Beyond standardized tests – teaching empathy

More than ever children need skills in how to work with changing teams of collaborators and how to seek solutions rooted in the needs of others, the author says.

By , Ashoka Changemakers

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    The Center for Inspired Teaching in Washington, D.C., invests in teachers to ensure that schools make the most of children's innate desire to learn.
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As most American parents are oppressively aware, our children are far behind their counterparts in Asia when it comes to academic achievement. Departments of education around the country and on the national level have aggressively attempted to remedy the discrepancy by drowning our kids in standardized tests.

So it came as quite a surprise to me – and a breath of fresh air – to discover that the leadership at a prestigious high school in China is heading in a very different direction. Peking University High School is focusing on a skill its educators believe is the key to success in the 21st century. Not calculus, not computer programming, not filling in little ovals; this forward-thinking institution emphasizes teaching empathy.

“There’s convincing scientific, psychological, pedagogical, and anecdotal data to suggest that children are naturally empathic, and learn best through collaborating with each other, and at their own speed,” explained deputy principal Xueqin Jiang.

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Xueqin actually sees empathy as the missing ingredient in China’s educational system, and one that is absolutely critical to his students’ future success in a rapidly changing, globalizing economy.

“There’s a consensus that the Chinese system doesn’t work,” Xueqin said. “One question the Chinese like to ask is, ‘Why does China not produce any Nobel Prize winners in the sciences? Why doesn’t China produce innovative entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates?’ And I think that the key here is empathy.”

“Empathy is the basis for collaboration of course, as well as also communication and creativity,” he explained.

This is an important way of looking at empathy—as a teachable, fundamental skill, without which innovation, collaboration, and creativity cannot happen. Empathy is more than just awareness and concern. It’s about cultural sensitivity and conflict resolution.

In a world in which more and more people are able to—and are—demanding to have input into products, services, institutions, and systems, the most successful adults are those who can embrace this fluid new world, work with changing teams of collaborators, and see solutions rooted in the needs of others.

“We have to have a set of social skills so we can contribute in a world defined by change, rather than repetition,” said Bill Drayton, founder and CEO of Ashoka, the pioneering global social entrepreneurship organization. Ashoka is spearheading an ambitious push to put empathy front and center in education. This global initiative is based on the experience and wisdom of its fellowship of social innovators who have witnessed the role and power of empathy in social change.

Drayton sees empathy as an imperative, and the centerpiece of “a new paradigm for growing up.”

“The old paradigm was: Master a set of skills and the associated rules, and then that defines you,” he said. “You are a baker. You are a banker. And then you just repeat that for the rest of your life. And in a world where things don’t change, that works. But it doesn’t work anymore.”

For me, this is both a revelation and a relief. As a parent it’s not hard to feel unsure of how best to help prepare our children for the future in this dizzying time.

Should we push our kids to do well on state tests? Perhaps encouraging a pursuit of technology courses? Or finding a school that offers Mandarin?

Trying to anticipate how the world will be, where our kids will fit in, and how to help them get there is an exhausting—and ultimately fruitless—endeavor. But armed with an understanding of the value of empathy and its role in fostering individuals’ flexibility and nimbleness, I can view change with more confidence for my children’s future.

From incorporating empathy into curricula, to rethinking discipline, to providing teacher training and parental support, schools and organizations are putting empathy at the center of young peoples’ education. And the early results are undeniably positive.

Dovetail Learning’s Toolbox Project, for example, is a K-6 human development program in 60 schools that teaches kids to use their inner resilience to work through frustrations and conflict. The program helps young children see the power they have to solve problems and succeed by helping them see their own innate “tools,” giving them a common language for defining and utilizing them, and encouraging them to use the tools often. The 12 Tools include the Listening Tool, the Please and Thank You Tool, and the Empathy Tool.

My older children are in their teen and pre-teen years, and while they are pretty empathic and resilient kids, every child going through those turbulent years can use support in seeing other perspectives and being understanding. But I don’t think the Toolbox is going to be up their eye-rolling alley (it is, after all, for elementary school kids). For them, I’m intrigued by Parents Forum, a peer support group that offers role-playing workshops called, “How To Tell Somebody Something They’d Rather Not Hear.”

Ultimately, it’s in schools that the major shift must happen—and is starting to. Teachers are discovering that placing an emphasis on empathy creates a positive impact in their classrooms. Some schools in Washington, DC, and in Baltimore, Md., have implemented an empathy-centered teacher-training program called Inspired Teaching. At these schools, 82 percent of teachers report students are more engaged in class.

The Inspired Teaching training gives teachers hands-on activities that put them in the position of learners—so that they understand the school experience from the students’ perspective. Teachers get a glimpse into students’ minds to better understand and appreciate their way of looking at the world, activating empathy, and increasing their ability to individualize instruction and engage their students.

To discover the fascinating array of approaches to teaching children empathy, and to take action to support the success of initiatives you find are most inspiring, visit the Ashoka Changemakers Activating Empathy Competition. Peking University High School, Dovetail Toolbox, Parents Forum, and Inspired Teaching are among the 12 finalists chosen from among 628 entries from around the world.

Vote for your favorites and the winners will receive prizes from a pool of $110,000 to advance their initiatives.

See Ashoka’s empathy initiative website, Start Empathy to learn more about how educators and parents can help activate empathy and why it’s such an important skill.

This article first appeared at Ashoka Changemakers, a global online community that supports everyone’s ability to be a changemaker.

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