Why Teaching Empathy Matters
As a previous technology facilitator, I believed in the importance of teaching Digital Citizenship to students. They are the first generation of humans to grow up in a completely digital world. They have the potential to have their entire lives recorded and captured digitally. With this technology comes a tremendous responsibility to ensure that they understand the digital world and participate in it in a way that uplifts and benefits all of humanity. One of the best ways for students to really understand the lasting impacts, both good and bad, of their digital actions was to develop empathy for others. Empathy is so important for students today. We cannot over emphasize its importance with our students. In my experience, our students today struggle to understand connotations in our voices. I have seen my six year son struggle with this as well. To him, the statements "come over here now" or "stop doing that" are interpreted by the same way regardless of the tone or inflection that I put in the directions. However for those who understand that the tone and inflections of this command by a parent can often have very different consequences if not followed. In teaching Digital Citizenship, I stressed the importance of students understanding that their actions online impact real people. If we sent a flaming email, there is a real life person who receives that email. If we make bad comments about a picture of person that we see online, thee is a real life person who may be hurt by those comments. By teaching our students empathy, the condition of understanding how others feel, we often create experiences in which our students think through their actions and make better decisions. By helping our students connect with others, they see that their actions have a real world lasting impact. So we must #changetheequation in education and teach all students empathy. It is empathy that has the ability to change the lives of others.
When I took my new position as a Design Thinking instructor at North Rowan High, it was this idea of teaching empathy that really excited me. I have seen the tragic impact of what happens when students do not use empathy. They create challenges and negative situations for others. Sometimes this results in low self esteem, depression, or even suicide. With the proliferation of digital devices in our lives, we often forget that we are connected to each other. Over the past two weeks, we have introduced the Design Thinking module to our students. The first stage in Design Thinking is empathy. While Design Thinking is focused on solving problems, it is this brilliant incorporation of empathy that really separates it from other problem solving methods such as the scientific method. Instead of starting with the problem like most methods do, Design Thinking focuses on understand how the situation impacts others. It is humancentric since the focus on solving problems to benefit humans. As a result, Design Thinking has the potential to allow students to explore and practice empathy in a way that is conducive to them becoming caring adults who value others. Over the past two weeks, we have spent a tremendous amount of time on practicing empathy. Yes, practicing it. Many of our students struggle with understanding others and we have really focused on defining empathy as well letting students practice it. They have done various activities ranging from discussing gifts that each other have given. In this simulation, students ultimately construct a special item that means much to their partner. The students take the time to ask questions and dig deeper in understanding their partner's likes and passions. As our students completed this simulation, I saw students just light up with appreciation and gratitude over the gifts that their partners made for them. It was at this point that I realized that each partner felt that he/she was valued and important. It is these feelings that have the ability to change trajectories and help others develop positive self images. I would argue that of all the things that we teach our students from curriculum to citizenship, empathy must be at the core of what we do as educators. In the end, it is our understanding of how others feel and our appreciation of others that makes a positive difference. We must never forget the importance of this and continually stress this with our students. Having worked in education for over 20 years, I have a lot of students that I run into our community. Most never mention how the chemistry that I taught them benefited them. Instead, what they recall is how I understood them and encouraged them to work hard and pursue their dreams. I definitely count this as my greatest accomplishment as an educator.
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The ideas shared here are my own and do not necessarily represent my employers, associations, or organizations. These thoughts are entirely my own.