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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Teaching Empathy: Turning a Lesson Plan into a Life Skill

Joe Hirsch

Educator, Akiba Academy of Dallas

Worried about the shrinking presence of empathy in our schools? I know how you feel.

With classrooms operating more like grade factories, it's hard to make the case for school-driven empathy. Faced with an endless cycle of memorize, drill, spit back and test, teachers have become the wardens of a new educational reality that pits the head against the heart. Even if educators manage to skate past the dizzying array of standards and value-added evaluations, they must still contend with this fundamental divide: academic rigor, with its unflinching emphasis on measurable success, seems strangely at odds with emotional intelligence, a soufflé of moods and feelings. Which leaves many to wonder -- can empathy feel its way back into the classroom?

For an unlikely accomplice, look no farther than tomorrow's lesson plan. That's because evidence-based models of instruction can become empathy builders, tools for the mind and spirit. Designed around cooperative learning, your lesson plan can actively foster class-wide feelings of cohesiveness, collaboration and interdependence -- without sacrificing instructional time or learning goals.

Cooperative Learning: An Empathy Lever

In cooperative learning, students work together, think together and plan together using a variety of group structures designed along an instructional path. This dynamic learning model breaks with the dusty forms of frontal teaching that often create classrooms of "lonesome togetherness" -- students who may sit together but live worlds apart. Cooperative learning creates what Daniel Goleman calls "cognitive empathy," a mind-to-mind sense of how another person's thinking works. The better we understand others, the better we know them -- pointing toward (among other virtues) greater trust, appreciation and generosity.

But wholesale adoption of cooperative learning does not automatically yield the kind of results that educators want and students need. Dispatching students into "groups" with the hopes they'll become more empathetic carries the same potential for success as trying to hit a dartboard while blindfolded -- maybe a few lucky strikes, but not much more. To harness the power of cooperative learning as a tool for building empathy, teachers need a specific strategy, a best practice that works -- in real classrooms with real students. Fortunately, one exists. It's called jigsaw.

The Jigsaw Classroom: Goals and Execution

Created in 1971 by psychologist Elliot Aronson to defuse his volatile fifth grade classroom, the jigsaw method has a long track record of successfully reducing classroom conflict and increasing positive educational outcomes. As an empathy builder, it also opens doors of opportunity.

In jigsaw classrooms, lesson content is divided into self-contained chunks and assigned piece by piece to different groups of learners. Each group -- strategically arranged to reflect differences in learning style, prior knowledge or socio-economic makeup -- simultaneously studies a different but complementary piece of the lesson. When this "mastery" round is complete, every student should possess unique knowledge of one slice of the lesson. Groups are then reshuffled to form new units that draw a member from each of the mastery teams. Working in these newly minted teams of "experts," each student shares a brand new piece of content with team members who only now learn that particular lesson segment. When every group has finished sharing information, checking for understanding and re-teaching complicated points, the jigsaw activity is over.

To be sure, jigsaw classrooms look and feel almost nothing like their traditional counterparts -- and neither do the students who occupy them. The fluid movement, flexible groupings and redistribution of responsibility force kids to be more actively engaged in what and how they learn. Unlike the slow drip of frontal instruction, jigsaw learning flows freely between group members. Familiar roles change, too. Teachers re-outfit themselves as sideline reporters, monitoring, questioning and analyzing the action, while the quickest and slowest students suddenly discover themselves in supporting and leading roles they never quite imagined.

Educational Empathy: Learning by Doing

The most powerful feature of jigsaw learning -- the very reason behind its conception -- is practiced empathy. Creating points of contact between students who would otherwise not interact delivers a humbling but elevating awareness of the "other." Seeing classmates as bona fide sources of knowledge builds emotional capital and lowers the artificial gates of detachment. Students learn quickly to adhere to jigsaw's inviolable rule: "Tune in or miss out." In this social construct, the hard currency is active listening, or the art of thinking about what the other person is saying. And because each student has a purpose (a teaching role) and something valuable (new and necessary information), every learner is regarded as an asset, not a liability. To the unsuspecting student, all this may seem like a lesson plan. But to the empathetic educator, it's a life skill.

All told, jigsaw learning is a counterweight to the high-stakes testing culture that too often tears kids apart instead of stitching them together. It recognizes that behind every educational label stands an alternate version of the child waiting to be exposed. Jigsaw is rooted in research, embedded in instruction, and aligned with the wider world. There's no simple way to catch a quality as elusive as empathy, and with oversized federal mandates, precious little time. But a "total education," the kind we want to give every student, ought to value not just what children know, but how they feel.

Comments (15)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Lee Johnson's picture

[quote]I think we lose the importance of this discussion by dissecting the weakness of any tool. Let's stay with: 1) we think the secondary curriculum of empathy is valid; 2) we build a classroom culture that provides opportunities to learn the secondary curriculum in multiple ways (that's why it's part of the culture and not just a single-day objective) ; 3) we choose strategies for our lesson plans based on the real students in front of us, who have varied abilities. So sometimes a cooperative group can best help me reach my many objectives--and empathy is always one of them.[/quote]

"I think we lose the importance of this discussion by dissecting the weakness of any tool. " I agree! I believe that when we work so hard at finding why something won't work, we lose valuable time using what does. I love your three points that follow the quote and agree with each.

Stefphoney Grinage's picture
Stefphoney Grinage
High school Social Studies Teacher

The means to engage students does not replace dept of coverage. Having said that, I recognize that in most if not all modern societies, academics is the way up for some people. Students spend the greater portion of their day in the classroom setting and sometimes find themselves having to develop a separate personality to engage in the classroom.

In casual settings, students' every activity is based off of their ability to empathize. Cognition is not a mandate of formal schooling, but rather the blueprint and very need for formal education. In recognizing this, students would be conditioned in the classroom to exercise their judgement in respect to the productivity of their peers and in some instances even their own. This is the key ingredient in every goal oriented person with a drive to prosper, not just in school, but also in life.

Great title for an article.

Melanie Eisen's picture
Melanie Eisen
Assistant director of professional development, YUSP

I have been lucky enough to have seen Joe model this tool with kids and adults- I have used it based on his instruction and all the walls of how grouping polarizes the kids disappear as they learn to listen to each other and learn from each other. The teacher truly becomes the guide on the side and not the sage on the stage- well done Joe!

Robin Debacker's picture
Robin Debacker
8th grade English immersion in Belgium

Yes, I use a wonderful jigsaw program I found in David and Peggy Kehe's Discussion Strategies. The book turned my life as an English conversation teacher on its head 8 years ago, and I've been promoting it everywhere since. I used it while teaching at a university in Seoul, Korea, with all levels, and found it works with anyone who can read English, even though their speaking may not be very good. It's been a success every time.
http://teatalksrobin.wordpress.com/2013/08/26/tea-talks-37-conversation-...

Kelsey Halstead's picture

I wish I was fortunate enough to have this type of learning tool implemented in my classroom as a child. All too often as Hirsch mentions, students are given in the option of "tuning in or missing out". This was a direct experience I had in most of my elementary school classes. Due to my school being solely focused on test scores instead of actual instruction, my own scores and grades fell. If given the opportunity to use this type of learning tool, I would have felt connected to my peers, while enjoying the learning process.
Giving each student a role and an important job of reporting back knowledge that the other student needs to "piece" together their own information, not only makes the learn process fun, but it engages students in a way that allows them to connect with one another. Because students are learning from one another, they are interacting and engaging on another level that cannot be achieved on the playground. Using this tool also appears to engage students listening skills in conjunction with fine tuning their empathy skills.
From my experience as childcare educator, children enjoy having a job in the classroom; a role they can step into that makes them feel important and a vital part of their classroom. This type of teaching tool can enable a classroom to become more connected, where students have a purpose each day, and enjoy the learning process. Proper implementation and teacher support if key for this type of learning tool to be successful in any classroom environment.

Lessia Bonn's picture
Lessia Bonn
co-founder I am Bullyproof Music
Blogger 2014

I am going to share this across social media a lot. It's spectacular!

Your blog post reminds me a lot of a song of ours called "Special." For a decade, I ran a giant pop choir of kids called "Lessia's Crew." In that entire decade, there was absolutely nothing but love. We were "Glee" without the drama, meeting up every Sunday morning at this teacher's house-- that was us. All shapes, sizes, ages of kids from schools all across Santa Barbara. But there was ONE girl.. Oowah.

Eventually, I had to kick said munchkin out of Crew, as she was spoiling all our fun. And funny thing, although she'd brought many of her close friends into crew with her, when she got kicked out? None of them left with her. They knew she'd been a pill.

I wrote a song called "Special" about my conflict with her. The lyrics explain how everyone is just who they are, we're all the star of our own show, and that's okay. This song became our most popular song in Crew. It was almost on a Disney movie, and when we performed it on a TV telethon, afterwards the show's producer came up to me and said "Never, in 20 years of producing this telethon, have I stopped to listen to a musical act. I've passed on Olivia Newton John, Joe Cocker, Kenny Loggins, Clint Black. But that song? I was mesmerized. I had to listen."

We are ALL pieces of a giant puzzle. I share my story to illustrate a fact; we can teach students that their piece is just as important as the next person's.. and that the next person's needs to be respected also. We each have our strengths and weaknesses.. and we all deserve to be heard.

A sweet girl who started in Crew at ten and left only to go off to college said to me at the end, "My favorite concert ever was the one at which we sang Special... because we sang special."

Sometimes I don't believe we give kids enough credit. I love this jigsaw approach because, like our song "Special," it honors everyone. Sorry this is so long, you just kind of touched my heart.

Andrew_Weiler's picture

Without empathy, teaching becomes a function that is hit and miss. Sometimes, the mark will hit, and most times not. We need far more than empathy though. Empathy only gets you so far. We also need to have the learners engaged and to know what it is that engages learners. Once we know all that we can start to design learning experiences where learners will be lining up to participate in and leave the classes not just satisfied but inspired to continue.

Quinton's picture

I don't think students are being impacted enough by teachers nowadays. I can remember one teacher in particular whose words have stuck with me since I was in the third grade. We need more passionate educators to impact our students, and in 20+ they'll still remember the words of that teacher.

Chander Venkataraman's picture

Thanks very much for the article -- I have learnt a few things from this article --
1) "Empathy" is not a "in-built" quality (or "nature" of a human).
2) Empathy taught with "tools" is good for the life-time.
3) Empathy "nurtured" in the family (or taught / practiced by the parents --to their kids from their childhood) will not work in the school --and hence the need for "tools".
4) As this is tool for the school, there is scope for developing new "tools" for workplaces too.

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