Empathy: perspective for learning

Empathy: a handbook for revolution, published in the US as Empathy, why it matters and how to get it.

Roman Krznaric, Rider Books, 2014

The importance of empathy

EmpathyFor philosopher Roman Krznaric, western society has painted itself into something of a corner. The prevailing political and social orthodoxy of our time is rooted in competition, the needs of the individual and introspective obsessions. This means that 21st century western society is missing a trick or two because we tend to neglect the kind of collaborative skills and thinking that could transform our individual talents into something greater. He argues that effective collaboration depends on the ability to see things from another’s point of view: in other words, to empathise with.

Hard – wired for empathy

The fact is, he argues, we are “hard wired” to think empathically and act collaboratively. If we fail to do so, it’s not just that we are limiting ourselves as people, we are also less effective as professionals. Our institutions are less effective, we are less creative and progress is constrained.

When you think about the importance attached to “teamwork” even in the hardest of hard-nosed business environments (think The Apprentice), the point seems obvious. And yet, the empathic skills needed to facilitate great team work are typically neglected by organisations. It’s not just a matter of “teambuilding” fleetingly experienced on corporate away days – it’s about the systematic development of what Krznaric calls “outrospection”, through the habitual practice of daily, empathic thinking. This is not synonymous with sympathy or compassion. It is the ability to think using the perspective of others – to see things as they see them. He therefore calls for a “revolution” in its use and for us all to “turn on our empathic brains”. We all have them – we just have to use them.

Empathy and international schools

What has this to do with schools in general and international schools in particular? Pretty much everything. Effective teachers never forget what it’s like to learn and can see things from the perspective of the learners themselves.  Go a step further – effective differentiation surely depends on an empathy with multiple learning perspectives in a single classroom. This would be important for any teacher, but perhaps especially for an international teacher, working with students from multiple cultures. Although some teachers are more pre-disposed to empathy than others, Krznaric suggests that everybody can develop their empathic selves given a bit of determination and the systematic practice of the “Six Habits of highly empathic people”. It also follows that if you want students to learn collaboratively, their learning could be enhanced if they also learn to think empathically.

Empathy and school improvement

Let’s go beyond the classroom. How could a school improve if more people thought empathically as a matter of course? How much, for example, could a school improve, if teachers could see things more from the perspective of new parents at the beginning of a school year with all the uncertainties that that brings? How much could a school improve if parents understood that the reason why their child’s teacher seems to be ignoring them at pick-up time is because the class Teaching Assistant has just taken a sick child to the nurse and therefore the teacher has to take sole responsibility for the safety of twenty five 4 years olds as they get ready to leave? When the Board of Governors discuss spending another million dollars on campus development from which their own children will never benefit, how much better will their decision be if they empathised with the students who will be at the school in 10 years’ time? Empathy promotes positive relationships and the long-term view. A school will improve as a result.

Making the imaginative leap

According to Krznaric, we all have the capacity to make the necessary imaginative leap to become more empathic, and therefore more effective professionals. As we work to develop intercultural understanding in our own increasingly diverse schools his advice is well worth listening to. The Handbook is an accessible text based on wide reading, astute observation and sensible thinking. Krznaric gives the kind of sound advice that would support the leaders of any modern organisation. International schools are potentially very important beneficiaries of his insight.

Andy Homden.

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2 comments

  • Lisa March 1, 2015  

    Excellent points. As a teacher I can testify that teaching is far easier when we can empathise with our students. It helps them to understand that we have had to learn ourselves and that we are still learning as adults; that we can empathise with the struggles they sometimes experience in their attempt to grasp a new concept.

    • Andy March 7, 2015  

      Thanks for your comments, Lisa. In many ways empathising with the kids is an age old teaching skill. All the best teachers can see things from the students perspective – they know what a student feels like as the learning is taking place. Too often we teach from the perspective of mastery – normally unconsciously. I know I have, We have to teach while bearing in mind how the student is actually thinking – and feeling. This has implications for (a) Differentiation. Each child’s learning perspective is slightly different (b) we have to learn to listen to our students. When I took a listening skills course run by a guy called Earl Westrick many, many years ago, it transformed my teaching. Consilium’s Peter Hudson, who has come into several of the schools where I have been principal has run similar courses – he calls the skill “motivational listening” Contact us if you would like to know more – Peter is preparing his new courses for 2015 – 16.