George Lucas Educational Foundation

Empathy and Critical Thinking

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As a theater educator, I’m pleased to see the focus that is being given to the importance of empathy in education. I wish more people understood that theatre/drama has been proven to increase empathy in students, but that’s for another posting, and the attention on empathy is a good no matter how we get at it. 

When teaching students how to be more empathetic, we will often ask, “How would you feel if that were you?” But, I think there's a better question to ask. The better one, I think, is “How would it feel if you were that person?” I know it seems like a minor difference, but it’s actually much larger when you think about it contextually. 

If I ask students to imagine themselves in a particular situation, it’s not the same as imaging themselves as one of the people who really was in that particular situation. To do the latter, you must strip away your own cultural and historical context and imagine the perspective of someone else. For example, I like to get students to imagine what it was like to live in the 16th century London during the time of Shakespeare. I don’t want them to be time travelers, I want them to imagine looking through someone else’s eyes. 

What’s different between “imagining yourself in” and “imagining yourself as” are details and context. To imagine yourself as someone who lived in the Elizabethan era, you have to imagine the world in which s/he lived. It’s a world so different from our own. No electronics or electricity or engines. To get them into this place, I ask students to brainstorm on all the things we have now that the Elizabethans didn’t have. The list comes quickly. Then, I ask them to imagine what the Elizabethans had that we don’t. That’s a harder thing to think about, what we don’t have. Eventually, we get a good list: monarchy, one religion, outdoor toilets… Then, after providing resources for the time, I ask them to journal as someone who lived then. This requires an empathetic leap and a lot of critical thinking. With practice, it becomes easier to do and empathy is a very transferable skill. 

I use this character approach in all of my arts integration work. How do you use empathy as a learning strategy in your classroom? 

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Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

As a former theatre teacher, I get what you're saying here and it's SO true. There's a huge difference between just guessing what something might have been like and really climbing into someone else's world view and really trying it on. I think on of the great gifts of theatre is that is allows us not only do that, but also to learn to be really present in the moment and to see what's actually happening around us, rather than what we assume should be happening.

Now I teach teachers, so I feel like I spend a lot of time trying to help them "climb inside" the experiences of kids who don't love (or even like) school and perhaps don't have the resources or supports that my students had as children. I think being able to "imagine yourself as" a student different from the kind of you student you were is a key piece of being a really prepared teacher. Thanks for this reminder!

Fred Mindlin's picture
Fred Mindlin
Teaching Artist, string figure afficionado, digital storyteller, creative computing coach

This reminds me of Peter Elbow's concept of "The Believing Game," proposing that as important as the doubter and questioner we usually think of as the critical thinker, really to understand another's argument requires trying to be them and really see their position from their point of view, assume their evidence is correct and explore the argument from there.

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