Empathy: the most difficult skill of all in global learning?

Much has been written and researched on empathy – the skill of understanding things from someone else’s point of view. I remember the first time I had the concept properly defined and explained in a History class at school. Historical empathy seemed so straightforward at first, all I had to do was write one sentence that showed I understood why people in the past acted in the way they did whilst showing some understanding of context and chronology.

When I became a teacher myself, it all became much more complicated.

In global learning we regularly ask learners to ‘walk in someone else’s shoes’ or see things through ‘the eyes of another’. A wonderful resource emerged in the field of development education a few years ago called ‘Learning to Read the World Through Other Eyes’ by my inspirational friends Vanessa Andreotti and Lynn Mario T. M. de Souza, in partnership with others. It is a theoretical framework and methodology that supports educators to engage with different readings and underlying assumptions of dominant, Western approaches to global citizenship education. It is a set of learning activities designed to (amongst other aims) ‘identify how different groups understand issues related to development’ and ‘critically examine these interpretations – both Western and indigenous – looking at origins and potential implications of assumptions’.

Empathy is incredibly difficult when we ask people of all ages to engage with complexities, stark inequalities in power relations and ‘difficult knowledge' (something Vanessa explains in greater depth in Actionable Postcolonial Theory in Education [Andreotti 2011]). Yet it is often listed as a required skill or emotional intelligence as if it is something fairly straightforward to grasp.

In ‘striving’ to understand more about how other people see the world, we inevitably reflect upon our own perception. Our own perception is not necessarily wrong, it is just important to recognise with honesty how it has emerged through our lived experiences. Once we have tapped into our own fragilities, we might respond in a better way in situations requiring empathy. I love this little animated 'RSA Short' video by Dr Brené Brown on the difference between empathy and sympathy and the need for connection.

I’ve been reflecting on how incredibly difficult empathy is in global learning because of a simple discussion with someone yesterday about their back pain. I had a back injury last month which put me out of action for a couple of weeks and so I was immensely understanding of my friend's excruciating pain, but I admit that my empathy was lacking in a previous back pain exchange with a similarly suffering friend before I had experienced it myself. I recall other before-and-after empathy discussions with people about mental health and childbirth! There’s a part of us that doesn’t always ‘believe’ those who retell experiences so incredibly different from our own, although we might learn how to give an acceptable response.

As educators we might strive then to provide ‘experiential’ learning opportunities as far as possible, and global learning supports this pedagogical approach in many ways. But experiential learning is not always ideal if we haven’t sufficiently critically reflected upon important but often hidden power imbalances. Also, returning to the video, there is the thinking that we can only truly empathise with others and unlock our empathetic sociability if we fully understand our own vulnerabilities.

So, are our expectations of children in global learning then too high? Or do children – yet untarred by too many negative life experiences (we hope) – have more potential to develop these empathy skills than older generations? Is empathy an emotional intelligence and do some people just have more of it than others? How can we support students to be both empathetic and critically reflective of their own positions whilst also empowering them to engage with the idea of justice and, where necessary, make decisions and exercise some form of judgment?

These questions are age-old debates in global learning, recently renewed as we’ve been thinking about the implications of teaching the Sustainable Development Goals in our particular country contexts, especially #SDG10 (reduced inequalities), #SDG5 (gender equality), #SDG1 (no poverty) and #SDG2 (zero hunger). In the UK, one very obvious empathy conundrum has emerged in the form of intergenerational understanding. In the light of the growing generational divide illustrated by the EU referendum and General Election results, I believe that it is more urgent than ever that global education work needs to include intergenerational collaboration – and right now that seems to be a significant challenge for our empathy skills.

End note: After drafting this blog, I discovered our latest #TeachSDGs blog is also on the theme of empathy. For a great piece on developing and sustaining empathy with five strategies for teaching empathy and the SDGs, please see this blog by Estella Owoimaha-Church.

#globallearningskills #empathy #GCED

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