How do I build Empathy into my Place-based education experiences? Ashoka is nonprofit organization with the mission of encouraging social innovation around the world. Their Start Empathy initiative provides a great foundation for diving into the research, examples, tips and tricks for building empathy within your classroom. Take some time to explore their website and read a few articles in the "tips" section. This is the best article to start with. Be sure to read the tips and tricks. Beyond documenting stories, research, and case studies, Ashoka is establishing the Changemaker Schools network. Changemaker schools are dedicated to developing empathetic world-changers through innovative education experiences. These schools, in conjunction with the Start Empathy initiative and Ashoka, have compiled a step-by-step process for building empathy in the classroom. Although the website and resources are largely focussed for the elementary classroom, the concepts and ideas are easily applied to all ages and classrooms.
Step 1. Set the Groundwork
The initial step requires that the teacher create a safe space for empathy to thrive without judgement:
- Create a Safe Space: Trust is key to developing an environment where empathy can thrive. Providing opportunities for students to express their feelings without significant risks can be difficult, but rewarding.
- Lead by Example: Students who are surrounded by individuals who practice empathy are more likely to begin thinking about the feelings of others.
- Develop Emotional Competency: Students must be able to identify and manage their own emotions and thoughts before interpreting the emotions of others.
Step 2. Practice
Encourage age and content appropriate experiences that allow students to develop empathy towards others and the environment or community over time. Some examples may include:
- Group Activities/Play: Allowing students to work or play together while establishing rules of conduct or group "norms" naturally encourages empathy. As these groups form, encourage input from all participants.
- Storytelling and Role-play: Stories, especially those written from the perspective of other animals, plants, people, or objects, enable the author to "wear the shoes" of those whose experiences may be different.
- Check out this video to see how one teacher utilized role-play to help his students cultivate empathy:
- Immersion: Consistent experiences within a group or in an environment will help students feel immersed and forge empathetic bonds to that group or environment. Familiarity is important for students to connect to a landscape or person. As students become familiar with a location or individual they may begin looking past stereotypes or labels and begin forming deep understanding of the topic or issues at hand.
- Problem Solving: As groups of students begin to tackle problems collaboratively, shared victories and challenges create a sense of interpersonal empathy with their peers.
Step 3. Reflect and Take Action
The way we act or behave based on our understanding of others is critical to true empathy. The process of providing ample time for reflection and opportunities to act helps solidify empathy in students.
- Identify Shared Values and Differences: The Start Empathy road map reads, "Empathy means recognizing the shared humanity in others but also naming and appreciating differences. This is how we move from projection, where we imagine what we would do in someone else's shoes, to empathy, where we understand and respect the decisions of another." Using simple T-charts or compare and contrast activities can help students project differences in perspective. Writing assignments may help students articulate if they accept that perspective or not.
- Instill Courage: Help students understand that they can make a difference. Many teachers and leaders try to tell students this everyday. Take it a step further by eliminating or reducing the barriers that stand in students' way. Transportation, costs, or a platform to be heard may be the only thing preventing a group of students from making a meaningful impact. Give them courage to ask, and help them achieve.
- Enable Action: The end result of a quality PBE project is some type of effort in the community that improves the community or environment. Find a way to create this victory for students and the positive response from those involved will help students understand empathy in a whole new way.
If you really want to dive into the world of developing empathy Ashoka has developed a toolkit to guide you and your classroom through the process:
This process is summarized on a wonderful downloadable PDF poster as well. Share this with your students, families, co-workers, and friends. There's no reason to hide the fact that you want your students to develop a sense of perspective and connection to other people and the world around them. This poster can help serve as a reminder to everyone involved!
As you can see the process of building Empathy into a PBE project is a natural fit. Other modules will focus more on the process of reflection and taking action but remember that empathy is foundational to creating those meaningful reflection responses and actions later in your project.
Take the quiz and move on to the next module!