Empathy and Geography
A key skill developing insight and character
According to IBDP Geography teacher, Paul Thompson, developing empathy as a key meta-skill enhances understanding and is the 21st Century key to ‘building’ character.
Smarter and better
‘Build empathy and Inspire action:
Walk in someone else’s shoes and be moved to act for others’.
According to education writer Thomas Lickona (2018), the purpose of education is “to help people become smart, and to help them become good.” As educators, we spend most of our time making students smarter. We also need to spend time making them better. In Geography we look at a number of issues critical to the future of our world – the climate crisis, migration issues and global poverty. But how do we generate the depth of understanding and response that these topics deserve? In the Sevenoaks School Geography department we have found that stimulating empathy adds perspective, provokes reflection and deepens student understanding. We are convinced that this approach prepares the future generation to respond to the challenges of our day not only with awareness, but also with compassion. Both character and cognitive development follows.
Roman Krznaric and the importance of Empathy
We have been influenced by the work of Roman Krznaric who has become a leading voice making the case for the importance of Empathy. In his book ‘Empathy: Why It Matters and How to Get It’ (2014) he calls for ‘Outrospection’ which he defines as “the need to step outside yourself and discover the lives of other people.” Click on the image to follow the link.
Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings and perspectives of others, and to use that understanding to guide one’s own actions. It is critical both to individual human development, our collective ability to solve problems and build a stronger society. Krznaric argues that empathy “is the most important and vital skill for personal (and professional) development in this ever-changing and increasingly connected world.”
“You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
If we want to ensure that students leave school as global citizens, equipped with the emotional skills to help themselves, and those around them, empathy is a key means to this end. As Kirwan (2022) puts it “Empathy is a core 21st century skill.”
Leading with Empathy: Sevenoaks School Geography Department
Sevenoaks School Geography department has also worked with Ben Solanky and Matt Gurney, Co-Founders and Directors of Empathy Action, which is a group of volunteers working together “to inspire and empower people to take part in building a fairer, safer, more equal world.” Their motto is to ‘Build empathy and Inspire action: Walk in someone else’s shoes and be moved to act for others’.
They are specialists in creating immersive empathy workshops on the world’s biggest issues – from The Refugee Crisis to Climate Crisis to Global Poverty.
Empathic Geography workshops
Using a combination of theatrical, audio-visual and educational techniques these workshops create powerful backdrops for learning. Empathy Action and Sevenoaks School Geography department have annually coordinated three immersive workshops.
‘The High Life’ is an interactive film-based climate justice workshop. It tells the story of two countries – Opuland and Ardosland, offering participants the chance to see for themselves how the everyday decisions made in one part of the world have global consequences, both good and bad, for people living on the frontline of the climate emergency.
‘Desperate Journeys’ is an immersive refugee crisis workshop, exploring the global refugee crisis by tracking the journey of a family forced from their home in a war-torn country. It is a challenging ,evidence-based piece based on first-hand accounts and case studies to bring home to those taking part in the human stories behind the headlines.
‘The Poverty Trap’ is an immersive workshop developed around real lives and testimonies, allowing participants to experience something of what it feels like to live in extreme poverty. It tells the story of a number of families living in a slum in a large city, where living conditions are extremely tough.
The reaction to this work has been really positive.
According to one of our teachers: “We sometimes talk about the ‘Sevenoaks bubble’, we live fairly comfortable lives, privileged in many ways… This intense experience helped burst that ‘bubble’. “
Students have been equally enthusiastic: “This activity highlighted the fact that with privilege comes responsibility . . . The experience really challenged me and my friends and has inspired us to make a difference.”
Parents seem to be equally impressed, As one commented: “I am going out into the world with new eyes. I’d recommend it to anybody”
Future plans and action research
Character Education and developing student empathy is part of a larger Sevenoaks School initiative increasingly integrated into the curriculum, through the PSHE and tutor group pastoral programme, through the established Year 7 and Year 8 Society and Change course and the Year 9 and Year 10 Core Critical Thinking programme.
We also believe that developing empathy plays an important part in developing the IB Learner Profile. We will continue to work with Empathy Action, particularly to develop the practice of empathy in the curriculum and community.
Empathy and a civilised world
Ultimately, the place to start creating a more empathic civilisation is in the education system. We need to teach empathy skills to young people so that they develop a deep sense of social and ecological justice that will motivate them to be active citizens. Krznaric again:
“Empathy, especially its cognitive form, is one of the most powerful ways we have of escaping the boundaries of our egoistic concerns, changing our values, and inspiring social action.”
Empathy will most likely flower on a collective scale if its seeds are planted in our children. To truly change the world, you first have to understand the people in it.
Paul Thompson is Head of Geopgraphy and the Academic Enrichment Guest Speaker Coordinator at Sevenoaks School in the UK.
More information on this study together with other articles can be found in Innovate, the annual academic journal from the Institute for Teaching and Learning at Sevenoaks School: https://www.sevenoaksschool.org/teachinglearning/research/innovate/