The Importance of Teaching Empathy

First published by the Guardian on Thursday 21 June 2012.

As a religious studies teacher, I feel that empathy is an essential skill for all students. Learning to empathise will better equip students to interpret the experiences of others, especially when others’ attitudes, beliefs and ways of thinking are alien to their own. It also allows for better intercultural understanding and community cohesion between people of different economic, cultural and religious backgrounds.

However, relating the experiences of others to one’s own is a hard skill to master, especially if you have limited experience of the world due to your age. It is essential, therefore, that we build upon students pre-existing experiences when finding ways to develop empathy as a tool for improving their understanding of the world around them. This is what the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer calls a “fusion of horizons”.

Importantly, a student’s own prejudice and bias are essential in establishing any intrinsic values and meanings in the story of another person. This is because we can only make sense of things in relation to what we already know, which is our “horizon”. It is paramount, therefore, that when encouraging students to empathise that we accept that they will frame the experiences of others within their own experiences of the world.

It is the idea of “fusing horizons” that led me to rearrange a somewhat didactic lesson on Aung San Suu Kyi to focus on bullying. This is because I really wanted the students to understand who Suu Kyi is and why so many Burmese people find her inspirational, especially as she is visiting the UK at the moment (please note that this blog was written before Suu Kyi’s controversial  failure to condemn the persecution of Rohingya Muslims).

Bullying was a way of enabling students to empathise with issues beyond their sphere of experience, or “horizon”, and to see Suu Kyi as more than “someone from another country”. The lesson objective, for example, had the basic premise of “knowing” who Aung San Suu Kyi is, but the challenge was to “reflect on how Suu Kyi would respond to the problem of bullying”. Activities used in the lesson varied from mind-mapping types of bullying to a discussion on the importance of standing up to bullies. It is in this latter activity that Suu Kyi comes in to play as students are asked to assimilate bullying with repression. A basic card sort identifying key aspects of bullying alongside events in Aung San Suu Kyi’s story was used to scaffold students’ ability to make these connections.

On the surface this connection may seem to belittle the situation in Burma, but it is important to remember that it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to remove your own experiences of life when trying to make sense of the experiences of others. Furthermore, the majority of written responses suggested this connection had its desired impact. For example, one response stated, “My brother is like Aung San Suu Kyi because she wants to bring freedom to Burma and doesn’t want to be ruled by the army. She spoke up for the Burmese people when no one else was able to. My brother is very much like her because he speaks up for me when I get told what to do by other people.”

However, other written responses showed that student empathy had extended way beyond the issue of bullying. An unexpected “fusion of horizons” had allowed students to empathise with Suu Kyi in various ways that undoubtedly lead to a better understanding of her experiences, especially her determination to fight against adversity. For example, one student wrote that, “My granddad is inspiring like Aung San Suu Kyi. Even though she inspired thousands of people, my granddad has inspired me in a similar way. She was brave to fight the army in Burma and my granddad was brave to fight cancer. They both tried to do it with a smile and put others’ lives before their own”.

Other students compared Suu Kyi to Fabrice Muamba, war veterans and one student even compared Suu Kyi’s fight against the Burmese authorities to her mother’s endeavours to find her birth parents (the parent was adopted).

Again, these experiences may be far removed from the suffering inflicted on the Burmese people, but it does nonetheless demonstrate how students can assimilate their own experiences, feelings and emotions with those of another, especially if they are allowed to interpret others peoples’ experiences in a way that makes sense to them. It is allowing for this “fusion of horizons” that will allow empathy to establish itself as a skill in the classroom. It is up to the teacher, however, to find the initial shared meanings and experiences that open up the possibilities of further empathy.

Picture credit: Pixbay (Creative Commons CC0)

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