Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The importance of empathy

The Primary Years Program highlights five essential elements: knowledge, concepts, skills, attitudes and action. One of the recognised attitudes is Empathy. In 'Making the PYP Happen', Empathy is defined as:

"(Students) Imagining themselves in another's situation in order to understand his or her reasoning and emotions, so as to be open-minded and reflective about the perspective of others (pg. 24)."

This can usually be easy enough for students to comprehend by definition, however the application of it can sometimes be more difficult. My experience with students aged 10 and below (and many older than that too!) is that some of them can still be very self-centered and find it difficult to understand another person's perspective. This is, of course, a generalisation and I have met many empathetic children throughout my career.

It is important to continually find effective ways of promoting all of the attitudes within a school setting. This is particularly important with empathy as it is something that children of this generation can have difficulty accessing. Collaboration and socialisation is increasingly being experienced in situations that aren't face-to-face. Children of this generation regularly meet and connect with their peers in real time on-line, via email and also through telecommunication (especially SMS).

One of the side-effects of this type of communication can be that people don't have to deal with the immediate consequences of their actions. If someone uses bullying behaviour face-to-face with someone else then they see the effects of this straight away. They see how it makes people feel and the effect that it can have on their behaviour. This may not do anything to immediately deter their actions, however they are certainly faced with some of the repercussions straight away. They see how their actions make others feel.

Children today also have to deal with the possibility of cyber-bullying and this is something that can have just as much of an impact as if it were experienced in a face-to-face situation. The major difference here, though, is that a cyber-bully does not have to immediately deal with the effect that their actions may have on someone else. There is a real possibility that they may bully someone and never see or realise the consequences of their actions. A potential result of this is that many children may grow up without truly understanding or being able to show empathy to one another.

I recently watched an interesting documentary, entitled 'Children Full of Life'. You can view it here if you wish. It looks at a classroom teacher in Japan and how he deals with teaching his students the importance of empathy. While he is not dealing with such issues as cyber-bullying, some of the examples that occur during the film still apply. One way that the teacher fosters a community of perspective and empathetic understanding is through the use of what he calls notebooks. Each student writes in their personal notebook daily and then the teacher chooses three people to share their writing with the class. Their writing is personal and once they share it with the class there is time designated for discussion of the topic or issue. This allows for other students to connect with the writing and lets the students see that there are people who may share their feelings or have a different perspective.

I hear many parents telling me that, for various reasons, we should curtail the use of certain technological tools. Trying to solve issues raised in this post - particularly cyber-bullying - by instilling preventative measures will do nothing solve the issue. It may hide it for a little while, but it will not make it disappear totally. Just like in the Industrial age of the 18th and 19th century, we are in the midst of a revolution that is changing the way the world works. The digital changes that are occurring are happening at an exponential rate and are here to stay. We need to find ways to educate students in how to deal with these news ways of living in an effective and sustainable manner.

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