Teaching Empathy: Is it possible?

This is a project that I completed for EDUC 586 that includes a brief literature review and survey on empathy completed with some of my middle school students. It is connected to the work I have done for my thesis/project and looks at some of the research around teaching empathy to adolescents.

Teaching Empathy to Middle School Students: Is it Possible?

Mary Lynn Bryan

Sonoma State University

EDCT 586

Professor Karen Grady

May 20, 2009

Introduction

My personal philosophy of education includes a pedagogical emphasis on educating the child as a whole person. I know that it is important that children learn to read and write and compute—I do not dispute this fact. But when students walk through our classroom doors or leave them for that matter, they are whole people, not facts or figures percentages or statistics. As James Beane (1990) explains, we cannot set the child aside to focus on the standard(s) of the day. Children are whole human beings with needs that reach far beyond the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Beane claims that students are looking for personal meanings that can be used to help form a system of beliefs, attitudes, preferences, etc. Schools then become places where students learn about who they are and who they want to be.

I am fortunate enough to teach in a charter school that believes in educating the whole child.  Our purpose states that we are “…to educate sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students to be responsible, respectful self-motivated learners who make positive contributions to their communities”(“River School,” 2007). Our mission statement defines what we mean by the word “respectand discusses how we would like it to look in the classroom and in our school. This includes “…respecting a diversity of opinions by examining issues from multiple perspectives, valuing the uniqueness and contribution of each individual, and working collaboratively with peers and teachers” (“River School,” 2007).

Our school strives to integrate the school’s purpose and mission into all aspects of the curriculum, thus our pedagogical approach is as focused on how we teach children as it is on what we teach children. We do not have a packaged “character development” program and we do not choose a week or day of the month to teach our mission and purpose to students. Instead, we intend that this pedagogical approach is apparent in how we teach and treat our students and how they treat each other.

In response to No Child Left Behind in 2001, however, even our school has increasingly narrowed the curriculum to the extent that I believe we sometimes lose focus on our mission and purpose. I wish, as a charter school, that we were immune to NCLB but we are not. I keep asking myself and our staff, “Are we a standards- based school or a projects-based school? Is our focus educating the whole child or raising test scores? Why are we giving in to the district’s demands in terms of the multitudes of tests and benchmarks we are required to give our students? What does our charter say about how we will educate our students?” In the current climate of perform, perform, perform, test, test, test, I feel an even greater need and urgency to think of ways that I can integrate a whole-child approach into my own classroom and curriculum.

As I sought to find out if there was anything in the California State Content Standards that refers to teaching children as human beings, I was saddened, yet not surprised, to learn that there are only is only one standard out of thousands that addresses how we might teach children to treat each other. It is included in the 2008 California Framework for Physical Education and it states:

Physical education offers unique opportunities to bring students together in non-threatening ways that emphasize fairness and cooperation. Because physical education involves students working and playing together, students learn the personal and social skills, values, and attitudes needed for effective, positive social interaction. Disparaging remarks about an individual’s disabilities, ethnicity, gender, native language, race, religion, or sexual orientation are not tolerated. Sarcasm and “put-downs” are considered inappropriate behavior and addressed with each student according to a student discipline plan, behavior contracts, etc. Conversely, positive social skills are modeled, taught, reinforced, and assessed regularly (Chap. 7, p. 212).

Needless to say, this particular standard is not included in the statewide assessment of students.

Our current educational system is standards-based and test driven; teachers are compared to teachers, schools are compared to “like schools,” and students are compared to other “like students.”  I believe that there is no child left in No Child Left Behind. Children are required to learn certain facts and teachers are required to teach certain content. It is my belief that all teachers should be involved in the education of students as human beings and that “working and playing together” should be an aim of the educational process, not just left up to the physical education folks. It is also my belief that if we as educators do not address the affective dimension of children’s growth then our students cannot be expected to fully develop as human beings.

As an educator, I continue to ask myself, how do I best address the needs of my middle school students beyond the academic? How do I help my students develop as caring, compassionate, empathic human beings? How can I have some assurance that when students walk out of my classroom, and our school, that they will embody these characteristics as well?

This personal commitment to teaching the whole child has led me to pursue the topic of teaching empathy in the middle school setting. I wonder: Is it possible to teach middle schoolers to be more empathic? Is anyone attempting to teach empathy to middle schoolers?  If so, what approaches to teaching are being attempted and is there research to support that the teaching of empathy is effective? What have been the results of empathy teaching in schools? These are the questions that are shaping this paper and this study.

Literature Review

This literature review will summarize research about teaching empathy to adolescents. The focus of the literature review will be based on the following questions: Can empathy be taught to middle school students? If so, what are effective approaches and have these approaches been tested? I am very interested to find out if any studies have been completed that report a significant relationship between an “empathic curriculum” and increased empathy in students who have experienced the curriculum.

The literature review will explore different definitions of “empathy.” It will also explore what is reported in the literature about why and how empathy should be taught to adolescents and finally, some results of empathic based curricula.

Empathy Defined

There are numerous definitions of empathy. Encarta’s online dictionary defines empathy as “understanding of another’s feelings: the ability to identify with and understand somebody else’s feelings or difficulties” (MSN Encarta dictionary) whereas Webster’s defines it as “the identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, etc., of another” (1998).

Empathy could be a reaction that one might have based on seeing a painting, reading a short story, or hearing a certain melody. Empathy could also be described as the reaction one has to hearing someone cry, witnessing a peer getting embarrassed during a presentation, or observing someone being bullied. What many definitions seem to have in common is one’s reaction based on something observed, heard or experienced.

Kohlberg (1969) defines empathy as the process of taking on the role or perspective of another” (Kohlberg as cited in Pecukonis, 1990). It is the ability to understand how someone else might feel in a given situation and to experience some type of shared response to that same given situation (de Wied, Brange, Meeus, p.48, 2007). Bandura, Caprara, Barbaranelli, Gerbino, and Pastorelli  (2003) claim that it is more effective for young children to not only think about how another might feel but to put themselves in a similar situation. In other words, “How would you feel if…” This is different than merely thinking about how another person different than oneself might feel in a given situation. “Evidence indicates that personalizing the emotional experiences of others is more vicariously arousing than simply viewing the events from their perspective” (Bandura et al., p. 779). This is an important distinction made by the authors of this study.

Carl Rogers (as cited in Verducci, 2000), in referring to the therapeutic relationship he sought to establish with clients, describes empathy as a process of putting aside judgments and looking at things with “…fresh and unfrightened eyes.” He also cautions that to be empathetic, one must, temporarily “… lay aside the views and values you hold for yourself in order to enter the world without prejudice” (Verducci, 2000). Is it possible to teach students to look at a person and/or their situation in a fresh way without prejudice? Is it possible for middle schoolers to step out of themselves, even temporarily, and imagine themselves in the shoes of another without being directly asked to do so?

Kohler (as cited in Davis) claims that empathy is more the understanding of others’ feelings than the sharing of them (1994, p. 6) whereas George Herbert Mead’s work places an emphasis on “…an individual’s capacity to take on the role of the other persons as a means of understanding how they view the world” (Mead as cited in Davis, 1994, p. 6). I am very much interested in these definitions of empathy as they extend beyond merely “feeling for” another person. If students are given the opportunity to take on another’s role will they be able to see things as others do and thus become more empathic?

Hoffman (2000) argues that although empathy seems like a simple concept—one feels what another feels—or one’s feelings match that of another is actually not so simple but much more complex. He makes a distinction between the outcome of empathy and the process one experiences when engaging in empathic behavior or what he terms an “affect match” (pg. 30). “The key requirement of an empathic response is the involvement of psychological processes that make a person have feelings that are more congruent with another’s situation than his own situation” (Hoffman, 2000, p. 30) although empathic responses may not be congruent between two different parties. Hoffman uses the example of a victim and an observer. If the victim is attacked, the observer may feel angry whereas the victim may feel sad or disappointed. Thus, although there is an empathic response by the observer, the empathic response between victim and observer is not always the same.

Like Hoffman, Shertz (2007) discusses the process of empathic behavior as well. Empathy, according to Shertz, can be seen as a form of communication between individuals that is both interactive and subjective. He refers to empathy as “…a fluid process of mediation” (p. 186) and not just a reaction or outcome. The definitions and descriptions of empathy cited in this section are ones that most closely align with the goal of this project and will guide the research.

Why Empathy Should be Taught

There is no shortage of research regarding why empathy should be taught. Hogan (as cited in Pecukonis, 1997) claims that empathy is very important in the development of one’s moral character. It is also suggested that empathy is key in the development of social understanding and prosocial behavior (Aronfreed, 1968; Mead, 1934; Piaget, 1932 as cited in Pecukonis, 1997). In other words, if empathy is taught, one’s morality might increase, one might have a better understanding and appreciation of others, and one might act in positive way toward others and in society in general. A study conducted by Wentzel, Filisetti and Looney( 2007) with over 300 middle schoolers suggests that teaching empathy can go beyond prosocial behavior and may even lead to altruism in students. This study found that it was possible to teach empathy to middle school students and that students moved beyond a mere empathic reaction; in fact, their feelings of empathy led them to act more kindly toward others. Hoffman (as cited in Davis, 1994, p. 29) makes this connection as well. He claims that empathy is a kind of bridge between egoism and altruism.

According to de Weil et al. (2007), teaching empathy to students can also help them learn to problem solve and avoid conflict. It may also lead to prosocial behavior such as helping. Students who are more empathic get along better with their peers (p. 54). According to this study of 307 adolescents, it was revealed that empathy can be taught and will have a positive impact on peer relationships. It is important to note, however, that the study only examined same sex friend relationships.

Care theorist Nel Noddings claims that, “[t]here is considerable evidence that a mature empathy — one that can reach into and feel with others, even those whose physical and moral conditions that are very different from our own—may be our best protection against complete demoralization” (Noddings as cited in Verducci, 2000). Although the term “demoralization” appeared a bit heavy- handed, upon further inspection of the term, I came to agree with Noddings. Encarta defines the term demoralize as “…to erode or destroy the courage, confidence, or hope of a person or group” (MSN Encarta Dictionary) and Webster’s, “…to deprive (a person or persons) of spirit, courage, discipline, etc.; to destroy the morale of” (1998). Thus, according to Noddings, one might take a more proactive approach in teaching empathy in order to avoid the possible demoralization process that she describes. She explains that a person may be concerned or care about another but it is also important that a person act on that concern. She believes that by using this approach, educators can create “… a moral climate—an educational world in which it is both desirable and possible to be good” (as cited in Nucci & Narvaez, p. 162, 2008).

In a study completed by Kabapinar (2005) with high school students in Turkey, it was found that empathy helped to develop “…sensitivity, tolerance, altruism, and respect for differences” (p. 140) Kabapinar claims that if we are to create classrooms and/or school environments where students can understand and identify with other students unlike themselves, then empathy must be taught. Jeffers (2009) makes similar claims. Her work involves using art in classrooms and schools to teach empathy to students. It is her belief that students may and can make cognitive and emotional empathic connections by having the opportunity to respond and react to art that has been created by others. “Whether visceral, intellectual, or both, such connections are educative, as they provide compelling means by which students come to understand a pluralistic world and their place within it (p. 19).

Haynes and Avery (1979) completed a study with 25 high school students who were given 16 hours of communication training including self-disclosure and empathy. Twenty-three students were used as a control group.  The students were given a paper and pencil assessment prior and post training. The study found that students who received the training demonstrated significantly higher self-disclosure and empathy skill levels than did the untrained students (p. 526). The authors of the study believe that it may be possible to use this curriculum in a modified format for younger populations such as elementary and middle school students. They also believe that if these types of skills (self-disclosure and empathy) are taught at an earlier age to students, they would have more time to integrate them thus facilitating the development of more satisfying relationships. According to the authors of the study, however, further research would be needed to modify this program and pilot the results with younger students (p. 529). The authors also noted that more research would need to be done to assess “… the extent to which students actually generalize the skills and use them in real-life situations” (p. 529).

In another study completed by Pecukonis (1990), the effects of an affective/cognitive empathy training program was completed with 24 aggressive adolescent females in a residential treatment center. The program consisted of six hours of training. Subjects were also given a pre and post assessment on their level of affective and cognitive empathy. This training significantly increased the level of affective empathy whereas the increase in cognitive empathy was “unremarkable” (p. 59). In analyzing the results of the study, Pecukonis makes a conclusion and asks an important question. The conclusion is that although the training was limited, (only six hours) it yielded significant changes in the participants’ level of empathy. He questions how this new level of empathy would play out in the students’ interpersonal behavior (p. 68). In other words, would students make the transition from feeling empathy to action as advocated by Noddings?

And finally, in a rather dated but interesting study completed by Barnett et al. (1981), 103 high school students were pre-tested using the Mehrabian and Epstein measure of empathy. They were then shown a short movie that was created to elicit an empathic response in the students. After the movie, the students were given the opportunity to help make booklets for developmentally and physically challenged students. The study found that the highly empathic students (based on the pre-test) were found to be much more helpful and willing to make these booklets than their less empathic counterparts that had also seen the same movie. Barnett et al. also found that students who were shown the movie acted in a more prosocial manner toward the group of individuals depicted in the movie when given the opportunity to do so. Similar to the participants in the Pecukonis study, students become more empathic after a very short “training” period.

In researching this topic, I did not come across any researcher, theorist, or practitioner that did not advocate for the teaching of empathy. There are many opinions however as to how empathy should be taught and what is the most effective method to do so. Shertz (2007), for example, warns that empathy as part of a curriculum should not be used as a means of social control but as a way to liberate students to share “…feeling states to foster personal and societal growth and transformation” (p. 187).  I am in agreement with Shertz and heed his warning. If the aim of the researcher’s curriculum is to have students “behave” and “be nice” to each other then the goal is shortsighted; even self-serving. A greater goal would be to change society through the transformation of individuals. If students can learn how another person might feel or experience on an everyday level, students may change the way they act toward others that are dissimilar to themselves.

The research I have completed overwhelming demonstrates agreement about the need for deliberate teaching of empathy. The research to date is very promising because at least some of the results suggest that instruction can make a difference for students in both the feeling and the action aspects of empathy. It is clear however that that more research needs to be done as some of the studies were limited to very specific populations or that the results of studies did not necessarily indicate a relationship between empathy training and now students might act toward others in their everyday lives. Most of the authors (Barnett et al.; Haynes & Avery; Pecukonis; de Wied et al.) noted that much more could be researched in the field of empathy. Although one of the studies I found (Wentzel et al.) did center on middle school aged children, the focus was on the differences in empathic responses based on the age, ethnicity, and gender of the study’s participants, and not necessarily the most effective method of teaching empathy.

I would like to research the possibility of teaching empathy to a very particular population of students, the seventh and eighth graders in my classroom. This leads to my original question, “Is it possible to teach middle schoolers to be more empathic?” More specifically, “Is it possible to teach my students empathy?”  Based on the review of the literature and existing research, I believe it is possible to pursue the answer to this question.

Methodology

As stated in the introduction of this paper, I do believe that the students of our school are taught to look at other people’s points of view. This may occur through what we teach (curriculum) or how we teach (pedagogy).They are taught that others may have a different idea or perspective and that is okay. They are taught and expected to work collaboratively with each other and understand that we are all different from each other in various and assorted ways. They are also taught to “act for the good of the whole.” So, although the actual term, “empathy” may not be clear to all of my students, the concept of empathy is. As educators we come to learn that the objectives of our lessons are not necessarily what the students have learned.

Thus, in order to guide the next steps for this project, I surveyed my seventh grade students about empathy. I wanted to find out how empathic my students saw/believed themselves to be. I also wanted to use their responses to guide the creation of a middle school curriculum designed specifically to teach empathy. It is my goal to survey these same students in the fall prior to implementing an empathic curriculum that I have created, expose them to the curriculum, and then survey the same students to find out if the curriculum is effective in teaching empathy to this specific population.

Our middle school has a population of 340 students ranging from sixth to eighth grade. There are four classes of approximately 28 students at each grade level; 29 of those seventh graders are in my Language Arts and Social Studies classes and approximately half of them see for a daily advisory period. The ethnic make up of our school is 71% white, 17% Latino, and 12% other including Asian, African American, Filipino, and American Indian. Overall, the population of my students matches the ethnic make-up of the school. I know all of these students fairly well as they spend approximately two hours each day in my classroom. I realize that this may have biased student responses on the survey as individuals might have answered in a way they perceive me to want them to answer. They may have also responded in a way that they want to be or appear to be.  When I conduct this survey again, I will give the students explicit instructions to not answer the questions in a way that might please me or make them look better but to answer as honestly as possible.

I had a substitute teacher the day that the students took the survey thus I was not present while the students answered the questions on the survey. This was entirely coincidental but I believe my absence may have been a good thing as my presence may have influenced how the students responded. I may also be giving myself far too much credit in terms of my influence on the students.

In order to create the survey, I chose “The Davis Interpersonal Reactivity Index” (Davis, 1994, pp. 56-57) as it was referred to throughout the research I did for this project and seemed to best match the maturity level of my students. For the survey, I either copied or modified questions from the index that I thought would be user-friendly to my seventh grade class and would provide data that I could use for my research. The survey has ten questions and it was administered anonymously through a free online service called “Survey Monkey.” I chose an online survey for several reasons. First, I believed that it would be appealing to my tech-savvy, tech-happy middle schoolers; I was right. They have already asked me to “create another because that was really fun.” Secondly, Survey Monkey calculates the results of the responses which I found appealing. I used a multiple choice format with the same response possibilities for each question. The response choices were: “describes me well,” “describes me fairly well,” “sort of describes me,” “does not describe me well.” These response choices are exactly the same as those found on the Davis Index.  The only question that was not in this format was the first which asks the student their gender. I inadvertently wrote one question twice while trying to revise the survey so the instrument is less than perfect by any standard. I called it “ML’s Survey” so the students would not be tipped off to the fact that the survey was about empathy. Somehow I thought this would skew or bias their responses. I have since reconsidered this which will be discussed in the conclusion section. For participation in the survey, I merely asked my students if they were willing to help me out on a project I was doing for one of my graduate classes and they all agreed to do so. I let them know that if they did not feel comfortable taking this survey, they could choose not to do so.

All of my students are considered English proficient except for two boys who have not yet passed the California English Language Development (CELDT) test yet. One is considered at English Language (EL) Level 1 and the other at Level 4/5. I asked each of these students if they would like to take the survey and they both agreed to do so. One of these students used an electronic translator to help with the questions and his responses. I assured the all of the students that their answers would be anonymous and used by me to help me in my research.

Data Presentation / Analysis / Findings

Each of my seventh grade students completed the survey and in fact several of them took it twice! I know that one of them did because he told me so. He claimed that he took it the second time because he couldn’t remember if he had taken it yet until he was already taking it again. I only have 29 students and 31 students took the survey. I am not sure how this happened but I suspect a few students took the survey more than once. I have 18 girls and 11 boys in the class. Twenty girls took the survey (out of 18) and 11 boys (out of 11) although as stated previously, one boy indicated that he took it twice. Did he identify as a female on one of those times? In any case, it is important to note the inconsistencies in the number of students I have and the number who completed the survey. As noted earlier, I inadvertently wrote the same question twice in the survey and interestingly enough, it did not get answered the same way twice which will be discussed further in the “Findings” section.

Findings

Out of the 31 students who took the survey, 64.5% of the students were female. There is a fair amount of information in the research I completed that indicates a higher level of self- reported empathy in girls than in boys (Hoffman, 2000; Davis, 1994; Pecukonis, 1990; Wentzel et al, 2007; de Wied et al. 2007) thus the responses from the survey may be influenced by the fact that there were almost twice as many girls (64.5%) than boys (35.5%) that took the survey.

Survey Results

The survey results are stated in percentages of the 31 respondents followed by the number (n) of student responses to a particular question.

Question #1: I am male 35.5% (11)

I am female 64.5% (20)

Questions

Describes

me

well

%/n

Describes me

fairly well

%/n

Sort

of

describes

me

%/n

Does not

describe me

well

%/n

2.  I would describe myself as a soft-hearted person. 41.9 /13 41.9/13 9.7/3 6.5/2
3. I don’t find it difficult to see things from another’s point of view. 41.9/13 38.7/12 19.4/6 3.2/1
4. Sometimes I feel sorry for other people when they have a problem. 67.7/21 29.0/9 3.2/1 3.2/1
5. I try to look at everybody’s side of a disagreement before I make a decision. 51.6/16 29.0/9 22.6/7 0.0/0
6. When I see someone being teased, bullied or treated unfairly, I sometimes feel sorry for them. 64.5/20 25.8/8 3.2/1 6.5/2
7. Even if I am sure I am right, I try to listen to other people’s arguments that don’t agree with mine. 12.9/4 54.8/17 22.6/7 9.7/3
8. Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in their place. 35.5/11 32.3/10 25.8/8 6.5/2
9. Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in their place. 38.7/12 29.0/9 25.8/8 6.5/2
10. I feel concern for people, even if they are not like me. 48.4/15 41.9/13 12.9/4 3.2/1

Upon looking at the results as a whole, there is a fair amount of variation in responses from question to question. There are a number of questions that the students responded to as “sort of describes me”  and “does not describe me well.” This leads me to believe that the students weren’t just trying to please me or look good with their responses but thought about their responses and took the survey seriously.

Almost 42% (41.9%) of the students said that the “being soft-hearted” “described them well” or “described them fairly well.” This did not surprise me as I would anecdotally describe this class as kind and caring. As a side note, the results did make me want to survey the eighth grade class to compare the results with my intuition/experience as I do not find this eighth grade class to be as empathic as my seventh graders. I will do this before the end of the year to see if my intuition is accurate.

In terms of questions about looking at something from someone else’s perspective, a very high percentage of the students, just over 80% claimed that “I don’t find it difficult to see things from another person’s point of view” described them well or very well whereas only 68% said that “Even If I am sure I am right, I try to listen to other people’s arguments that don’t agree with mine” “described them very well” (12.9%) or “fairly well” (54.8%). This is not a huge revelation as seeing things from a different perspective as opposed to being right, although closely related, are two different concepts. If one feels “right” about something already, it might be hard to give up that ground and really listen objectively to another. I witness this all of the time in my classroom; especially around more charged topics such as politics or religion or in students’ anti-social behavior toward each other.

Both of the above question responses would lead one to believe that the students are able to listen to another’s point of view even when they feel “right” about something.

When asked, “Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in their place,” 35.5% said it “described them well,” 32.3% said it “described them fairly well” and 25.8% said that it “sort of describes me.”  I am reporting the responses of the question when it was asked the first time which is question #8. Question #9 asks the very same question of the student but the response to the question yields different results! In question #9, a higher percentage of students (38.7% vs. 35.5%) say that “Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in their place” “describes them well.” I am not sure what conclusions I can draw from this statistic but it is certainly interesting. One student got more empathetic by simply being asked the same question twice!

In any case, I cannot say that I am surprised this question garnered more of a spread in terms of responses than the other questions described thus far. Unless a middle schooler was instructed to do so, I can’t imagine that they would automatically put themselves in “someone else’s place” although Hoffman (2000) advocates for this very kind of work with adolescents. It is not just “how would you feel in this situation” but “how would you feel if you were put in the place of the person in the situation?” As Hoffman notes, this is an important distinction to make when working with students to increase empathic responses.

I was very curious as to how students would respond to questions about how they feel when they see another student being bullied, teased, or having a problem. Would they feel sorry for that person? Would they show concern for someone that they see as different than themselves?  Just over 90% of those surveyed said that they would feel sorry for someone if they were being bullied, teased, or treated unfairly whereas over 96% said that they feel sorry for someone when they have a problem. Again, as their teacher, I am very happy to report this high percentage of students who care about what they see happening to others. I was a bit disturbed by some of the responses however.  There were two students (6.5%) who said that this “did not describe them well.” In other words, they would not necessarily feel sorry for someone that was being bullied or teased. Although this is only two students (and it may be the same person), I was saddened by this percentage, albeit a small one. This gives me more evidence to support the idea that empathy should be taught.

Conclusion/Implications

Martin Hoffman (2000) has researched empathy for over thirty years and is referred to throughout much of the research I read about empathy. In his book, Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice, Hoffman explains that empathy originates in the home and with the intimate relationships that children have with their parents. This empathy expands to family and friends. A task of moral educators is to extend the empathy that children feel toward family and friends to less familiar and known individuals; especially individuals that “…differ from them in obvious ways” (pp. 293-294). Hoffman claims that educators may need to point out emotional commonalities such as fear, anxiety, and life goals that exist across different groups despite individual differences in things such as culture, social structure, and physical appearance. He also encourages educators to ask students how they would feel in the place of the victim in various situations. Even more effective however, is to ask the child how someone close to them, someone they care about a lot, would feel if put in the place of the victim. According to Hoffman, this is a way to help students cross lines of ethnicity or “other than myself” when attempting to teach empathy (pp. 296-297).

According to Hu, as reported in the New York Times (April 15, 2009), there are many programs available throughout the United States (The Peace Curriculum, Second Step Through Prevention, Roots of Empathy, Knowledge Through Power Program or KIPP) that are used to teach empathy to students.  Although many parent and teacher groups are advocating for implementing these types of programs in schools, only anecdotal stories of improved empathy have been reported by schools using the various programs. I do not mean to infer that these anecdotal findings are invalid but I could not find any studies that had been completed on these particular programs to validate the claims made by their advocates.  Jeffers in referring to using art to teach empathy claims that “…evidence gathered by teachers and students themselves can effectively document classroom experiences of empathic social interactions” (2009, p. 21). I do not believe a scientific study must be completed to find a program effective but I do believe we must be careful to think of empathy as something that can be taught by purchasing a one-size fits-all package. Sherz (2007) calls for a pedagogical approach that is based on dialogue, inquiry, and engagement with others. “In order to be effective, empathic pedagogy must provide students with a means of engaging across the boundaries of the subject in an intersubjective gestalt—i.e. it must allow for peer-mediated inquiry-based interactions that support sharing affective states” (p. 186). He suggests that teaching empathy should be thought of as a pedagogical approach rather than a specified curriculum.

If empathy is defined as a capacity to feel, perceive, understand, and identify with another person’s needs, interests, and viewpoints, it seems to be that making empathy a part of what we teach and how we teach important in creating equitable, caring, compassionate classrooms and school environments. In the studies that I have noted, empathy helps students develop sensitivity, tolerance, altruism, and respect for others’ differences. Thereby, empathy is considered a skill that not only needs to be nurtured but taught. Even though many of my students (over 80%) describe themselves as soft-hearted and able to look at things from someone else’s perspective, this does not necessarily mean they would step in and help another student that is being teased or bullied if it meant “losing face” in front of their peers or they were just too uncomfortable to do so. Can students be taught to intervene in such situations? Should they be taught to do so? Is it possible to teach them to do or to think differently than they already do? Can students be taught to think of how they would feel if they were put in someone else’s place? These are the questions I have roaming about in my head after completing this research and will consider for further study.

In addition, upon completing this research and initial survey with my students, I realized that I am interested in three aspects of empathy. One is the emotional/affective, another is cognitive or how students think, and the last is behavioral or how students might respond to their empathic feelings. I only tested one aspect of empathy and that is the affective. I think that taking on all three of these aspects in one study would be too difficult of an undertaking but my hopes as a teacher would be to address all three with my students and as part of my curriculum and pedagogy. I believe that if I ran through some behavioral scenarios with my students, I could informally collect clues about their cognitive and behavioral responses. This could enrich my sense of what I want to learn or teach about empathy. I am also considering including my students in creating the “new and improved” survey that I give by telling them exactly what I want to find out. I believe their input could strengthen the quality of the questions and the data collected. I would also call it, “Survey on Empathy” to be more explicit with the students about what I am trying to learn by their responses.  It has also been suggested that I survey all of the seventh graders at our school to find out if there are any differences in responses of those students who have been exposed to the curriculum I create. This is a feasible idea and I believe the results would be worth investigating. .

I hope to complete this project in the fall of next school year. The information that I gathered from my students will inform the curriculum I create for this project and the survey I create to “test” the curriculum with middle schoolers in my classroom. At that point in time (post survey)I may possibly be able to answer the question, “Is it possible to teach empathy to middle schoolers?”

References

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Jeffers, C. (2009). Within Connections: Empathy, Mirror Neurons, and Art Education. Art Education, 3(March), 18-23.

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Shertz, M. (2007). Avoiding ‘passive empathy’ with Philosophy of Children. Journal of Moral Education, 36(2), 185-198. Retrieved March 3, 2009, from the Ebsco Host database.

Verducci, S. (2000).  A Conceptual History of Empathy and a Question it Raises for Moral Education. Educational Theory, 50(1). Retrieved March 3, 2009, from the Ebsco Host database.

Woodward-Bevel, M. (2008). Empathy: A Difficult Journey Through Public Education in 2008. Journal of Philosophy and History of Education , 58, 11-15. Retrieved March 1, 2009, from the Ebsco Host database.

deWied, M., Brange, S. J., & Meeus, W. H. (2007). Emapthy and Conflict Resolution in Friendship Relations Among Adolescents. Aggessive Behavior, 33, 48-55. Retrieved March 3, 2009, from the Ebsco Host database.

(1998). Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary). Springfield: Merriam-Webster.

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