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Are We Missing the Big Picture in Education?

Four education experts call for an end to infighting. It’s time we embraced “both and” in education and reexamine what school can be.

By Start Empathy

January 29, 2013

Editor's Note: This post was co-written by Michael Zakaras and Lennon Flowers.

Last week, we brought together some of the best minds in public education and child development for an informal roundtable discussion on the future of education in America and a look at where empathy fits in. Against a snowy DC backdrop, the four panelists shared an alternative to the prevailing education model and shed light on what it’ll take to get there.

For the Cliff’s Notes fans among you, a few takeaways:

Yes, we can. “We now know that empathy doesn’t mature on its own,” says Dr. George Askew, a pediatrician, Ashoka Fellow, and the founder of Docs for Tots. Currently serving as the first chief medical officer at the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Dr. Askew pointed out that kids begin to display empathic responses as early as 18-months and practice what’s known as “social referencing”  constantly looking to their parents for cues and clues. By labeling feelings and modeling appropriate responses, parents can serve as their kids’ first  and perhaps greatest  teachers, he explained, laying the foundation for sound ethical development. Yet for all that we know about the importance of early childhood on kids’ brain development, he was also quick to remind us that it’s never too late: “Forget the idea that if you don’t do this by the time you’re eight, you’re toast,” he says. We have ample proof – think everything from teacher professional development to rehabilitative prison programs – that adults, too, can learn empathy.

Enough about “non-cognitive” skills. Empathy is as much an intellectual skill as a social-emotional one. To say that there’s a relationship between kids’ social-emotional development and their ability to learn is no longer news. There’s increasing consensus among educators and scientists alike that kids  especially those growing up in concentrated poverty  must first have their emotional needs met before they can absorb new information. Ditto the fact that a child’s success is as dependent on grit and other such character traits as it is on his or her intellectual ability. But this emphasis ignores the fact that empathy is a cognitive skill and core to how kids problem solve, says Zoe Duskin, Principal of the Inspired Teaching School, a charter school in Washington, DC and one of Ashoka's inaugural Changemaker Schools. “Empathy is central both to kids’ sense of belonging and to their sense of agency in a community,” she says. When students can get into the minds of others, they ask better questions and become better problem-solvers. They make better decisions and design better solutions, taking into account multiple needs and perspectives.

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If we can feed a culture of violence in this country, then surely we can feed its opposite. Peace First founder and Ashoka Fellow Eric Dawson began with a parable involving a grandson and his grandfather. The grandson comes upon his grandfather who is visibly upset and asks, “Grandfather, what’s wrong?” His grandfather replies, “My son, I feel like I have these two wolves inside me: one wolf is angry and vengeful, and the other is peaceful, loving, and kind. And I feel that they’re at war inside my soul.” The grandson asks his grandfather, “Grandfather, which wolf do you think will win?” “My son,” the grandfather answers, “whichever wolf I choose to feed.”

We do a great job in our society, says Eric, of feeding the wolf of violence and intolerance. Three out of four kids report being bullied, and by the time a kid finishes 6th grade, he or she has seen 100,000 acts of violence on television. Schools can play a critical role correcting that, he says, by focusing on what John Dewey famously referred to as the “invisible curriculum” – the values and rituals embedded in a school’s culture. Teaching kids to be peacemakers is no mystery, he says.

For more than a decade, Peace First has been working with schools across the country to embed empathy and related skills into schools' basic upholstery through a combination of cultural practices and an experiential curriculum, which equip kids with the knowledge and tools they need to resolve conflict, communicate and cooperate effectively, and collaborate: in short, the skills required to be a changemaker. The curriculum is integrated into the academic framework and taught for one hour per week beginning in preschool through the eighth grade. Teachers can now access the full suite of lesson plans and exercises through the organization's digital activity center. Rather than tell kids what not to do, Eric suggests focusing instead on what we’re asking of our young people. To that end, Peace First just launched the Peace First Prize: in essence, the Nobel Prize for youth. In addition to nominating young people we know for the Prize, each of us can do our part to feed the peaceful wolf, simply through the stories we choose to tell.

It’s time to tell a different story. When it comes to education in the US, we’re suffering from a “crisis of imagination,” says writer and education activist Sam Chaltain. According to Sam, that crisis is the result, in part, of our own limited experiences of what school can be: when it comes to curriculum and classroom design, chances are your school, your child’s school, and your father’s school aren’t much different. But the other cause of our collective failure to imagine better alternatives, he says, has to do with the stories we choose to tell.

Talk of education in the US is dominated by “conflict, content, and catastrophe.” We’ve gotten so caught up in fights over standards, teacher strikes, and [insert fearsome headline here] that we’ve forgotten to ask the most basic of questions: “what do our kids need to succeed?”

The group got to preview an episode from “A Year at Mission Hill,” a 10-part documentary series launching on StartEmpathy.org and elsewhere this Thursday January 31st, that chronicles a year in the life of one of the nation’s most successful public schools. If we focus instead on that story – and on the hundreds like it cropping up throughout the country  perhaps we can stop debating whether standards are a good thing and instead focus on what we choose to standardize.

(Photo credit: iStockphoto/samxmeg)