By Kathy Hanson, Assistant Head of School
Nearly two years ago, I came across a thought-provoking article in the New York Times. The author of the article challenged readers to think differently about new year’s resolutions. Instead of the usual promises or list of hopes and goals, the author argued that resolutions should be boiled down to a “one-word resolution.” This goal of the simplified resolution is meant to challenge and empower anyone to spend a year exploring that word and figure out what that thing really means in his or her life.
In August of this year, before Atrium School’s official school year kicked off , our faculty embraced and began this very task of a one-word resolution. As a faculty, we began a school year of exploring one of many words that are integral to teaching, learning, and understanding. The word for the year that we are exploring is empathy.
Everyone has the capacity for empathy -
and everyone has to learn it.
Empathy is an often misunderstood word. Everyone on of us is born with a sense of empathy, but we also have to learn it. Scientists are still debating exactly how this works, but we do know that our brains are “wired” to feel empathy and that our mirror neurons actively learn empathy from those who express empathy to us and around us. When empathy is experienced and nurtured and developed, especially at a place like with a strong community like our school, synapses grow in our brains - and that growth powerfully shapes our relationships, overcomes inevitable divides between people, deepens knowledge, and inspires creative innovation and design. When we learn empathy, then relationships, collaborations, deep understandings, and meaningful inventions become possible. (summarized from Reimaging Empathy, a Ted Talk by Paul Parkin).
Empathy takes practice.
While we may be hard-wired for empathy, like any other cognitive and social-emotional capacity, empathy takes real practice. So, each day at school, we at Atrium practice listening to each other - deeply and openly. We learn the habit of suspending judgment and asking incisive questions so we can think critically. We stretch our imaginations to look beyond the obvious so that we see from many angles (summarized from Introducing Empathy, a web article by Michael Zakaras and Lemmon Flowers). One thought is that practiced empathy emerges from a personal and intellectual stubbornness - a constant refusal to accept the distance between us and a daily insistence upon seeing things from other perspectives and walking in others’ shoes. When that happens, empathy ties a community together.
Empathy engages us fully with the world.
Empathy, when developed, engages us fully with the world. Empathetic teachers and students are people with intellectual hospitality, who are increasingly responsive to new ideas. Individual students who are empathetic, frankly, learn more and learn better. Truly great artists, writers, musicians, and philosophers obviously engage deeply with the world because of their capacity for empathy. Historians, while maintaining objectivity, also empathetically reach back in time to understand millennia of human experience. Interpreters rely on empathy to understand the meaning of language that is spoken and heard and translated. Engineers begin the design process by empathizing with others - so that designs are relevant and unintended consequences are understood or avoided. All people become more in touch and enlarged when they think and act empathetically. And we are among them.
What is the relationship between empathy and innovation? Come to Atrium on January 12 for
Tony Wagner’s film, Most Likely to Succeed.
What is the next step?
Teachers at Atrium always love learning - in ways that increase the love of learning for children. Teachers are continually studying and in doing so, continually developing and updating curriculum and instruction in science, math, literacy, social justice, and all the rest. They are, at the same time, spending this school year exploring the relationship between empathy, teaching, and learning, as well as asking important questions. How does empathy deepen understanding? How does understanding deepen empathy? When we strengthen that relationship, how can that shape our relationships, overcome inevitable divides between people, expand knowledge, and inspire creative innovation and design? These are just some of the questions being asked this year.
What word will be yours?
If you are considering your New Year’s resolutions for 2017, consider deciding upon your own personal “one-word resolution.” There are so many to choose from. Balance. Journey. Blessing. Risk. Wonder. And so many more. If you should choose empathy as your word for the new year, here are some possible resources to aid you in your journey. To follow and utilize the following resources is to read, study, and learn along with us at Atrium. We would to have you join us and we will value your reflections on a word that has come to mean a great deal to us.
Resources on Empathy
- Brené Brown on Empathy
- Reimaging Empathy, a Ted Talk by Paul Parkin
- Design Thinking: Empathy, an interview with Art Strategies
- David Kelley: Human Centered Design
- Introducing Empathy, a web article by Michael Zakaras and Lemmon Flowers
- Empathy and Racism an article by Madeleine Rogin in The Whole Child
- The Truth About Sympathy, Empathy, and Race in America
- Equity and Empathy, an essay by Prudence L. Carter in the Harvard Educational Review.
- Racism and Empathy for Pain on Our Skin, a report in Frontiers in Psychology
- An excerpt from The Art of Empathy by Karla McLaran
- Empathy and Emotional Intelligence: What is It Really About?, an article in The Journal for Caring Sciences