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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

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.

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Jennifer Bernstein, Ph.D.'s picture
Jennifer Bernstein, Ph.D.
Founder of Get Yourself Into College, Inc. & English Professor (part-time)
Blogger

Joe,

I really like your point about how the "wholesale adoption of cooperative learning does not automatically yield the kind of results that educators want and students need," especially when it comes to cultivating empathy and fostering "class-wide feelings of cohesiveness, collaboration and interdependence."

Do you find that you also need to talk with your students about "cohesiveness, collaboration and interdependence" and how to support each other?

I ask because I've found (in my college classes) that it's not enough for me, as the educator, to come up with these more dynamic methods of engaging students. More and more, I find it necessary to be being more explicit with students about why I'm structuring the course in certain ways. We still go very "deep" into the literary texts we're studying, but I find that I also have to make room to explore with them the value of collaborating with their peers and help them learn effective, empathetic, and compelling ways of interacting with each other.

I'm curious about your perspective.

Best,
Jennifer

Becky's picture
Becky
Gifted Education Specialist

Using cooperative learning with gifted students must be approached very carefully - and perhaps this jigsaw model is an improvement over the more traditional model.

According to the position paper of the NAGC, " Like-performing cooperative learning - when a teacher decides to use cooperative learning groups, the highest performing 3-4 students are placed in their own group and provided with a cooperative task or assignment and assessments of performance are differentiated."

Traditional cooperative learning groups create resentment and frustration not only for the gifted students but also for the students of lower ability. Students who are driven high achievers, may feel that they have to "carry" the other students in order not to have their grade adversely affected by the outcome of the entire group. Others may be frustrated by the fact that the gifted student "knows it all."

Another concern that the jigsaw may ameliorate, is that the gifted student is often seen by both self and others as the de facto teacher. That creates resentment by all of the students caught in this predicament.

I think there is a place for what is called cooperative learning, but it must be done carefully and thoughtfully when wide ranges of ability are present in the same group.

Jeffrey Benson's picture

We have always been teaching more than "it"--more than the primary objective of the lesson within our discipline. We have always had the often unexposed secondary curriculum of being respectful, of sharing ideas, of asking good questions--whether in kindergarten or graduate school. The first step is for us as educators to bring to our consciousness those essential secondary objectives--to own them as fully as any other teaching we strive to do. Once we establish those intentions, then there are lots of strategies to get there; cooperative groups and jigsaw are useful tools, but like all pedagogical options, they can never fit every setting. 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.

Greg Reiva's picture
Greg Reiva
High School Science Teacher

For 20 years I have taught physical science and physics at Streamwood High School in Streamwood Illinois. I have always been a big advocate for educational initiatives that stress cooperative learning. Since the late 1990's there has been an emphasis in the science literature and research on inquiry-based science with teams of students learning cooperatively. Historically only 20 percent of the science teachers across America employ this model consistently and fewer than that do it well.
Education in the 21st century demands the development of personal attributes such as cooperation, openness to new ideas, commitment, critical thinking and creativity. Competition for grades, in the high school science classroom, works against the development of these needed attributes. A teacher's commitment to the Next Generation Science Standards requires creating new opportunities for students to work as teams and take on new challenges and solve problems. Competition for grades in the science classroom works against the development of a growth mind set within each student. Students in the 21st century must have the self confidence to continually reach for success and opportunities even as they face failure and struggles. Our students will be competing in a global economy that is in constant evolution. Today it is crucial that students develop as life-long learners housing the intellectual curiosity to address and engage evolving new challenges that they will face as citizens in the 21st century economy.

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.

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