Student Well-Being Opinion

Empathy + Critical Thinking = Compassionate Action

By Contributing Blogger — September 21, 2015 4 min read
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This post is by Anne Vilen, a writer and School Designer for Expeditionary Learning

Critical thinking, especially critical thinking that leads to compassionate action, requires a wellspring of empathy. The connection between critical thinking and empathy might not be obvious; it might even seem contradictory. However, if critical thinking involves seeking, analyzing, and evaluating multiple perspectives on a complex question or issue, then being able to “see” through someone else’s eyes is essential.

In school, then, students need time and structures for listening deeply to each other. They need many opportunities to hear from and discuss the views of those who differ from them. The empathy gained from perspective taking is a precursor to nuanced thinking, communicating effectively, and taking positive action in the real world. Teachers in deeper learning classrooms across the Expeditionary Learning network cultivate empathy and channel it into projects that make a lasting difference for students and for their communities. One such learning experience, The Peacekeepers Project at Polaris Charter Academy, was recently spotlighted on a television special to launch Think It Up, a new education initiative funded by the Entertainment Industry Foundation, in partnership with Expeditionary Learning and Donor’s Choose, to promote innovative student-conceived learning projects.

The power of empathy to challenge Polaris students’ thinking began in a discussion circle in Francesca Peck’s eighth grade classroom. Peck recalls the day when students were discussing their connections to a character in Walter Dean Meyer’s novel, Monster. Before long they realized that nearly everyone in the class had had first-hand experience with guns, knew someone who has been shot or killed, and felt afraid walking in their Chicago neighborhood. Then a girl named Trinity revealed that her brother’s gang acquaintance once put a gun to her head.

The circle got quiet as students witnessed how Trinity internalized her own words. This raw moment of deep listening, facilitated by a skillful teacher, opened students up to empathy. With the image of near tragedy palpable between them, students felt for Trinity, and they felt differently about themselves. “Students who live in fear become numb,” explained Peck. “But when Trinity was able to really be heard, she was able to feel again. And then she was really motivated to do something about it.”

For Trinity and her classmates, this quiet, deeply connected moment sparked a whole semester of deeper learning about the causes and impacts of gun violence. It also spurred collaborative, compassionate action that has reached well beyond the bounds of their own neighborhood. They organized their neighbors to clean up the streets and convinced the mayor to declare a Day of Peace across Chicago. They published a book about peacekeepers in Chicago. They presented their work at a number of national events.

Still, it’s important to remember that behind the scenes of the Hollywood special and these authentic projects were highly effective teachers who designed and executed a high quality teaching and learning experience. Here I’ll describe three specific practices they employed to teach empathy, enable students to learn deeply, and motivate students to take effective action.

Illuminate Real-World Problems with Complex Text

Teachers at Polaris began their semester with close reading lessons of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, Monster, and, in history class, the U.S. Constitution and nonfiction articles about the guns, violence, and urban life. Studying violence through literature and nonfiction gave students an important psychic distance from their own experience of violence. Looking at the big picture through multiple perspectives, through books and experts first, made it safe to explore a topic that was personal. It also gave students a deeper understanding of the complex forces that can erupt in violence anywhere, including in their own neighborhoods.

Create a Safe Space for All to Speak and Be Truly Heard

Once students began to understand the issue with some context and depth, their personal connection to it was no longer a trigger for drama and reaction or reductionism. Teachers created an emotionally safe space for all students to speak and be truly heard. They used protocols for sharing circles that recognized all voices fairly. A classroom culture that acknowledges and values each student encouraged students to engage both intellectually and emotionally in complex questions. Thus, students’ personal experience made deep content relevant, meaningful, and worthy of further effort.

Transform Emotion into Understanding and then into Personal Action

Finally, a hallmark of deeper learning is that students transfer their learning from the classroom into novel contexts. Teachers at Polaris provided a coherent, standards-based, literacy rich scaffold of lessons, documented in this Models of Excellence Illuminating Standards video, that enabled students to move from empathy to action. They invited activist experts into the classroom to teach students strategy. They documented and organized students’ ideas. They facilitated effective collaboration and communication between students and with community partners.

Following through on the plan they had designed, the Polaris students created a broad-reaching campaign to educate and involve their neighbors and community. Just as importantly, they continued to support each other and their peers as school community peacekeepers even after they graduated from Polaris. As a freshman in a new school, Trinity joined the Peace Warriors, a select group of trained “foot soldiers for peace” who monitor conflict between classmates and interrupt violence before it can spread. Their six principles include the essence of empathy: “Attack the forces of evil, not persons doing evil.”

Making change begins with empathy steeped in deeper learning.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.