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The key to a better world? Teach empathy early

Tom Woelper, Matthew Kressy
November 10, 2020

As schools face perhaps the most disruptive period in modern memory, students are returning  to not only a changed classroom environment, but a changed nation. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to ignore the divisiveness that exists in our country -- divisiveness that isn’t lost on our young people.

Educators have an obligation to create a generation of students who can do better. And critical to this goal is developing learners who use reflexive empathy to deal with conflict and decision making -- who learn, innovate and think in a way that goes beyond just themselves and benefits their community, locally and globally. In a world where common ground is hard to find, we must teach our students how to find it.

A changing model for education

Over the past year, we have worked with a team of entrepreneurs, innovators and educators to design the New England Innovation Academy, a private middle and high school that will open next fall. NEIA’s curriculum, student life, and even the structure of our campus are based on human-centered design. The human-centered design process requires problem solvers to look outside themselves  to develop the right solution  --  to integrate the voice of the stakeholders, not dictate a solution to them.

It seems obvious, but it’s not how most of us work. We are “experts,” and we expect to use our knowledge to solve problems for others -- whether it’s what they need or not. It’s difficult to find common ground when you don’t even know where the other person is standing. One benefit of the human-centered design process is that it develops reflexive empathy and it’s this trait that can transform our students, regardless of their career path, into leaders, listeners, and thoughtful citizens.

Empathy is an oft-misunderstood term for educators, typically conflated with compassion,  sympathy, or concern for the well-being of others. All of these are admirable and necessary traits, but they are also highly emotional experiences. In contrast, true empathy gives a certain distance from the issue that allows the problem solver to look at it more objectively.

Empathy is about understanding the needs of the stakeholders facing a problem, and allowing those needs to change your mind about what the best solution may be. Solving a problem empathetically isn’t about dictating a solution based on your expertise; it’s about hearing the needs of stakeholders and taking action on those needs.

As we lay down plans for NEIA, we’re taking the human-centered design process -- typically used for product design -- and demonstrating that it can be used to solve problems and build relationships.

The process of learning empathy

For all the talk about empathy in schools, it’s rarely backed up with the structure, process and discipline that is necessary to learn anything well. It’s also often seen as a soft skill by parents and teachers. The fact is, empathy is core to the success of our future leaders, entrepreneurs and innovators.

For a simple example of how the human-centered design process can transform a typical high school project and build empathy in the process, think of a group of students tasked with designing an after school program for younger children. In a traditional process, they might sit in a classroom and brainstorm what would be fun for the kids. What they would charge for it. When it would happen. Who they’d hire to meet state guidelines.

In a human-centered design process, that discussion wouldn’t even start without a visit to the students, educators and parents involved in the afterschool program. What a group of teenagers might remember about “fun” when they were six years old may be very different from the reality of actual kindergarteners. They may not be aware of the hours parents need care, or what they can afford to pay. Some of their ideas may make the educators running the program -- many of whom may have years of experience on what works with a large group of elementary students  -- balk.

With this input, the high school students can start a discussion. How do their ideas hold up with the feedback they got? What new concepts were sparked by the discussions? How can they translate their ideas in a way that will work for the parents, students and educators?

The simple process of learning about other people’s wants and needs develops empathy as a reflex and a muscle, and practicing the process of listening to and understanding others’ points of view is a worthwhile endeavor for the next generation of citizens. Our goal is to instill this process into everything our students do, so that they don’t jump to conclusions or try to enforce an expert opinion. Rather, their first instinct is to ask questions and understand the needs and emotions of the other people involved.

Empathetic leadership

It’s often said that we want to develop leaders, not followers, but in fact, we believe there’s too much emphasis on leaders in our current structure -- leaders who in fact have little to do with the experiences we have each day. In reality, most of us have times as leaders and times to be followers. These two roles often are not so far apart, and share many of the same qualities. To do either of them well, you must be able to see the bigger picture, find common ground and understand what’s happening beyond your own sphere of influence. In short, you need empathy.

We experience the world around us in small moments, and in the way we’re treated by the people in our orbit. Part of our goal with human-centered design is to integrate real-world experience. Our students will interact with their community on projects and initiatives, demonstrating and proving to them that their actions can make an impact -- and that they have consequences.

Leaders aren’t just at the highest level of our government or businesses, and they’re not just the people that are followed. They’re people who are able to act, on a daily basis, in ways that benefit their local and global community. They’re people who understand that the fastest way to an answer isn’t to consult an expert; it’s to ask the people who are being affected by the issue what they truly need.

We are a nation of extremes, but empathy is a way to avoid those pendulum swings that are often driven by emotion or the inability to understand the needs of others. Human-centered design allows both sides to come together to understand a problem and design a solution to suit everyone’s needs. It requires conversation, engagement and compromise, whether in policy or product.

As we emerge from this crisis, it’s clear now more than ever that educators will lead the way, and the way we guide our students will determine our future as a nation. Developing empathy is a key component to creating a generation of leaders who can work together to face the complex problems we are sure to face.

Tom Woelper is the Founding Head of School at New England Innovation Academy

Matthew Kressy is the Founding Director of the MIT Integrated Design & Management (IDM) master’s degree and Innovation Advisor & Trustee at New England Innovation Academy.

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