Monday, April 6, 2009

21st Century Skill: Being Empathetic

Teaching is both a science and an art. We have traditionally neglected the science of teaching by underutilized student data to experiment with classroom instruction, seeing what works and what doesn't. But recently, we've swung the other way and neglected the art of teaching. Everything has come down to tests. Simply put, there are some absolutely critical skills for student development that cannot be quantified.

Boiling down student success to student achievement has its effects. It creates a resume more than a student. And in a similar vein, boiling down student success to "attributes that help you in the future workplace" is just as bad. There is more to life we are preparing students for than being a skilled worker.

Nowhere, I believe, is all of this more true than the skill of being empathetic. Todd Whitaker, who starts his books by mentioning he draws his conclusions not by standardized research data, identifies one of the top attributes of the most effective principals and teachers is that they "make it cool to care". They mold their school's culture to one where students help others pick up their dropped books and lend a hand when others are struggling with homework. The students feel bad when other students feel rejected. They work to make sure there are no outgroups.

From his "What Great Teachers Do Differently":

One year the junior high school where I was principal decided to adopt a partner school--a preschool whose students had multiple disabilities. I was very proud of our students. They were pen pals to the youngsters, sent them cards on their birthdays, and hosted monthly theme parties

As the holiday season approached, our students decided to do something special, to raise money to buy each one a hat, mittens, and a sweatshirt with our school logo. The students came up with the idea of holding a half-hour carnival during advisory time each morning for one week. Each class contributed. Students in art classes made holiday cards for the preschoolers. Home Economics baked cookies. The band played, the choir sang, the drama students did holiday skits. I even chose a student to wear my personal Santa Calus suit. We caught the entire party on video; our students comfortably and fearlessly holding and entertaining the preschoolers; excited children opening their presents. It was something special.

Two days later, as part of our traditional all-school holidaty assembly, we played the tape of the party. Everyone got to see the love and joy that we brought into these youngsters' lives. Tears came easiliy when our students saw the video of these very challenged children hugging their classmates. By the time the tape ended, there were few dry eyes in the auditorium. And this was a group of junior high students! Then, the curtains opened on stage. There were all our very special preschool friends, in their matching sweatshirts, singing carols to us. No one in that room will ever forget it. You see, that is school.

We didn't have any fights in school the rest of the week; no one was even referred to the office. And we never had a problem with students teasing any of their own peers with special needs who attended our junior high. Once it becomes sool to care, there are no limits to what can be accomplished.

Isn't this what we want from our students? The most skilled student in the world is not a contributing member of society if they cannot empathize for others. The ability to think of others' feelings, thoughts, and well-being is essential for being a teammate at work, a good neighbor, a contributing citizen, and perhaps most importantly, a caring family member. Our inability to empathize has made a millionaire out of Dr. Phil, and puts many of our relationships at risk. And, don't schools have a role in developing this? Any educator can tell you about scenes they have witnessed that seem to come straight from the movie Mean Girls. If a school is not part of the solution, it is part of the problem.

At Grinnell High School, we took part in a drive entitled "Trick or Treat So Kids Can Eat", which asked students to bring in food items. We were very successful at raising food (2nd in the nation)... perhaps it was due to the obligatory pizza party that went to the home room that brought in the most. I hope not. I hope it was because the students cared, that it made them feel valuable to see how they could help others.

That, of course, is the problem. How do you help students see the impact their empathy has? Like Whitaker was able to do for his school. This is where a good leader will take the bare-bones blueprint of the Iowa Core (which calls for adding relevance to one's curriculum) and will put some serious meat on it. They will find ways within their community to take their essential skills and apply them to better others. They will create the opportunities. And, they will give students the opportunities to reflect on their work, to see its impact.

I will now pull out my soapbox. I believe that the primary way to develop empathy is when good teachers and administrators develop a culture that promotes it. But a secondary way that I feel is sorely lacking is in curriculum. And, I believe one of the weaknesses of the Iowa Core is that it doesn't prescribe an empathetic curriculum, per se.

How do we learn to think about others? Through curriculum such as philosophy, drama, and psychology. Humanities. And even religion. None of which are emphasized by Iowa's public schools... at the most, they are often an elective available only to seniors.

I don't think this is coincidental. Our curriculum is, by and large, self-centered. When students do math, reading, writing, and science, they are exploring their understanding of those contents. They are working with their own skills. They don't focus on others... not in itself a bad thing. But a truly 21st century curriculum allows opportunities for students to think from other perspectives. This should give us pause when considering the role of these marginalized curricular areas.

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