As the United States struggles to keep up academically with the rest of the world, it was interesting to read about a prestigious high school in China that is going in a different direction. According to a June 8, 2012 article in the Christian Science Monitor, Peking University High School is focusing, not on filling in circles, but on emphasizing the concept of empathy in their teaching and learning. They are looking at empathy as a fundamental “teachable” skill that fosters an environment of innovation, collaboration, and creativity.
In the United States, the Center for Inspired Teaching is leading the way in teaching to the
4 I’s: Intellect, Inquiry, Imagination, and Integrity. Within the category of Integrity the center focuses on the belief that:
“Students will demonstrate the skills and dispositions necessary to function as members of a democratic society: the ability to stand up for one’s beliefs; the confidence to make decisions according to one’s value system; the ability to listen to, learn from, respect, and problem solve with others; as well as honesty, empathy, compassion, and strong ethics.”
I’m sure that our legislative leaders will respond by asking how Integrity can be assessed and evaluated – perhaps by looking at the actions of our leaders? Interesting to think about . . . .
So what can teachers do until our educational system reflects the conditions necessary for global collaboration, problem solving, innovation, and creativity? Learn to listen to the children – really listen. They have stories to tell that impact their learning and gifts that need to be nurtured within the classroom environment. Not “proficient” in reading or writing? Encourage them to demonstrate their understanding in different ways – through music, art, dance, technology, or the spoken word. Teach the basic skills, but also provide opportunities to support empathy skills that are increasingly becoming more necessary in our global world.
So what are those skills? The Merriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary defines Empathy as the feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions; the ability to share someone else's feelings. It is my opinion that these skills can’t be learned through Facebook entries, tweets, or instagrams. Understanding becomes meaningful when you have dialogues that are fact-to-face where facial expressions, body language, and voice tone are revealed. These meaningful conversations can only happen when trust is established, safety is insured, and honesty is valued.
Begin these thoughtful conversations around primary sources like diaries, journals, and images. Learn about an historic event by exploring the “real” people behind the scenes. Look at different perspectives and retellings. Discover what it was like to be a slave by listening to oral histories or excerpts from forbidden diaries. Put a face on events and explore emotions from different viewpoints than texts usually present. Read the journals of real soldiers who experienced wars from the actual battlefield – share their fears, longings, and patriotic attitudes. Relate these sources to what is happening in the world today – put a “face” behind the media and other related sources. Be open to exploring propaganda techniques, persistent stereotypes, and acts of discrimination in the world and in your own community. Talk about the importance of sharing someone else’s feelings and perspectives – to understand the beliefs behind the actions.
I welcome the day when teaching empathy becomes as important as teaching the academic subjects. Empathy requires a group effort and is dependent upon an environment that encourages communication and values a sharing of different perspectives. Maybe we should look to China for help . . . .
"Center for Inspired Teaching." . N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Nov 2013. <http://www.inspiredteaching.org/inspired-teaching-demonstration-school/philosophy/curriculum>.
Hockenberry, Alison. "Beyond Standardized Tests-Teaching Empathy." Christian Science Monitor 08 Jun 2012, n. pag. Web. 1 Nov. 2013. <http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Making-a-difference/Change-Agent/2012/0608/Beyond-standardized-tests-teaching-empathy>.