Like other aspects of modern life, education can make the head hurt. So many outcomes, so much important work to do, so many solutions and strategies, so many variations on teaching, so many different kinds of students with so many different needs, so many unknowns in preparing for 21st Century life and the endless list of jobs that haven’t been invented.
What if we discovered one unifying factor that brought all of this confusion under one roof and gave us a coherent sense of how to stimulate the intellect, teach children to engage in collaborative problem solving and creative challenge, and foster social-emotional balance and stability—one factor that, if we got right, would change the equation for learning in the same way that confirming the existence of a fundamental particle informs a grand theory of the universe?
That factor exists: It’s called empathy.
To make that argument requires a deep dive into the profound nature of empathy. Right now, empathy roughly equates to “I like you and am willing to tolerate you regardless of differences because I am a good person.” But the textbook definition hints at something more profound: It’s ‘the feeling of being able to understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions.’ That all-encompassing definition means empathy results from a complex mix of other meaningful emotions and attitudes that fuel human personality, such as openness, curiosity, self-restraint, vulnerability, sensitivity, awareness, respect, appreciation, and even love. Add this list to the fact that empathy can’t manifest unless we have had our own experiences and emotions to contrast, compare, and connect with others—and we can see that empathy is more than a simple connector; it’s the subterranean, fundamental glue that holds humanity together.
Thus, it shouldn’t surprise us that such a potent emotion resonates across mind and body, influencing behavior and brain function. That is exactly the case. Empathy has the potential to open up students to deeper learning, drive clarity of thinking, and inspire engagement with the world—in other words, provide the emotional sustenance for outstanding human performance.
I see this regularly in my work with project-based-learning teachers who create classrooms that hum with good vibes and focused work. But to understand the full potential of empathy, let’s connect some dots. Those dots may appear unrelated at the moment, but they constitute a scatterplot with a trend line, predicting that empathy will eventually not be an add-on or ‘soft’ skill or one component of a middle school advisory program, and in the process confirm that a school system focused on cognition and testing alone cannot bring forth the greater purpose, focus, collaboration, and creativity necessary for 21st century students.
I see seven ‘dots’, if you will, that begin to paint this emerging picture of schooling in the future:
Empathy underlies collaboration
As social-emotional learning becomes more necessary to help students navigate life and work, empathy is getting more popular by the day, for good reason: Empathy lies at the heart of 21st century skillfulness in teamwork, collaboration and communication in a diverse world. Speaking or listening to someone without radiating empathy narrows the channel of communication or blocks connection altogether. Particularly in the new reality of a global world, without empathy you’re not ready to engage the 21st century, either in the workplace or across cultures. It has to be taught, practiced and coached.
Empathy is healthy
In the last twenty years, discussions about emotions have taken a radical turn. For years, negative emotions dominated theory and research. Today we know that positive emotions enhance well-being, health, relationships and personal strengths. At the top of this pyramid are the emotions associated with empathy: curiosity, openness, appreciation and gratitude. Empathy simply powers up the mind, body and spirit.