These posts are the opinions of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of A+ Colorado.


Teaching Empathy

By Van Schoales

Last month, I had the pleasure of moderating a discussion on the “Teaching of Empathy” at the Denver Biennial of the Americas. It was a powerful reminder that the heart of teaching begins with empathy. 

The Biennial is a magical gathering of artists and activist leaders from across the Americas that happens in Denver every other year. This year’s events were bigger and better than previous happenings. More than 12,000 people participated this year over the course of five days in downtown Denver. 

There was a giant jaguar emitting laser lights on city hall, Richard Branson doing plank push-ups along with a myriad of arts and conversations on making the world a better place. 

Our Clinica was titled How to Build a Better World: Teaching Empathy Inside and Outside the Classroom. It included leaders that were classroom teachers, teacher trainers, and school district leaders. 

The panel included:

  • Nicole Bruskewitz, from Colombia, Coschool who brought the perspective of using empathy to move past the violence of the Colombian civil war
  • Eldridge Greer, University of Denver, who shared his learning of supporting Denver School District to insert empathy and Social Emotional Learning into Denver classrooms
  • Kimberly A. Schonert-Reichl, Canada, from the University of British Columbia who connected us to the latest body of research on why teaching empathy is critical and what works
  • Christine DeLeon, from Moonshot edVentures who shared her experience in supporting leaders of color in developing new schools and programs with attention to empathy at their core

The conversation began with a discussion of what teaching empathy might mean and why it is so important and later evolved to a more detailed discussion of the practice and experience of each panelist. It was a rich discussion built around these questions:

  • What are some of the innovations in social emotional learning? (discipline, policy, equity, biases) 
  • What activities (while well-intentioned) might actually cause more harm? 
  • How do you actually change the culture of a school environment? 
  • What are the common misconceptions about empathy education work? 
  • What can be done given the existing systems? 
  • Given the challenges inside and outside the classroom, how do you prioritize empathy?
  • How do you cultivate empathy with the students for one another?
  • What are the differences between intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivations for altruistic acts of kindness to others?
  • What findings can neuroscience contribute to our understanding of empathy? 

I came away from the discussion more committed than ever to ensuring that we are supporting research-based Social Emotional Learning (SEL) practices and thoughtfully reflecting on how they are impacting student learning. I also think it is important that we are careful to not add SEL to school programming without taking into account the entire school program. SEL cannot be thought of as separate from academics or other programs.  

However, one key concern I came away with was the tremendous challenge in measuring SEL programs in schools amidst conversations that (rightly) focus on measures beyond academic standards in accountability systems.  It is critical that in spite of empathy and SEL forming the basis of so much learning that we not build simple minded SEL student surveys or other metrics into our school information or accountability systems. Assessing the impact of SEL requires thoughtful research design approaches so that educators acquire an accurate assessment of what is happening and how students are being impacted by whatever SEL approach is taken. I fear we will end up focusing on the wrong aspects of an effective SEL pedagogy, curriculum or program if we simply try to quantify the efficacy of SEL programming in schools and districts. Much more research here needs to be done regarding how best to report on and measure SEL impact in schools. 

You can see the full discussion here. I can only hope that the conversation continues across classrooms in the state.