How any classroom task can develop Empathy

How does one change deeply ingrained habits? Well, I’m not a fan of Facebook, but to give it credit, Facebook has successfully structured a system to feed off our deepest self-centered desires and alter our habits. There is much evidence in people’s posts and comments to show that many users are not honest with themselves about why they use it.  Many parents post photos with “I’m so proud of my child!” When what they really want to say is “Look at how my child is probably more talented than yours!” And if you dig a little deeper, they really mean “I’m probably a better parent than you!” Even encouraging comments or Likes, are designed by Facebook to be important tools in the “Me Machine”, used to be promote oneself as a nice person and yet further increase recognition amongst peers.

A Habit forming classroom

My focus here is not Facebook itself but the fact that to encourage behaviour of any kind, you must provide a structure, tools, rewards, and regular practice. Many people are troubled by world events and politics over the last 2 years and feel ethics and empathy are both being challenged or indeed forgotten. Facebook has been blamed for developing “echo chambers’ where people don’t get to hear and debate contrasting views. Teachers can help in this battle against balanced debate. We need to consider what classroom tools we might have that provide regular behavioural structures that overtly develop empathy and ethical thoughts. The reason I’m focusing on structures and tools is that you can’t teach empathy and ethics without context and real experience. Learners need tools and routines that ensure considering others is always an integral part of all learning activities.

A Tool for Empathy

It’s here I turn to an old friend, Design Thinking. It doesn’t matter if you’re solving world peace, developing a new app, writing an essay, or planning the school prom, Design Thinking will have you focused on empathy and ethics as tools for increased and more genuine success. Design Thinking can even monetise empathy as a critical business tool for customer satisfaction. For a start, Design Thinking encourages a fresh start each time, where all ideas are valued and considered within the context of the topic or challenge. I’ve written a full break down of the whole process but for the sake of this post, I’ll highlight why Design Thinking as a common classroom tool would develop more thoughtful future generations:

Stage 1: All initial ideas have value and might directly or indirectly spark improved outcomes.

Stage 2: A significant time empathising with the recipients of the outcome means a much successful project. 

Stage 3: Designing outcomes based on the needs and thoughts of outcome recipients.

Stage 4: Rapid iteration of prototypes with regular feedback from others is seen as an integral development tool.

If used regularly, Design Thinking has the potential to alter mindsets by ingraining the idea that considering other people’s thoughts and experiences has social, emotional, and financial value. Through practical experience, it overtly teaches the fact that we are all better off if we consider and value all people on this earth.


Author: Richard Wells
Teaches grade 6 to 12
Deputy Principal in a New Zealand High School
Top 40 in edublog awards 2013
Top 12 Blogger – The Global Search for Education
Known for Educational Infographics (see Posters)
and an International keynote speaker.
Twitter :  @EduWells

This post is written as part of  The Global Search for Education: Our Top 12 Global Teacher Blogs: A series of questions that Cathy Rubin is asking several education bloggers. I’ll be sharing the link to her post that collects all of the responses. I’m excited to be part of this group of edu-bloggers.