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

Educated By Design Blog

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

Michael Cohen

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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. 

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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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