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Teach Empathy Through Relationships

We need to call attention to the role of healthy relationships in education. Then we need a way to bring rigor to the continuous pursuit of building them.

By Start Empathy

December 19, 2012

Editor's Note: This article originally in the Insight Labs blog

Earlier this year, we convened a Lab with Ashoka to investigate empathy in education. The organization had devoted a significant amount of time and resources to developing best practices in the area, but was still seeking a way to connect with typical classroom teachers. The Lab found it in an idea they termed “the fourth R.”

Everyone knows that schools are supposed to teach “the three R’s” – reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic. But there is also a widely shared sense that schools are supposed to build students’ skills in a fourth area: relationships. Furthermore, teachers need to build a strong set of relationships in order to fulfill any other academic goal. If Ashoka could connect their efforts with this need, they would be perceived as easing teachers’ existing burdens rather than giving them yet another responsibility.

Since the Lab, the idea of the “fourth R” has been incorporated into many aspects of Ashoka’s Start Empathy initiative. To learn more about what’s happening next in the program, Labs Content Director Andrew Benedict-Nelson spoke with Lennon Flowers, a Change Manager at Ashoka, as well as Josh McManus of Little Things Labs, a key advisor on the project.

                Lennon FlowersAndrew Bendict-Nelson

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Lennon, could you tell me about what the Start Empathy project was like before the Lab, what happened during the Lab, and what’s going to be happening in the future?

Lennon Flowers: Before the Lab, we had a grand architecture for what we were out to do and a grand vision. We had spent the previous year building relationships with partners and learning about the space in which we’re working. But we didn’t have a lot of that operationalized.

We set out at the beginning with the goal of creating a world in which every child masters empathy. We did this with every bit of brazenness that would be required to realize a vision that big. We had three key areas that we wanted to dive into further. First and foremost was investing in social entrepreneurs and accelerating work that had the power to cultivate empathy, making sure this was not just the work of a single organization but a collaborative platform. So we brought together a number of people who were working in the area of children and education, but also other fields.

Secondly, we knew that we would be working with what we called Changemaker Schools: leading elementary schools that were doing empathy education right, or doing education right period. We wanted to bring them together to build a cohort throughout the country around the idea that this can be done. Third, we wanted to work with media influencers who could advance this story and set of ideas, building the case that empathy matters.

I think what was so powerful about the Insight Lab, and in particular the idea of “the fourth R,” was that it gave us a story that we could relate to any individual’s experience. The world of education reform is so complex. There are so many different people out there who belong to their own tribes or who are riding their own ponies in the desert.

We felt like the “fourth R” made the empathy project something that all of those people could relate to. We all understand at the end of the day that we all have a larger number of relationships to contend with. We have a larger number than our parents had to deal with twenty or thirty years ago. It’s no longer possible to avoid working with people who have different backgrounds and experiences from you. Empathy gives a child the resources to work in that kind of environment.

The idea of “the fourth R” also helped us recognize that what is going to drive this project forward is not necessarily a single curriculum or program. It’s telling stories that recognize and celebrate what is already out there. So part of our work going forward is amplifying what some of those Changemaker Schools are already doing by talking about the ways that relationships matter and how we create environments where relationships thrive.

Now we are working on a framework for actually getting this done, which brings us to the work we are doing with Josh and Little Things Labs. We are talking about how to create a space in which adults in a classroom lead by example. We’re talking about what that environment might actually look like. We also want to give people “DIY” tools that they could apply in any environment. The seed for that work was planted in the Lab.

ABN: Josh, independent of anything that Ashoka is or isn’t doing, what do you think are some of the main design challenges associated with empathy and education?

Josh McManus: There is one big challenge that we have seen so far. Early on, we raised the question, “Is this something that we had and we lost? Or is this some new characteristic that human beings need?” The more people we talked to, the more we heard that this was something that we had and that we lost. That would suggest that the main design challenge is noise and distraction, the sort of bad-news cycle that we’re in.

When we look into empathy and how it is created in the individual, we find that there is a need for physically and mentally safe spaces in order to activate that part of your brain. We don’t have a lot of safe spaces right now. That’s the major design problem that we’ve been wrestling with.

ABN: How would you say that shifting the focus to relationships and the way they function in a school changes that set of challenges?

JM: The over-arching dialogue in the education space has been about things that we can measure. The first three “R’s” are pretty easy to measure. The “fourth R,” relationships, hasn’t been as well established, but it’s also difficult to measure. But I think this idea given us a kind of baseline, an easy way to start the conversation with people. When you’re working in an area where the thinking has been restricted, having a master narrative that easily shifts the conversation like that is important.

My takeaway is that the Lab was able to grab ahold of something that changed the storyline. The changing of the storyline has led to the investigation of all the processes and methods that would actually create this condition in the classroom.

LF: I should also say that in the Lab, we realized that “empathy” itself can be a very loaded term for people. They make think of it very differently from how Ashoka thinks of it.

For us, empathy is a vehicle for understanding another person’s feelings, relating your feelings to that person’s experience, and then acting on those feelings. We need to create a narrative where that set of skills is essential. I think we need to talk about how to return to developing those kinds of skills after a decade in which we have mainly focused on standardized tests. To do that, we need a hook that people can already relate to. The language but also the idea of “the fourth R” helps people to do that in cases where they might not have responded to the word “empathy.”

JM: We pushed back on the word “empathy” as one of our first acts of exploration. We talked to a lot of people who said, “Yeah, we do all those things, but we call it something else.” But the more time we spent with it, we realized that we couldn’t offer a better word. What was going to make the difference wasn’t the word, but how we cultivate the condition. We think that in the long run, doing that will actually bring more definition to a term that has been somewhat nebulous.

ABN: Right, I mean, I think about my middle school gym teacher. I think if you told him, “Hey, we’d like to teach more empathy in your class,” he’d laugh in your face. But if you asked him what he was doing to improve students’ ability to form relationships, he’d give you a detailed explanation.

LF: Right – it’s important that we start with something that great teachers already do. The profession has been under pretty significant duress over the past few years. Part of what we want to do is return to the basics of what it means to be a good teacher, which includes this ability to cultivate relationships. But then we also want to connect it to this conversation that is going on with the Harvards and the Yales and the corporations of the world, who are saying, “Hey, we need this set of skills.” Then there are teachers who can’t afford to worry about what those folks might think because they’re having so much trouble handling just what’s on their plate now. We’re hoping we can do this in a way that actually helps them meet their classroom’s needs and help their kids be the best that they can be.

The idea of the “fourth R” helps to open up all these conversations where people might otherwise have been resistant. You know, when you look back at some of the people who made the most difference in your ability to form relationships in your own life, you realize that those people didn’t necessarily go to relationship school. They didn’t necessarily take a train-the-trainer course. The idea of the “fourth R” helped us to not go down the path of “empathy as program” and instead get engaged in this conversation about what creating this kind of environment in classrooms really requires.

ABN: Josh, what do you make of the fact that cultivating relationships is something many teachers already do and understand?

JM: To me, that’s one of the two hard parts about the “fourth R.” When you talk about forming relationships, many people assume that we are born with an ability to do that. It may be true that it is easier certain people, certain personality types, but we are definitely not born with the ability to automatically form meaningful relationships with all of the different types of people.

The other hard part is that “relationship,” like many other words, gets societal context attached to it. Too often we hear this word in the context of “adult relationship” or “inappropriate relationship.” So I think we have to be careful to use the term in a way that is value-positive rather than value-neutral or value-negative.

The work that we are doing now is balancing out those two difficulties. Right now we’re working on establishing the idea that to form relationships with many different types of people, you don’t necessarily need a programatic response, but you do need a methodological response. Empathy is not learned once and forever remembered. It’s more like yoga or a martial art. It’s part of a practice. It’s a life-long pursuit. It’s an individual pursuit achieved together. So we have to balance the fact that lots of teachers are doing this already with the fact that there is so much more we can learn.

This idea of a safe space is a great example of that, because we can show that while you might form relationships without that kind of space, you don’t necessarily get the depth of relationships that you need to form those kinds of empathic connections or bonds.

ABN: I’d agree that thinking about empathy as a practice heightens the challenge, because most things in school aren’t taught that way. I’m trying to think of exceptions – it seems like foreign languages need to be taught as a practice if you’re going to have any success, for example. Music too. But not math.

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LF: I think there is increasingly a recognition, though, of the kinds of skills that students are going to need outside of the classroom, whether we’re talking about them going on to a job or surviving on the streets or simply going home at the end of the day. There are a lot more people talking about what happens when the students are away from adults’ eyes, when they internalize and inhabit what they’ve learned. Those are skills like critical thinking as well as the ability to form relationships.

You can think of the teaching of these skills as design challenges that face every teacher, no matter what their subject matter is. How do you make sure that the acquisition of these skills is an outcome of the teaching process? That’s an essential part of the “fourth R” – it says that this isn’t just about the relationship of an individual child with the teacher, but the child’s ability to form meaningful connections in general.

But I think it’s helpful to us that we’re in a time when many people are saying that the knowledge taught and the things we need out of the system don’t necessarily add up. For example, if you look at college retention rates (rather than just college admission rates) you see that people need these cognitive and emotional skills too.

JM: I also hope we’re seeing a switch from an ideal of “mastery” to one of “practice.” I think the main places you see “practice” being taught are the things that were traditionally considered extracurricular activities: sports, art, the debate club. In the rural education system that I came up in, foreign languages were also considered more of an extracurricular and taught that way.

We have a lot of advocates of these different areas, people who say, “We need more sports, we need more art,” but they tend to treat their particular area of interest as a silver bullet. I think it makes sense instead to say that learning a “practice” is part of the development of the whole child. School shouldn’t just be about things that you master and complete and are done with. What I have found, as an employer of a lot of young people, is that those with the experience of a practice as well tend to be better problem solvers with a more consistent work ethic.

This actually resonates with another Lab you guys did, where you talked about transcendent interest as a key component of collaboration. Empathy can also be taught through shared problem-solving. Having a common problem to work on tends to wash away many of the predispositions that they had, and they can find a new identity in their common achievement. Many teachers can tell you about how students can come together around that sort of thing instead of boys vs. girls or blacks vs. whites or any of the other distinctions that may had been important to them before they came together to solve a big problem.

ABN: I think another situation in which teachers have to grapple with the problem of empathy (or the lack of empathy) are situations in which normal classroom life starts to break down. A good friend of mine is an elementary school teacher, and he was telling me that it took him a number of years before he had a really difficult class of kids, before he knew what it felt like to try to manage that every day. And the difficulty that he was talking about didn’t primarily consist of the kids’ ability to do math or not – it was primarily in the social cohesion of the group.

This strikes me as an opportunity where teachers could really use some extra resources, because I think that if you talk to any teacher, they’ll eventually admit that they have this frustration with a certain segment of kids, that ten or twenty percent that they’re just not able to motivate or connect with socially.

JM: As with any multi-step, self-help process, the first step is admitting there is a problem. Well, I think one advantage of talking about relationships is that it is an area where most teachers are already willing to admit that there are problems. Most of them are ready to talk about the classrooms where bad attitudes are contagious or the kids you just can’t get through to. That may be an entry point to share new methodologies as well as a way of beginning conversations about the larger context.

LF: I concur. And I think we are finding a lot of examples that are consistent with these ideas.

One of my favorite stories is the Incentive Mentoring Program in Baltimore. Starting in ninth grade, they focus on the 25 percent of kids who have traditionally been considered the worst – the ones who were always in the principal’s office, the ones who probably would not have graduated from high school or who might not even have survived. This organization works with college volunteers to create an alternative family system around these kids. If a kid doesn’t show up for class, they’ll go knock on their door – and if nobody shows up at the door, they’ll come back the next day. They’ll bring them breakfast and make sure they’re prepared for the school day. After a lot of volunteer hours and a lot of really, really hard work, they build up their relationships with these students and give them a sense of resilience. This organization now has a 100 percent high school graduation rate and a 100 percent college admissions rate.

So we now have some examples that really show us that no child can be written off. When a kid is unruly or making trouble in the classroom, there is typically some unmet need there. You need empathy as a teacher or as an adult to realize what is going on there, to imagine that unmet need. You also need the ability to form a relationship that the student sees is not going to go away.

This isn’t just fluffy, “why can’t we all get along?” kind of stuff. You can apply empathy to really hard circumstances and get incredible turnaround stories. You can use it to get results in situations where many people would have thought they were impossible.

ABN: You know, it’s interesting, the No Child Left Behind law mandated all of this new tutoring. But because of the way it’s done, that tutoring was usually thought of as a radical intervention in math or a radical intervention in reading. What the experience in Baltimore suggests is that those children may instead need an intervention in relationships.

LF: Right – it’s what mentoring is, when it’s done right. And this isn’t a new idea – the Boys and Girls Clubs have been around for a long time, for example. But we now have enough data around it to point to what really works. Part of it is helping them understand what was going on in the chapter of the math book that they didn’t understand, but much more important are all of the social skills that go along with that. When kids feels like there is somebody who is not going to let them down, they don’t want to let them down either.

But it is counterintuitive. Many people, when they hear that kids are having trouble in math, say, “Let’s strip everything down. Let’s get back to basics. Let’s drill, drill, drill on the academic subjects.” But the more you know about the way kids actually learn, the more that seems like a faulty proposition.

ABN: I think there is a kind of cognitive dissonance with this idea of the “fourth R.” When it first came up in the Lab, I thought, “Good, this is something that every teacher already understands that they need to do.” You just don’t have a functioning classroom without relationships.

But at the same time, I thought, “Oh no – if we really want to talk about relationships as equal to reading and math, then we’ve made a big mistake. We’re not even measuring it. It’s like that dream where you have to take the test for a class that you didn’t realize you even had.”

LF: It’s definitely true. Though there are also dangers – we won’t want to end up with a relationship test. But it would be helpful to have some sort of measurement that helps people take this seriously, that lets us know where we’re doing well, and that also shows us where we can improve. A lot of measures like standardized tests are being used as carrots and sticks for individual teachers, but it may not make sense to do that with the “fourth R” – it may only make sense to measure it on a school-wide level, for instance. And I don’t think it is going to look like an A, B, C, or D grade.

JM: It’s really hard, because right now behavior and discipline are really the only system-wide measures of this that we’ve got, and that’s done on a pass-fail basis. I’m not sure that just changing that to a five-point scale would get us to where we need to be. If we are really talking about building relationship skills as a practice, then at minimum we need some sort of carrot and not just a stick. We also achieve things in the other R’s because there are some known, minimum requirements.

My advice after immersing myself in this with Ashoka for the past six months is that we need a way to call attention to the role of relationships in education. Then we need a way to bring rigor to the continuous pursuit of building healthy relationships in classrooms and all that that requires.

ABN: I really like this idea of rigor. You’re right that when you think of the other R’s – let’s look at math for example – you could do a little research and find the best high school in any major city at teaching math. They might have received a reward or sent a bunch of kids to engineering programs. Then through No Child Left Behind you could also identify the schools that were failing at math. But when it comes to relationships, you’ve really only got the negative side – schools with really poor disciplinary records – and then you don’t have it with much precision. I’d really like to know about the school in each city that was giving its kids the best relational skills.

JM: Yes. But right now it’s pass-fail, and we only bring any attention to the places that fail.

LF: As school choice becomes something that is more and more of a reality for more and more parents across the country, we also need to think about the information we give parents to help them make those choices. Students’ feelings of general well-being need to be taken seriously, because they actually are leading indicators of academic success on the other side. Unfortunately, we haven’t paid attention to them in the same way.

ABN: I was recently reading the story of a charter school in Kansas City that unexpectedly had to absorb a large number of students who wouldn’t have normally been admitted to the school. As you might imagine, a lot of parents were upset because they thought the quality of their children’s education might decline. And they were indeed seeing many more disciplinary issues throughout the school.

I wonder if a discourse around the “fourth R” would help schools to more effectively manage transitions like that. It might also help you to identify some things that schools are still doing right even when other academic indicators are declining due to factors beyond schools’ control.

LF: That’s totally right. One of the reasons we take standardized tests as seriously as we do is that they’re some of the easiest things to measure. But that doesn’t mean they’re the right things to measure. You can certainly argue that they’re not the best predictors of how well students will do once they leave the classroom. We could use measurements that may seem more complicated, but have more to tell us about whether classrooms are actually working or not.

Another problem is that a lot of the existing measurements serve as disincentives to include or serve the worst-performing kids. Real progress that is being made among those groups may be less visible.

ABN: That seems really important – you’re talking about the “fourth R” serving as a set of measurements that the worst-performing schools in the country could actually use to make decisions. It reminds me of baseball statistics. We always had batting averages and home run statistics, but one of the innovations introduced by a guy like Bill James was a curve that describes how those things improve and decline with a player’s age. It was a new measure that put the old measures in context and made them more meaningful.

JM: I think the Ashoka Changemakers who are working in the empathy area are really wrestling with that right now – how do we measure this? I don’t think anybody has cracked it yet. But I’m confident that it will come from them or someone like them – I don’t think it’s going to come from the institutional side. It’s the entrepreneurs who will take the lumps and take the risks.

LF: There’s a lot of demand for that right now, because there are a lot of people who are doing really innovative work, but they don’t have many ways to visualize their success besides the traditional academic measures. But they intuitively know what great education looks like. They know when students are acquiring skills and figuring out how to apply them to their experiences.

ABN: What’s something that will happen in this project in the next year or so that really excites you?

LF: I’m really excited to answer this question “how.” We’ve talked to a lot of educators now who say, “I get it. I’m sold. Now where do I start?” We’re excited to give them something in a more concrete form that they can also play around with and experiment with.

JM: I share the same hope. We have a framework that is a manifestation of interviews with hundreds of entities and thousands of hours of research invested by a number of teams. Rapid prototyping it involves listening to all of the practitioners as well as the theorists. I think it will be rewarding and challenging to start pushing it back into the field. We’ve got teachers who are in some more robustly financed and equipped schools right now that are helping. But I also want to make sure that these resources can be used by any school, regardless of their funding base or the posture of their governing body.

Photo courtesy of CLU_ISS.