I have struggled with this question and with the packaged programs there are to try to do that. Can empathy be taught through lessons, vignettes, and role play? I’m not so sure….but after watching the RSA Animate-The Power of Outrospection and then reading Ben Weinlick’s post on Empathy in Creativity and Design Thinking, I really DO think it can be taught. But not in the way we are typically doing it.
During a Project Based Learning unit, Natural Disasters and Us, we encountered a real and devastating natural disaster. Hurricane Sandy hit our partners’ school in Long Island. We were able to hear their firsthand accounts of the sorrow it brought. My students were moved by it, and we organized a fund drive by researching the needs, writing arguments for different ideas, voting on an organization to help, creating task groups, and then acting to help. So far after one week, my class of 22 kids has collected $1,428.00.
It’s not about the money…it’s about the empathy. It’s about actually taking the time to feel, taking the time to understand, and to then authentically hold the power to act. THAT is what empathy is. And yes, I do think we can do lots more to bring that kind of empathetic learning into our classrooms. That kind of empathy can change the course of our world.