Designing Empathy (Pt. 2)

Empathy - the action of understanding the experience of another

It was 2013 when Barack Obama talked about the “empathy deficit.” For many, it was the first time they heard about such a concept, but science had already proved it three years before. In a meta-analysis on empathy levels of American college students, researchers found future graduates 40% less empathetic than those of 30 years ago. It’s not just students, and it’s not just the US. We just have to turn on the tv to see daily demonstrations that empathy has become rarer – or that intolerance has become louder.

Here, I am not interested in the causes. As for the effects, I already wrote how it will be fundamental to cultivate empathetic abilities in the future. What I want to talk about is how some schools are tackling this challenge now, and what insights we can gather from their example.

One day in the life of…

There is a famous quote, variously attributed, that says, “Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Involve me and I understand.”

At Riverside School, India, when teachers decided to sensitize students to the problem of child labour, they took it literally. For two days, the school turned into an incense stick factory; fifth-grade kids had to roll argabattis for six hours in a crowded room, while teachers kept on barking orders and checking on the shape of the sticks. There was no time to rest. Food was given only after producing a definite quota of well-made sticks. On the second day, the kids were joined by their own parents so that both could understand how tolling the labour was.

When the two days ended, the children were aghast. It wasn’t just that they stopped taking for granted things such as rest, playtime, and getting food when they asked for it. They chose to make other people aware of the damage of child labour, for example through street plays and supporting noprofit orgs.

This is one example of how teachers work at Riverside. Students don’t just listen – they see, do, feel. After, they also want to do something more about it. The end goal is not only to engage them on a far more personal level, but also to show them that they can make a change – even if they’re “just kids.”

I feel that I can

Kiran Sethi, designer and founder of Riverside School, thought lessons should follow four steps: Feel, Imagine, Do, Share. Thus, the child would go through a journey of awareness, where they understand a problem, up to empowerment, where they feel they can find solutions to the problem. This same process animates Design for Change, a citizenship challenge and design curriculum devised by Riverside and that has already been adopted by schools in 40+ countries.

To quantitatively measure the results of this method is difficult. Sethi described children tackling difficult issues in their own communities, from child labour to illiteracy to child marriage; the result of their efforts will be visible in the future. However, we do have one interesting piece of data about these students: 71% of them is studying or has graduated from college (in 2012 gross enrolment ratio in India was around 20.4%), and their school has consistently been a top performer since its inception.

We already saw how developing empathy is realted to better academic success and business growth. But the example of Riverside shows that empathy is also connected to developing citizenship and responsibility towards one’s community, and this will become even more important in the future, considering how the Internet, migrations and other factors are expanding our sense of community beyond our neighbourhood or even country.

The feel card from the Design for Change deck

Other two top performers in education, Finland and Singapore, have realized the connection between empathy, citizenship and academic success. For example, in Singapore schools follow a value-centric framework, teaching responsible decision-making, social awareness and civic literacy. Finland made equity a core principle of their educational reform.

From feeling to acting

Let’s go back to the beginning question of these two articles: what if we will end up working together with 5.5 billion people?

Empathy won’t be just a skill – it will be a necessity. As more and more people, and their own stories, start colliding, new challenges will arise. To be a citizen (of your city, your country and your world) will mean to be able to make sense of a growingly complex environment – to observe, to understand, and to collaborate with others to face what this complexity brings.

When I imagine a meeting between design thinking and education, what I see is giving younger generations the possibility to experiment and train their empathy muscle. Designing empathy is an invitation to create this opportunity, but it’s also an invitation to imagine an empathy that designs – an empathy with a purpose, that doesn’t stop at feeling for others but that turns into empathetic action.


P.S. The next article is all about design and critical thinking. For a complete list of the articles in this series, please read here.

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