Earlier this month, I found myself sitting in an industrial warehouse in Half Moon Bay, CA, joined by Ashoka Fellow Molly Barker, Henry De Sio, and more than a dozen leading thinkers & doers from across a variety of industries, including design, advertising, media, and academia. Convened by Insight Labs, the group set out to crack what it’s going to take to make empathy a norm in today’s education system.
Over the course of three hours, we wrestled with the very same questions we’ve been asking ourselves for months: what exactly do we mean by empathy? Why exactly is it more important today than ever? And what’s it going to take to spread not a curriculum or a program, but an idea? This was a group that wanted to believe that empathy was the next big thing, but needed convincing. And two-and-a-half hours in, it wasn’t at all clear that we were going to get anywhere. Some argued we needed to build a strong evidence base, and then were left scratching their heads when we offered up the litany of examples, studies, and proof points that have long placed empathy at the core of an effective learning environment, and given it a central role in the modern workplace. Others struggled with the word itself, and still others questioned the very idea of cultivating empathy–something that we’re all born with—at all.
After the usual rounds of debate-style back and forth, Ashoka Fellow Molly Barker, the founder of Girls on the Run and a key champion behind the Empathy Initiative, stepped in. Molly shared the story of Girls on the Run, an organization that will work with 190,000 girls and 47,000 volunteers this year alone. She teared up as she explained that there was something transcendent about the experience: something that had literally powered a movement, despite being impossible to put to words.
It was at that moment that Nina Rappaport, founder of Kimochis, offered a beguilingly simple explanation: the core reason that empathy matters—the reason anyone anywhere can easily relate to—is that in today’s hyper-connected world, “you can’t thrive without the 4th R: reading, writing, arithmetic, & relationships.” Empathy is how we build and sustain those relationships, whether at home, in the workplace, or in the world. What had been a hard conversation was suddenly a cinch, as everyone finally came on board.
A few takeaways from the day that anyone trying to make the case for empathy and education that matters would do well to keep in mind:
1. Empathy is meaningless without changemaking, and changemaking is dangerous without empathy. As a term, “empathy” demands significant unpacking. What we’re after is applied empathy, and a collective commitment to equipping kids with the skills they need to be life-long changemakers.
2. It’s about relationships. Relationships are something that everyone can see and experience themselves, through the growing number of friends you can connect with on Facebook and LinkedIn, to the increasing number of people you interact with each day. By focusing on relationships, we can also bridge the gap between cultivating empathy in students and modeling it through adult behavior, as it’s possible to establish the same goals for teachers and students alike. Working in isolation is no longer an option, whether you’re a designer, a scientist, or an educator: in today’s world, it’s all about the team-of-teams.
3. Move beyond arguments: tell good stories. Molly opening up suddenly gave everyone else in the room permission to do the same, and to get away from all of the political back-and-forth of “empathy is this versus that.” While flawless arguments and showcasing the evidence-base are important, in the end, it’s all about good storytelling.
4. Start with the outcome. Empathy is fuzzy for most people, but any teacher can teach in a way that supercharges relationships. And a child or adult’s ability to forge relationships is something that you can (and often already do) measure. As one established designer noted, “you can design for relationships. You can’t design for empathy.”
5. This must be experienced. This isn’t something absorbed through academic discourse: everything we do—whether an event, or an online video—should lead to an “empathic experience.” Too often, we attempt to convince others to join our cause through flawless argument. If we want to meaningfully expand our ranks and move people to action, we must learn to recreate “the Molly moment” in all our communications.
Image from Insight Labs.