Most people think that empathy – or the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes – is an innate quality, but it’s not. We can learn it. Research has shown that reading can help children develop it , by allowing them to put themselves in situations very different from their own and reflect on those experiences.
Another argument for teaching empathy comes from a program called Empathy Week, which I worked with. It consists of showing students documentary films from different cultures and designed to inspire empathy. The first results available to us (before rereading by other scientists) suggest that just one week of lessons based on these films improves the emotional awareness of the participants.
In addition, in work done with schools , I have found that learning that incorporates empathy can also help students increase their creativity .
Different levels of empathy
Our empathy varies based on a whole host of factors, including personality traits, genes, and environment. Research has proven that part of our empathy – and not that much – is genetic , around 10%. This means that potentially much of it can be acquired through our daily interactions. But also that we can lose our empathy as we grow up. Work carried out with a young audience of five to nine years old has made it possible to measure their degree of empathy in the face of scenarios describing social injustices concerning other children, of different origins.
Their brain activity was measured using an electroencephalogram to look for higher levels of a frequency used as an indicator of empathy levels.
Children did not show bias in their responses but previous studies have shown this to be the case with adults. This suggests that people can develop biases over the course of life that reduce empathy.
Empathy helps us understand what other people are thinking and feeling. It helps children to establish social relationships , to take an interest in what they are learning, to work and play together.
Encourage children’s creativity
My research focused on the teaching of empathy and its effects on creative skills in design and technology classrooms in the UK.
We assessed the level of creativity of ninth grade students (aged 13 to 14) from two schools at the beginning and end of the school year with the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, which is based on drawn and written questions . After students took the test for the first time, one school continued with its usual design and technology classes. In the other, these were replaced by sessions focused on empathy, called “Designing our future” .
The students were invited to create a file containing the information and the material necessary for the treatment of asthma in children for young sufferers and their families. They were asked to show empathy, for example by not judging their own creations or those of others. They were also encouraged to pay attention to the people they were designing the product for.
The results showed that only the school where we taught lessons focused on empathy increased the level of creativity in its responses. Creativity could thus be worked on, in particular through instructions emphasizing the importance of empathy for the subject treated.
Teaching empathy at school would help young people to anchor this quality in their repertoire of social skills, which would improve their learning and prepare them for the adult world.
Author Bio: Helen Demetriou is a Lecturer in Education at the University of Cambridge