Can We Teach Empathy?

Every year, many of our faculty pursue professional learning experiences during summer break, in addition to their regular Professional and Collaborative Time (PACT) discussions. This year, ES Associate Principal Genta Branstetter and ES Teachers Matt Kish, Sarah Bernherdt, Manon Harrison and Melissa Boks attended a professional development experience at the Nueva Design Thinking Institute. During their session at Nueva, one major focus was on empathy in design.

Empathy in design is understanding that much of what we design and build is meant for others to use and enjoy. Our responsibility as creators is to consider the needs and perspective of those who use our creations.

Matt Kish reflected on the experience stating that “Because you are working for that user, you are motivated to research, iterate, work and learn until you provide something that is going to help that person. In writing, students are more motivated to write multiple drafts when they have a clear audience. The same is true in the design cycle. When they have a clear user, they have a reason to dig deep, iterate, and give/receive feedback.”

Our students are often prompted in ways that guide them to empathize with both hypothetical and real “users.” HS Mathematics Teachers Duane Wacha and Amy Harbaugh’s geometry course took a look at ASIJ, as it is designed now. Their goal was to redesign the entire campus in a way they feel more empathetically represents the student users’ needs. They created 3D models in SketchUp and used paper schematics to draft a new view of the school grounds. In the process Duane and Amy’s geometry students came to appreciate the complexity in considering the needs of all who share our campus. They also came to appreciate the value in creating for others.

Empathy was a topic of interest at the start of school In-House Teacher Conference held on August 18 and 19. Eighteen other teachers joined Duane in a collaborative session that explored empathy in the classroom—discussing strategies and skills teachers can use to support students in shifting their point of view and understanding the diverse perspectives of others.