important qualities for us to nurture in young people is that of empathy and understanding; helping them to step outside the press of their own experience to stand in other’s shoes.

I have a number of other worked examples from across the curriculum that I use in teacher workshops.


* Click here to view the picture

Comments are closed.