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The pedagogy of empathy

Posted on: February 4, 2015

Ask someone to define empathy in an educational context and you are likely to get something like this:

However, I have long held the belief that empathy is not just a socio-emotional construct; it is also a cognitive one.

Barry Schwartz delivered a powerful TED talk on practical wisdom that deserves more views than it currently has. It covered a lot of ground and had wonderful sound bites like “rules and procedures may be dumb, but they spare you from thinking”.

Video source

A fundamental ingredient of practical wisdom is empathy. Here are Schwartz’s thoughts on empathy:

Most of us think about empathy as a “feeling” or an “emotion.” It is. To be empathetic is to be able to feel what the other person is feeling. But empathy is more than just a feeling. In order to be able to feel what another person is feeling, you need to be able to see the world as that other person sees it. This ability to take the perspective of another demands perception and imagination. Empathy thus reflects the integration of thinking and feeling.

The old model of instruction was to assume that the learner was an empty vessel into which a teacher could pour knowledge. Twentieth century models of pedagogy were built around the philosophies of and research on cognitivism, constructivism, and constructionism. A more recent but less established model of learning (not teaching) is connectivism.

A timeless model of teaching might be the pedagogy of empathy (PoE). Cognitively speaking, empathy is about creating and relating to shared learning experiences.

There are roles and mindsets that teachers and students need to have in the PoE.

A teacher seeks to understand a learner deeply: What does the learner already know? What does s/he not know? Why is the learner having trouble getting it? How might the teacher help the learner more efficiently and effectively?

A student needs to learn how to see what is in the minds of the teacher and co-learners. For this cognitive empathy to happen, students need to constantly practice metacognition, the creation of content, and the teaching of content.

I am developing a simple framework for teachers to understand, adopt, and adapt the PoE. More thoughts on that in another blog entry.

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