A Univeral Panacea? The Empathy-Led Curriculum

29/01/2013 10:44 GMT | Updated 30/03/2013 09:12 GMT

I keep going on about it and I probably will, simply because it makes good sense. Empathy, or the lack thereof, causes so many of the daily frustrations in teaching and prevents so much of the learning that could take place in the classroom, that it seems foolhardy to ignore the potential impact of examining this concept in detail.

The term empathy was coined many years ago from the German 'einfuhlung' meaning 'in-feeling'. You might ask, how is that relevant to the discussion here today? Having a developed sense of 'in-feeling' and being able to tap in to others' 'in-feeling' is fundamental to classroom success. How many conversations have you had, as teachers, with students who do not seem to care whether they are failing in your subject and/or others? Is it the same student who disrupts others' learning?

Perhaps that is a symptom of that student's lack of einfuhlung and in order to encourage him or her to succeed, that sense needs to be nurtured and developed. Think of the times when you have invested in a particular child's 'in-feeling' - did it have a knock on effect on that child's perception of other students?

There are many reasons why empathy may be impaired. The link between low socio-economic background and lower levels of empathy is established in reams of research. However, for once, the 'kids these days' attitude may hold some truth. Technology, as much as I am an advocate of its use, has seen an increase of poorer levels of empathy. If the majority of a child's interactions in early years are with a screen, and they grow up to interact using technology and have very few mechanisms for human interaction, it is not hard to see the possible impact that might have in the classroom.

All of a sudden, the constant talking over the teacher, or another student, seems understandable (if still hugely irritating). That child does not understand, does not have the neurological experience of interacting in society with all of the regulating behaviours that involves. If a child is constantly borrowing others' equipment, if a child is punching other students, if a child is tapping on the desk, or stealing someone's lunch - all of these behaviours signal a poor level of empathy. I must point out that every child has the capacity to do this - I'm not saying that anyone who taps their pen on the table to the chagrin of others, is a psychopath - I'm saying the one who does it constantly, having been told, is probably a child whose ability to empathise with others is impaired.

The empathy-led curriculum, I must say, is not a substitute for an attainment or knowledge-led curriculum. The concept, as I see it, is one of two parallel structures existing as the ballast for a robust education system. Attainment and knowledge and results are one thing, and one reason why we do our jobs. The other reason we do our jobs is to ensure that we send out functional human beings who understand what it means to exist and interact in our world. Hinton et al in 'Brain Research, Learning and Emotions: Implications for Education Research, Policy and Practice' (2008) assert "if schools are involved in intellectual development, they are inherently involved in emotional development" and for me, I do not consider the two to be mutually exclusive. Building a student's emotional and empathetic capacity has a knock on effect, not just for that child but for the whole room.

It think of it as an equation (and I apologise to teachers of Maths everywhere - my idea of equations involves some basic concepts joined together by mathematical symbols). The equation is: raised empathy levels = decreased disruption = higher attainment and success levels. I told you it was basic.

So what is the empathy-led curriculum, this panacea of which I speak so lengthily? I do not pretend to have all the answers - indeed, you may be better off speaking to someone who is an expert in child psychology and the development of empathy. I can only present ideas that may increase levels of empathy in your classrooms.

Of course, the PSHE curriculum, the ways we study texts in English, the way we present historical events through the people who were there can all be enhanced to include a greater focus on empathy. Just adding on modules on empathetic behaviour may not be the answer here; it's in our daily interactions (the curriculum that we don't ever see written down) that empathy needs to be pushed to the forefront. Our language has to change when it comes to encouraging students to behave in a more empathetic manner.

Speaking and Listening suddenly becomes absolutely vital. Admit it, if you're an English teacher, you've thrown the odd speaking and listening activity to pay lip service to a National Curriculum that doesn't quite exist, knowing that you ought to do something that involves roleplay and thought-tracking. Admit it, if you don't teach English, speaking and listening is something that you know ought to happen in a classroom, but you'll be strung up naked before you make students work on groups to solve whatever problem Pythogoras had. In particular, explicitly teaching what good listening looks like, using verbal directions like "show me that you are listening by looking at me" and "good listening means turning around" helps to establish the interpersonal nature of the classroom. Teaching students to incorporate other's words into their own responses ("I'd like to you to respond with 'I agree/I disagree with X because they said...") is also a good tool to show students that they must absorb another's point of view before churning out their own.

Group work can be difficult in classrooms where there are lots of students with low levels of empathy - I believe in harnessing their einfuhlung to the einfuhlung of others using table competition, team activities and team consequences. And no, I can't believe I wrote that either. One way of increasing empathy levels in the classroom is to expose students to a wide range of people - those they would not normal encounter or choose to spend time with. I am as guilty as everyone else of allowing students to work in the same groups because it is easier for me to manage that to deal with a whole new dynamic every time. Changing it up and showing students that they can link to new people is empathy-booster. Praising empathetic behaviour can work wonders for classes who have a terrible track record of working collaboratively.

Behaviour management of low level disruption can be an opportunity to stress the importance of considering others. I used to stress the impact of poor behaviour on that individual's attainment. Now I try to link it to the impact on others - can you think of a student in the room who always behaves well? What do you think they felt like when their learning stopped because of you? Encourage your mischief-maker to find the similarities between him or herself and that other student. It has had surprising consequences - not consistent consequences, mind you, I don't pretend that one nod towards empathy can change years of unempathetic behaviour. It can start a process though.

If you are interested in perusing this subject further, there is a raft of literature on the subject - my own favourite - Simon Baron-Cohen's 'Zero Degrees of Empathy' and also Jeremy Rifkin's 'The Empathic Civilisation' - and more and more people are looking to the psycho-educational value of learning the theory behind how students interact with their peers and teachers and how this impacts upon their success levels. Daniel H. Pink's 'A Whole New Mind' gives a tantalising insight into how the "conceptual age senses" as linked to developing a greater sense of empathy can impact on what happens in the classroom. He defines these "senses" as design, story, symphony, empathy, play and meaning. Consider each of those words and imagine what would happen if those "senses" were developed in your students, and in particular, students from inner city backgrounds whose levels of deprivation in their early years have led to an innate dearth of these skills.

So, is this is universal panacea? Well, possibly. There are lots of musicians who have said things like 'love makes the world go round' but that's a bit soft, if you ask me. Replace 'love' with 'empathy' and you might be on to something.

This post is a response to the #blogsync topic for January suggested by Edutronic here