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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Teaching Students to Turn Empathy into Action

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service

You have to read David Brooks' New York Times article about empathy. He challenges our emphasis on empathy as the main reason why people do good things for others. The essence of his argument is that the research on the relationship of empathy to being willing to do for others, and especially to go out of one's way to do for others, is not impressive.

There are many significant findings, but the effect size is small -- empathy is relevant but it does not explain much about what is really happening. So if we want to teach children to do good things for others, to be helpful and especially to act when it may not be convenient or popular, we need to focus on something in addition to empathy.

This makes sense when you consider how many situations children will come across during a school day that might stir their empathy and, you would think, move them to action. But there is a reason why there are so many bystanders to others' acts of aggression, cheating, unkindness, intimidation, teasing, exclusion, and downright cruelty. And there is a reason why students learning about the plight of the homeless, the refugee, the hungry, the member of a minority group who is discriminated against, and the like are not moved to action with greater frequency.

It's not just a lack of empathy.

David Brooks believes, and cites research to support his view, that two primary conditions are important to impel action in the face of need:

  • First, the individual must feel positive about him or herself. Altruistic action does not seem to flow from misery (or at least a subjective sense of misery -- we are all aware of those who seem to have so little, or to be so downtrodden, but whose sense of gratitude allows then to be willing to give or do for others).
  • Second, action seems to follow from a moral code held by the individual. And based on that code, a situation calls to that person in a particular way and is more likely to lead to action. So a child may have come to believe deeply that stealing is morally wrong and will confront someone taking something out of another student's locker, but that same child might not intervene when a child is being denied a seat at a lunchroom table by taunting peers. He or she may have empathy for the victim, but the buttons necessary to generate action either don't exist or have not been pushed hard enough.

Here is what David Brooks would like to see schools do: "Help people debate, understand, revere, and enact their codes." Too many schools have Codes of Conduct, core values, mottos, and missions that are more verbiage than vital laws of life for the students and the staff.

With that, I believe our zones of compassionate action can be expanded -- and I think Brooks would agree. There is no reason why individuals can't articulate personal goals and values within the larger school framework, especially at the secondary school level.

When students have a set of beliefs that they cherish, they will be "upstanders" for others when adults aren't looking -- and when everyone is.

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service
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