The observation of art as a didactic strategy to promote empathy


In the tradition of the Social Sciences, the research techniques that allow the development of empathy have been those of the ethnographic method, which have been exported to other disciplines: participant observation and in-depth interview.

Active meaningful learning methodologies within the framework of research focused on teaching are thus articulated at the intersection between training listening and looking. The didactic objective would be to learn to listen and observe attentively. To do this, we incorporate techniques such as in-depth interviews, narratives, the biographical method with stories or life stories, or the application of storytelling .

The objective of these practices is for students to be able to record information obtained through participant observation, visual creation/reception processes (photo/video), cognitive maps, or storyboard development .

Since this general scheme is valid for different fields of knowledge, it can be applied, and in fact it is applied, in the specific training of health professionals. Empathy could be considered as an essential generic competence for all those professionals who work assisting other people in the fulfillment of fundamental rights: health, education, justice.

An empathy department?

In this sense, we present a proposal frequently used in other countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States, in the university training of health sciences students, but which can be used in any field.

Some debates are still going on about whether or not empathy can be taught. Many of the recent studies  indicate that, although there are people who are more empathetic than others, it is indeed a skill that can and should be fostered in university classrooms . In fact, the University of Oxford, in the United Kingdom, has a department, part of the Faculty of Philosophy, dedicated to research and teaching empathy to health workers.

Comfortable in uncertainty

Museum Based Health Education proposes strategies to foster empathy by stimulating critical thinking, slow observation , attentive listening, respect for diverse opinions and different points of view, and by inviting the student to feel more comfortable with uncertainty and to accept that there are some situations for which there may not be a specific answer .

The ideal setting for these activities are galleries and museums. They take the student out of his usual environment of classrooms and hospitals, and encourage him to show other facets of himself. In this area, neither hierarchies nor prior knowledge are requirements for the activity. It is about providing a safe and respectful space where people can express themselves freely and can explore their feelings, biases and prejudices.

What are good practices

We can list several good practices, although we focus on two for having verified their usefulness in teaching practice; not only in Social Sciences but also in Health Sciences. Both in the slow observation of paintings and in the personal response tour , the work of art acts as a “third object” .

In the slow observation of paintings, students are invited to look at the details of a work of art, understand them in relation to the life of the author and his work, and how it can be related to the daily activities that they will carry out as professionals.

In the personal response tour , they are invited to find a work of art that answers specific questions that are chosen, depending on the objective of the activity, among “something that seems beautiful to me”, “something that makes me angry”, ” something that is difficult for me to accept”, “something that seems sad to me”; Once the work is chosen, they present it to the group, emphasizing their reasons for choosing it.

The learning objective is not the discussion itself, nor is it about whether there are right or wrong answers; the practice seeks to generate a space and time to explore emotions and foster empathy.

Author Bios: Ana Martinez Perezis Professor of Sociology and Natalia Mesa Freydell is a PhD candidate both at Rey Juan Carlos University