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Educated By Design Blog

Why Empathy Just Might Be The Most Important Skill You Teach This Year

Michael Cohen

empathy.png

This is a follow up to a previous blog post on Empathy, and why it's the buzzword I hope never goes out of fashion. 

Empathy Applied

While I advocate for more empathy in the classroom, I want it  to be the start of any problem solving process involving others. With that said, it cannot come at the expense of success. It also doesn't need to followed through via the Design Thinking or any other model. Simply put, being empathetic is a good thing across the board. Regardless of approach, if applying empathy comes at the expense of research and common sense, then the process is flawed from the beginning. Putting all resources into empathy and trying to then develop a solution that isn't sustainable or flawed helps no one. Empathy is only as effective as the effort and ideation putting into developing a high-quality solution.

Years ago I took a Design Thinking MOOC from Stanford. They introduced the course by sharing a story of a think tank sent to help drought ridden African communities develop a more effective way to collect and maintain their water reservoirs during the summer months. Their solution, a light weight plastic storage container that could be buried was completely rejected by the community. This was a teachable moment for the group's use of empathy, or lack there of.

They learned, and all who watch understand that products and solutions, even the highest quality ones will receive very different responses from people and communities based on their culture, lifestyle, and past experiences. As an educator, how many of us can relate this story to moments in our classrooms over the years? How many times have we, or other education professionals design high quality learning experiences that were altogether rejected by their intended users, the students, because they did not consider the students needs, desires, and passions? No one consciously tries to remove empathy from the problem solving equation, but many times our own experiences and expertise can blind us from effectively helping those we are striving to best support. Empathy can actually allow you to be more success not just in ideating, but along the entire design process of a learning experience. By understanding that empathy can and should evolve during the problem solving process, we can empower ourselves to be more flexible and agile as we support student success.

I want to highlight the power of empathy by sharing a personal story. As a Director of Education Technology, and now a consultant and trainer, I have the opportunity to deliver a fairly significant amount of workshops and other professional development experiences. In designing workshops, I realized that although my approach, design, and delivery were always well received, I was designing my work for them. I knew that there must be a better way to support those attending my workshops who were either looking to grow, or forced to grow. While reflecting on this, I realized that a simple pre-workshop survey gave me the space to get to know participants, their passions, and understanding their vision for their professional growth on a more personal (and hopefully more effective) level. I was right! But hy do I do this? With no complaints and generally stellar feedback, why would I shift my approach in delivering training? Better yet, why would I make more work for myself? What if I needed to significantly redesign already amazing workshops and sessions? I did it because, I believe in helping people. I did it because I believe that my skills and ability can help others develop their own skills and abilities. I want to teach people how to fish, not give them fish. Especially if they want tuna, and I am coming with halibut. This means as a facilitiator of professional development, if you come into a school, introduce to them what is cutting edge, and show them how to transform the teaching and learning in their classroom you should consider asking them what they think at the start, not the end. Where is the empathy in that? The end is their thoughts on you. The start is their thoughts on what will be best for them.

This realization strengthened my core mission as a trainer and facilitator. It gave me a new found determination to empower educators to feel confident and capable of utilizing technology in their classroom in a meaningful and sustainable way. Notice that “my expertise” or “cutting edge tech” are not part of the mission. As a trainer, workshops must be developed with a sense of empathy and compassion for faculty and the realities they face in the classroom.

If you do not have a pulse on what it truly means to be in the "trenches" of a classroom, you should not be instructing education professionals on how to hone their craft.

To be effective in the professional development space, you must understand their needs, the school culture, the challenges they face with access to resources, support, and above all time and expectations. Now stop for a moment. Are a manager, administrator, or director? Do the individuals that you lead believe that you strive to support them with that level of empathy? Remember, regardless of who you are supporting or servicing, the client whether student, teacher or parent are kings because it is that feeling that will make them an active participant who will fulfill their role in the success of the institution or organization. 

collaboration_and_empathy

In 2014, I wanted to help a 3rd-grade class learn a little bit about empathy. Working alongside a colleague we designed a project where students would do research on a specific topic, then digitally publish their work. Their published work would then be used as a resource for the rest of their class to learn from. The question the students needed to answer first, was what medium allowed them to learn their best? Through their own discovery process they came to the conclusion that some students like video and photos, while others liked sound, and everyone seemed to enjoy the ability to navigate and interact with a information on their own. During the entire process from brainstorm to product design,  students focused on how their learning and technology could facilitate learning for their peers. This no innovation of mine, but the way it which I packaged the experience for the students was something special. Imagine how this type of scenario could play out in your class. Begin by askin students how they learn best. Ask them what engages them. The end result was a nice moment where students learned about themselves, but even more learned about others as they tried to discover the answer to the following question:

“How do you think others learn best, and how could you help them learn?”

With the “I like” and the “works for me” out the window, students struggled to proceed. That is the moment you want to have. Empathy needs to enter into the creative process when people are stuck and surrounded by unknowns. This is where learning gets awesome. In the end, they solved it, mastered it, and engaged their peers. Everyone was so immersed in the learning that recess was passed up by over half the class. These are the moments we want and the moments like these begin with one word - Empathy

Be Empathically Aware

As I said before, empathy doesn't magically end during the design process, but there needs to be a point where you are ready to move on and try to develop the product or solution further. So what are ways to know that empathy is in the equation? A few questions below might stimulate an answer:

 

  • What is the culture of the individuals involved?

  • What are their values and what values have they been taught?

  • What are their struggles as a group and as individuals?

  • What resources do they have available?

  • What is their history of embracing change?

  • What levels of collaboration and social connectedness exist in the group?

Empathy might seem simple to actualize at forest, but many times we confuse empathy with understanding or awareness of someone's behavior or challenge. You might feel you are empathizing with the person but are in fact empathizing with the struggle itself. As a designer, I struggled with this regularly as I needed to help clients and their client base as well. To support someone, service them, design for them, or teach them, you have to know them intimately. For many, this is unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Remember, before you can truly define or attempted to ideate a solution to the problem for someone else, you need to be aware of the angle they are coming from. In truth it takes a bit of humility to put your expertise and experience aside for a moment to figure out how to best help someone in need. So I leave you with the question:

 

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Discovering Why Empathy Is The One Buzzword We Should All Be Bandwagoning

Michael Cohen

Short on time? Here is a summary for those that need a 30-second mind shift. 

Discovering Why Empathy Is The One Buzzword We Should All Be Bandwagoning

Understanding someone else's perspective and their needs is the salt of creativity. Sure, without salt, the food is edible, but we all know from experience that its missing "something”. That is because creativity thrives in an environment where others will benefit from the product, process or experience we produce. When you look at the mega success of startups like Airbnb and Uber, their creative drive is deeply rooted in the desire to help someone that is facing a challenge. When empathy becomes not just a passive act of understanding, but rather an action you engage in, then it works as that critical cog in the machine of creativity. When we create a space where we can help those around us everyone is better for it. To achieve this, it requires us to shift our thinking and be open to failure as we embark on a journey to infuse more meaning in the work we do.

empathy.png

As a designer, I learned early on that if I was going to be a successful designer and keep my sanity, I needed to always view the client as king. In Education today, I find that one of the greatest challenges is looking at ways to engage learners. I believe that this is deeply rooted in the fact that our students are not viewed as clients or even partners in their own learning process. For the past century, education has created a model of learning that places students in the role of being passive recipients, incapable of guiding their own success. With all the talk about student buy-in and engagement, I would ask why are we not looking outside of education to see how companies engage and retain their clientele?

students_clients_kings

So how can we serve our students more like clients? In Sales, for example, success is built around relationships. Sure the short term can be overshadowed by making that sale, hitting those benchmarks, and the bottom line, but the long term success is how you build relationships and engage clients. So how do we as educators look past that short term of test scores and data sets and win our students over in the long term? It all starts with empathy. In education, it is our duty to discover why empathy, such a vital outlook on life can be introduced and mastered by ourselves and our students. To master empathy gives us a better ability to engage and interact with others. That is why I hope empathy is one of those buzzwords that I hope never leaves. It is the most powerful ability one can possess. This ability is more than just a desire to help someone from your vantage point, but to truly understand the feelings and challenges of others. This is what makes empathy absolutely critical for our personal and professional success. Without empathy, innovation can exist, but it will lack the personal connection between people, that led from the idea of helping others to the creation of companies like Uber (in concept, not its current state of influx) and Airbnb. Today, rather than starting with empathy, Startups are riding on the back of the success of empathy while lacking empathy themselves. I could be wrong but I think we might look back on the Uber for dog walking and shake our head a little bit. So how do we become more empathic as educators and create a space for teaching empathy to our students? Most of all, how do we ensure that our students graduate from our classrooms and schools with empathy as not just a vocabulary word but a way of living? To achieve this we need to show students the value in humans at the center of the design process, rather than products or processes.

DieterRams

To answer this we need to look at the role of empathy in the creative process. Although I see empathy and creativity as an inseparable experience, the Design Thinking model crafted by Stanford and IDEO use empathy as the springboard for their problem-solving methodology and for most put empathy on the map. This method is well over a decade old, and still functions as a tried and true approach to problem identification and solving.

The reason empathy makes for such a powerful start to the problem-solving process is that it places emphasis on people rather than a product or outcome. Consider our classrooms and classrooms around the world. Are we designing learning experiences for people or for products? For test scores? For 3.0+ GPAs? Or for people that will grow up to be successful, passionate, and lovers of learning? And if you believe in the later, is that at the expense of academic success?

Empathy is the glue of the creative process, plain and simple. When we look at innovation, invention, and impact throughout history, it has always started with the desire to help others and the desire to make an impact. Take Edison for example. Whether you are on Team Edison or Team Tesla in the race to harness the power of electricity or not, his story is legendary. His famous quote stating that he “had not failed, but discovered 10,000 ways that don't work” is certainly food for thought.

lightbulb

 

For me, I see something more powerful in his work and what drove him and inspired him to change the course of human history.

I don't think that Edison wasn't trying to invent the light bulb. I believe he was trying to invent the ability for the world to see in the dark.

How is such a passion developed? Sure the dream of being a famous inventor could have been a driving force, but we all possess the desire and potential to want to impact those around us. Empathy is what allows it to be positive, personal, and concerned with the success of others. The most successful companies and startups in history embody a mission that puts people before their product or service. Look no further than Apple, Google, Amazon, Tesla, Uber, and Airbnb. My favorite story beyond those working on the next big thing in a garage is the Airbnb story. It illustrates the power of empathy so beautifully.

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Airbnb evolved from a problem. Booking a hotel at major conferences is difficult, risky, and above all expensive. A hotel near a conference center might jack up prices 200%, block off rooms to create more of a demand, and leave you with no place to stay. This happens to me time and time again at the ISTE(International Society of Technology in Education) Conference. No matter what I do, I find myself every year at an awesome and affordable Airbnb. The Airbnb I booked at ISTE’s 2017 conference even came with a Mastiff puppy in a pen as part of the package.

The founders of Airbnb were inspired to create a “Bed and Breakfast” with some “Air” mattresses in their apt to address this needs for a Bay Area conference. Do you see where I am going with this? Airbnb was born out of a significant challenge for people including those that founded the company. It took Airbnb a lot more than empathy to launch in less than 5 years to a $20 billion dollar company, but I honestly believe that that empathy is what rocketed them towards success. Empathy is about looking at people, understanding their problems and challenges. It is also about the desire to help, heal, and make a difference. So how do we become more empathetic, and how do we use our new found empathy to create a positive space around us?

I challenge all who read this to start the first day of school with a conversation. Rather than begin the school year with rules, guidelines, and curriculum outlines, why can we start with a question? You can even make it anonymous. Something like,

What 3 words best represent you?

We all want to understand our students. We want to learn who they are, what they like, and what makes them tick. That gives us the space to design learning for them rather than for that theoretical student that education has decided will succeed in our classrooms. As we begin to learn more about our students, we can help them discover on the own the answers to questions like "What do you expect to learn this year?" and "how do you expect to grow?". When we learn more about our students, who they are, and what they like, then we can help engage them as a partner in learning. Then engagement won't become this external process where we try to engage students to learn, rather we create engaged students who are interested in learning.

So how will you start your school year differently with empathy in mind?

Share in the comments. 

Why We Can't Fail Forward If We Don't Know Where We Are Headed.

Michael Cohen

We leave almost zero time for reflection in education today. Outside of a student sitting and wondering why they didn't get at least a 90% on the big test, how much time is allotted for reflection? The challenge we face is that reflection is not a “measurable” data set when you compare to data hungry areas of growth like reading and math literacy. So how can you measure reflection? While a student summary on the experience might be a good method to assess understanding, it will do little to evaluate their ability to take this failed experience and do something more significant because of it.

Read More

Learn How To Creative Interactive Diagrams In Google Slides In Less Than 5 Minutes

Michael Cohen

I love taking Google Apps to the next level. Here is a short video to get you up and running for the start of the school year. Learn to create interactive diagrams, maps, or photos in Google Slides that will engage students and inspire them to create their own! 

5 Reasons Why Educators Who Look Outside Of Education For Inspiration and Innovation Can Thrive

Michael Cohen

n graduate school, I was introduced to some amazing innovators of education. Their approaches to education were so radical, so progressive that in some cases like Piaget and Vygotsky, their work would not gain mainstream popularity till decades later. These constructivist movement educators were who I gravitated to, and their work has significantly influenced my educational practice.

  • Dewey - Early 1900's
  • Piaget - Mid 1900's
  • Vygotsky - Early 1900's
  • Montessori - Early 1900's

Something bothered me these amazing individuals bothered me.

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Why Education Needs To Understand That Failure Is A Process Not A Destination

Michael Cohen

There is a movement in education that promotes, and even glorifies failure. Graphics proclaiming that we should fail forward, fail ofen, and of course view F.A.I.L as a First Attempt In Learning. I too am I proponent of failure, and believe that is has been a key ingredient not just in my own success, but for so many successful people I look to for inspiration and guidance. Recently Tim Ferris, a famous entreprenuer and author of "The 4 hour work week", reflected on 200 episodes of his podcast.

Read More