[dropcap]I [/dropcap] believe my capacity for empathy is an essential part of my teaching persona. For that reason, I was more than intrigued by the title of Paul Bloom’s book Against Empathy
(Jan. 2016). After reading it, I recognized that a number of his points have merit for teachers. I still believe that, ultimately, teaching requires the ability to “see” and experience things from the student’s point of view. However, certain aspects of empathy merit a closer examination when it comes to how we design course materials and in situations that arise with individual students.
We tend to empathize most with those we identify with and that can affect how we interact with students and influence the decisions we make about course design. So, when a student comes for help, we tend to sympathize more with a student who seems like us. If a student doesn’t come from a similar background or hasn’t had experiences like ours, we often find it more difficult to relate. It’s harder to understand and accept what they report they’re experiencing. We also tend to empathize with ourselves when we make course planning decisions. “This is what I had to do when I learned this so it’s what my students should do, too.” “I hated having to work in groups, so I won’t make students do it.”
The empathy we feel toward one student may result in directing resources to that student’s problem when in fact those resources could be used to help many students. The best principles of course design seek to enable mastery of learning objectives for the greatest number of students possible. When extending help to one student, we should be mindful of the other students who did not come for help but may have similar needs.
Empathy tends to be myopic. It focuses more on short-term needs instead of long-term solutions. Are we tempted to take quick and easy design paths that promote temporary learning instead of working out thoughtful strategies, facilitating deeper, long-term learning, and encouraging character development? When assisting a student, do we too often simply address the immediate question without taking the time and effort necessary to help the student gain deeper insights or help them identify potential barriers to their success?
By nature, empathy has an emotional component. The challenge for teachers is to guard against decisions based too heavily on emotional responses. When we do something for a student, when we offer help or make an allowance and the student responds with gratitude, it makes us feel good. At that point we don’t want to consider what might have been a more reasoned approach. Are some of our course-design decisions based on what we feel will be pleasing and engaging instead of what is appropriately challenging? When a student comes to us with an individual difficulty, do we feel too much for the student and ignore the more reasoned options?
Finding the right balance
We can structure the course with easy assignments, be lenient about what we’ll accept, and teach in an easy-going overly friendly style. On the other hand, we can be tough, inflexible, and committed to having students do the work the one and only “right” way, without excuses or exceptions. We need to find the right balance of empathy. The goal is not to fully rely on it or totally discard it, but to have an awareness of what empathy accomplishes and what it compromises. Understanding and appreciating that delicate balance allows us to examine our practices in the light of what is best for an individual student and for all the students.
Much can be accomplished with a more enlightened application of empathy. Evidence-based knowledge of how learning works enables us to design with the perspective and abilities of all students, acknowledging the complexity of learning methods and an ever-widening range of personal circumstances. Today’s students have an increasing array of demands on their time, finances, attention, and cognition. Courses can be designed to incorporate elements that anticipate and appreciate these factors and provide reasonable accommodations. Not only must standards for attendance, grading, late work, etc. be stated, but they should incorporate thoughtful and sometimes creative ways to maintain standards at the same time they allow for flexibility and choice. Making the effort to plan and incorporate just practices guards against penalizing those who approach course work and learning differently or those who experience problems but do not feel comfortable approaching us about them. The course objectives are of immediate concern, but they need to be kept in perspective. We have larger goals related to what education can accomplish for every student. Those goals transcend individual courses, but they can be advanced by what happens in those individual courses.
I still believe that my ability to empathize—to see things from the learner’s perspective—greatly enhances my teaching. Understanding the potential pitfalls has enabled me to utilize that strength in guiding design decisions and student interaction more effectively.
Nancy Schorschinsky teaches chemistry at Penn State, Schuylkill.