Developing Empathy in the Digital Age

Educators must consider how to create conditions where empathy thrives

By Matthew S. Howell

Empathy is the pathway between us. Like a trail winding through the woods it connects each of us through shared experiences and emotions. As educators, it connects us to our students, our colleagues and our communities. Empathy can be used to cultivate shared experiences and bring essential understanding to our differences. Kindness, helpfulness, collaboration, authentic connection, happiness and joy are all byproducts of empathy expression. If empathy were at the core of our educational system how might our schools differ? If we were to value empathy and compassion as much as we do academic standards and test scores would our students’ happiness improve?

We are at a time in history when students and staff are confused by the world around them. Bewildered by the endless mass of streaming content, the average person spends upwards of 10.5 hours a day in front of a screen. The neurological impact is largely understudied, and the early indicators do not look good. Research has shown digital stimulation associated with screen time can damage an area of the brain called the insula. This area is directly related to empathy development along with other brain activities such as executive functioning. All of this is hugely important to the brain functions and happiness of our current students.

In education, we have been quick to adopt new technologies without long range data about the impact the implementation has on students and staff. With Chromebooks for instance, being unboxed in American classrooms at a rate of 30,000 per day, there is quite literally a wave of technology entering our schools. We are rushing down the information corridor, toward a virtual reality before we have learned to exist empathetically in our current reality. Without empathy, particularly self-empathy, a person will never know internal peace, nor will they be able to express empathy towards others. This is to say nothing about an individual’s ability to process and respond appropriately to academic and social stressors.

Empathy requires specific conditions in which it can thrive. It demands time and attention to active listening and thoughtful speaking. Without the practiced art of conversation, empathy cannot be communicated well, and it absolutely requires more than 140 characters.

Another foundational element of empathy development is deep and sustained eye contact, especially in times of conversational discomfort. Shakespeare told us that, “The eyes are the window to your soul” because eye contact allows a person to see their reflection in another. This connection cannot exist in front a screen, on a social media post, or in a set of virtual reality goggles.

Empathy cannot exist without vulnerability either. Both parties must show an authentic glimpse of themselves or there will be no empathy, because empathy is the space where you and I become we. Both parties must have the conscious ability to enter the empathy realm with each other. Naturally, trust is implied on all accounts.

If I am to understand what you are feeling, I must first find that experience within myself and identify with it.  I must also have the cognitive and emotional ability to bridge that feeling and enter relationship on the topic in order that I might access empathy. These are learned skills that can and should be taught, but first they must be mastered by the teacher, administrator, and community member alike.

In simple terms, we must be willing to walk a mile in another person’s shoes. In a school, teachers and administrators can endeavor to partake in experiential empathy. Teachers can take their students homework home for a week in all subjects. Administrators might consider teaching a challenging class for several periods, and both teachers and administrators would do well to follow a student’s schedule for the day.

Honest reflection may yield ugly, but honest results. Was the experience fun? Rewarding? Uplifting? What is the aim of the school culture if the experience is negative or lackluster? Was a feeling of empathy and mindfulness pervasive in the halls and classes?

If we think of empathy as a community garden, the conditions mentioned above are the soil that must be tilled and prepared to create a space where empathy can grow.   The seeds are the thoughts we think, the sentiments we share, the emotions harbored or released.   Each encounter we have with students, colleagues, and parents is an opportunity to give and receive empathy.

Unfortunately, the digital medium cannot convey empathy. Empathy is lost digitally in a sea of ones and zeros. The good ship Empathy has capsized on a rising tide of algorithms and artificial intelligence.

So how can we create conditions where our students and staff learn to create, develop, and sustain empathy when our educational system is not designed for this goal? With an overemphasis on standardized test scores and the ceaseless collection of teacher and student data, empathy is lost in the white noise. The current systemic conditions are counter to the requirements for empathy growth by design and content; not to mention scope and outmoded implementation practices.

The digital age is flattening emotional intelligence as the delivery system of content bypasses the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain most associated with empathy development, and enters the subconscious mind. Research has shown that students are unlikely to understand how their brain works, thinking of it as a storehouse for memory and facts.   Students are also unlikely to control their brain functions as well as they can a smartphone because they have not been taught how to do so. This is the antithesis of empathetic education.

Educators must consider how to create conditions where empathy thrives. There is promising work taking place at Stanford University in this area which proves that empathy and compassion can be learned. Similar efforts are underway at Emory University regarding cognitively based compassion training with powerful results.

The hope is that science will share information, which in turn will lead to policy and curricular shifts, where empathy becomes our cultural norm not the last blip of essential humanity on a radar screen. In a world with unprecedented access to information, we are on the verge of digitizing our thoughts with the exclusion of empathy as the result.

There are many things a school and district can do to meet the need for empathy creation directly. It is imperative that counseling departments be fully staffed with experts in the field. Professional development around organizational empathy will bring about a positive staff attitude prepared to engage in the task of empathetic education. In my school, we have instituted Screen Free Fridays to allow our students and staff a break from digital inputs. All are steps in the right direction; however, we are swimming against a mighty digital and economic current.

With many of the challenges facing our world, educators must prepare students to understand and practice empathy. This will allow for diversity, inclusion, creativity and respect of our natural world. Technology is rapidly advancing with computer chips like IBM’s True North developed with neurons and synapses mimicking the human brain. While this will lead to devices which can approximate correct emotional responses, empathy is a unique human trait that will never be realized through technology and therefore must be honored.

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