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Posts Tagged ‘empathy

I cheered (softly) when I read the headline that there will be a panel “to tackle neighbourhood noise”. But I jeered (cautiously) when I read the article that followed.

There will be nine members in that panel. Only a few of the members were highlighted in the article. Are any of the nine residents of such neighbourhoods, i.e., the heartlands?

Yes, they are supposed to “engage a wide segment of the public”, but I would argue that they make decisions alone and with panel members. So it is critical that they have first-person empathy for the issues. 

It is one thing to hear about such issues from a theoretical perspective or from visiting the ground. It is another to be a participatory stakeholder and use that empathy to fuel passion, ideas, and effort.

My online classes are over for the semester and I reflect on something I did and something else I plan to do. 

I teach teachers, so it is important for me to model behaviours in synchronous Zoom sessions that are different from those needed in a face-to-face classroom. Though not a formal course component, I chose to highlight the importance of eye contact. This was something I reflected on previously

Photo by Ron Lach on

In a normal classroom, a teacher might cast her gaze on students as a form of monitoring for feedback and classroom management. This is not as easy or seamless in Zoom. 

If you want to simulate eye contact, you need to look into the webcam. When you do this, tunnel vision prevents you from simultaneously monitoring the gallery, chat tool, room management view, and shared windows. You might also look at the faces in the gallery, so you break eye contact with the camera. 

So when we needed to take a class photo for attendance records, I directed them to look into their webcams so they could briefly experience what I would model throughout our session. I also established the expectation that I would have to break eye contact to perform other teaching tasks, and modelled simulated eye contact when I could. 

Now here is something I reflexively thought of doing during one session, but opted not to in the interest of time. I wanted to pause for a minute and get everyone to stand up and stretch.

I had already been stretching my students mentally during a conceptually challenging segment. I felt a bit tired and thought my students might be tired too. I was thinking of pausing for a stretch break, but a glance at the clock told me I was running behind.

I regret not taking a moment to do this. I should have stopped to ask if they felt tired. Taking a pit stop to lead a short stretching session, perhaps with my participants’ webcams off, might have modelled a good practice that they could replicate with their students in future. 

It was not enough to stretch my learners mentally. I could have stretched them physically as well. I will remember to do this in future.

Today I try to link habits of an app use to a change in teaching.

Like many Singaporeans, I have had months of practice using the location aware app, SafeEntry, to check in and out of venues. We do this in a collective contract tracing effort during the current pandemic.

You cannot forget to check in because you need to show the confirmation screen to someone at the entrance. However, you can easily forget to check out* because, well, you might mentally checked out or have other things on your mind.

Therein lies a flaw with the design and implementation of the app. Instead of making both processes manual, the app could be semi-automatic. It could have a required manual check in at entrances, but offer automated exits.

How so? The mobile app is location-aware. It has a rough idea where you are and can suggest where to check in. This is why the manual check in is better — the human choice is more granular.

However, when people leave a venue, the app could be programmed to automatically check them out if the app detects that they are no longer there over a period of, say, 10 minutes. I say give the option to user for a manual check out or an automated one.

*The video below reported that checking out is not compulsory. But not checking out creates errors in contact tracing, i.e., we do not know exactly where a person has been and for how long. This not only affects the usability of the data but also inculcates blind user habits.

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For me, this is a lesson on rethinking teaching during the pandemic by using awareness as key design feature. It is easy to just try to recreate the classroom room and maintain normal habits when going online or adopting some form of hybrid lessons.

But this does not take advantage of what being away from the classroom or being online offers. The key principle is being aware of what the new issues, opportunities, and affordances are, e.g., isolation, independence, customisation.

Making everyone to check in and out with SafeEntry is an attempt to create a new habit with an old principle (the onus is all on you). This does not take advantage of what the mobile app is designed to do (be location aware).

Likewise subjecting learners to old expectations and habits (e.g., the need to be physically present and taking attendance) does not take advantage of the fact that learning does not need to be strictly bound by curricula and time tables.

The key to breaking out of both bad habits is learning to be aware of what the app user and learner thinks and how they experience the reshaped world. This design comes from a place of empathy, not a position of authority.

Here is something I said to a health insurance representative that should resonate with educators: The individual matters.

I made an appointment with a representative of my health insurance provider to resolve set of issues that lasted a month. One of them was the company’s communication. On that alone, I had two main concerns.

First, I was supposed to receive only electronic updates. However, I have been receiving a mix of email and snail mail. With regard to the latter, I received policy documents for each member of my family in separate envelopes even though they were all addressed to me and sent to one address.

The whole point of going electronic is to avoid wastage. The mixed media method and the multiple mailings goes against this principle. Separate policies look separate on a system, but they are linked to one individual when you create the process to look.

Second, I received confirmation snail mail dated 17 October before receiving more snail mail dated 14 October a few days after. The second set of mail was contrary to the first as it had outdated information.

Going electronic would have provided automated and more timely updates. They would remove the need to send messages with irreverent information. Even if an electronic system sent all messages, they would likely arrive in the correct order (and thus make more sense).

Yesterday I received a text message reminding me to pay for a portion of my annual premium even though I had already paid for it. I had showed the evidence to the insurance representative and she confirmed that everything was in place in every system they had. She even used a Singaporean term — double confirmed. And yet an automated system told me that I had to pay for something I had already paid for.

One thing I took pains to ask the representative to push to higher-ups was this: Walk through policies and processes to see how they affect individuals. The mismanagement of communication had given me sleepless nights for a month.

What does this have to do with education? The individual matters.

We might get caught up with policies and administrative tasks. But what really matters is whether we treat students as people with hopes and worries, goals and barriers, talents and inabilities.

It is very easy to switch to a closed or defensive mode with facing a group of students. Efficiency becomes the name of the game instead of effectiveness. The clock on the classroom wall or the computer tray matters more than what ticks in the minds of students.

So what is an educator to do?

Something both simple and difficult — return to first principles. Try to remember what it is like to be a learner. Remember the uncertainty, the struggles, the frustration. Empathise first. Reach before you teach.

If you cannot reach them, you cannot teach them.

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Ah, John Green — a source of introspection and dissonance.

As he went on a walk in the woods, John told a story about his Make-A-Wish friend, Esther. As they crossed a bridge with a grated floor, Esther noticed how John was fearful.

Esther assured John that they were almost across the bridge and that John could take over the pushing of her wheelchair if he needed something to hang on to.

The story was about having empathy for someone else. I apply this in education as someone who is learning to live and feel for my students. I think that this is the single most important trait of an educator. If I cannot first reach them, I cannot teach them.

If you cannot reach them, you cannot teach them.

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Are you complaining about the restrictions during lockdown? Is fighting a war by staying at home or wearing a mask when going out for groceries difficult to stomach.

Consider what the visually-impaired have to go through. Look through their eyes. If there is anything worth developing while in lockdown, it is a sense of empathy.

Yesterday I lamented how it seems easier to rely more on hindsight than foresight.

Hindsight is costly in terms of time, money, effort, and morale because of the problems that are created. Foresight anticipates these problems and seeks to prevent them.

How might one develop foresight? One strategy: Learn to empathise.

Learning to empathise requires you to get out of your headspace and comfort zone. It requires you to experience work or other aspects of life from someone else’s perspective first hand.

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The videos above illustrate what I mean.

You might think that parkour practitioners and gymnasts have similar styles and practices. These videos revealed that they do not. They also highlighted what each group appreciated about and learnt from the other.

Now if only newspaper publishers and non-scooter riding policy makers could relate. For that matter, imagine what student experiences might be if teachers empathised with the pressures of today.

One of the podcast channels I have recently subscribed is No Such Thing As A Fish. It is helmed by the fact-finding team behind the QI television series.

I have been binging the series in reverse order and recently listed to episode 244 No Such Thing As A Fishman (iTunes) (Spotify).

Stephen Fry made a guest appearance and shared his thoughts on how warped our thinking can sometimes be. He described how we do not seem to take offence to violence but vilify basic body functions.

Around the seven-minute mark, he mentioned how we think nothing of phrases like “Traffic was murder!” but might consider “It was shitting bad traffic!” as rude.

The juxtaposition was ridiculous, I LOL’d anyway, and I got his point. It was a matter of questioning one’s perspective.

If we are to nurture more empathetic learners, we should not just deluge them with the experiences and cultures of “others”. We also need to help them explore and question their own biases and standards. If we cannot look past ourselves, how are we to gain insights into others?

I get that this image tweet is an opposite play on apathy (app-athy, haha!), but does it make sense?

What does “Empathy is the app” mean? Something like this?

I realise that there is a movement to promote apps. I have also met many people whose knee-jerk reaction to any issue, even complex social ones, is an app.

Have people reflected critically on what apps are, how we use apps, and what apps cannot and cannot do?

What kind of app is empathy supposed to be: Gaming, social media, productivity, utility, augmented, fantasy, etc.?

How do we use such an app? Do we activate it only when we need it and follow a checklist? Do we close it when we do not need it? Or is the app intelligent enough to know when to pop up and remind us to be empathetic?

Do we have a home screen full of other apps like being professional, critical, creative, or considerate? Can values and behaviours be codified as apps? Can these “apps” be externalised and disowned?

Are they available in different app stores? Is there quality control? Do they come with regular updates?

Is the empathy app free, freemium, ad-supported, or paid? If the app store is not empathetic to app creators and changes policies, will the app change to meet the circumstances?

I really do not know what “Empathy is the app” means. Perhaps my human OS need upgrades and my home screen needs more apps. Perhaps the empathy app creators need to make a “multiple interpretations” or “Empathy for Dummies” app.

Footnote: Here is something for the app-oriented to do before or after you read this. I recommend you first install the sense of humour app, interpreting double meanings app, common sense app, and listening app. If your OS cannot run all the apps simultaneously in the background, you are screwed.

This reflection is a breadcrumb on the trail leading to my thoughts on the Pedagogy of Empathy.

It was heartbreaking to watch this video on how albino Tanzanians were maimed and killed. They were targetted because of the superstition that they had supernatural powers.

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When you learn of such an atrocity, you might ask yourself: What can we do?

Realistically, nothing immediately and directly. The context may be far removed from our own, we might not sympathize, or we have other priorities.

However, an educator might leverage on videos like this to create a longer term and indirect impact. An educator can use such videos as a springboard for creating awareness, exercising critical thinking, and countering apathy.

If you can get your hands dirty, do it. If you cannot, do not simply throw your hands in the air. Find another way to help by nurturing empathic learners.


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