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

Educated By Design Blog

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.