Developing Empathetic Learners.

Author:Casale, Carolyn

Historical Empathy

Historical empathy is the process of students' cognitive and affective engagement with historical figures to better understand and contextualize their lived experiences, decisions, or actions; and involves understanding how people from the past thought, felt, made decisions, acted, and faced consequences within a specific historical and social context (Endacott & Brooks, 2013). Over the past two decades, the fostering and display of historical empathy has received significant attention by scholars concerned with the teaching and learning of history in Kindergarten-12 classrooms.

Empathy is critically important to collaborative and inclusive systems and approaches in a democratic society. It is by and through empathy that individuals are capable of developing shared experiences that create environments of inclusivity and tolerance for diverse experiences and perspectives. Children thrive in learning environments where their opinions and perspectives are respected. Creating empathetic classrooms may not only yield immediate outcomes for improved self-esteem, motivation, and academic performance (Lynch & Simpson, 2010; University of Eastern Finland, 2015; and Wilson, 2016), but may also foster development of the life-long skills necessary for critical, reflective, and compassionate thinking. Further, Barton & Levstik (2004), posited that "if students are going to take part in meaningful public discussion, they need to understand that differing perspectives are a normal part of social interaction, not an aberration to be suppressed or overcome" (p. 219). (1)

To encourage the development of empathetic experiences among students, teachers must merge creative instructional strategies with objectives specifically designed to promote empathy among learners. In social science education, the presentation of controversial topics in lessons developed for high school students has been widely supported (Harwood & Hahn, 1990). This literature is mostly positive as "scholars have continuously noted that the use of controversial issues and contemporary points of contention in the classroom has some benefits which, when implemented effectively, will help teachers achieve the aims of social studies education" (Tannebaum, 2013, p. 100).

Within academic circles, the discussion of controversial topics in the classroom assists with:

the elimination of idiocy; the increasing likelihood for student-engagement; the development of autonomous students who think critically ... [and, the development of] students who are more likely to vote in elections, follow political news, take part in discussions on politics, have confidence in their views and develop an interest in processes of a democratic society. (Tannebaum, 2013, p. 100)

Further, research suggests that teachers are more inclined to provide added opportunities for collaborative dialogue and discourse in classrooms where students are capable of articulating a number of diverse perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds (Fecho & Botzakis, 2007; Moore, 2012; Parker, 2012). Consequently, empathy driven curricula nurture opportunities for deeper learning experiences.

By utilizing controversial dialogue in instructional practice, teachers may be able to create multiple opportunities for perspective taking among students. The element of perspective taking, "understanding another's prior lived experience, principles, positions, attitudes, and beliefs to understand how that person might have thought about the situation in question" (Endacott and Pelekanos, 2015), can be an essential instructional tool for fostering empathy among high school students.

Developing Empathetic Learners

Teaching empathy is critical in today's K-12 classrooms. In the southeastern United States with its history of inequality, and emphasis on traditionalism--where children may be more vulnerable to developing less empathetic ideologies--the need for instruction in empathy is particularly relevant. In classrooms where historical empathy is taught, the students are able to create a collaborative forum for the exchange of ideas, motivate one another through cooperation, and serve as peer models (Colby, 2008) while developing the ability to think critically, reflect, and develop compassion in order to create an empathetic society. The current social and political climate across the United States is markedly divisive. Opposing points of view are commonly met with little to no empathy while an increasing intolerance for diverse perspectives appears to take center stage. School-aged children are not immune to this phenomenon where lack of empathy and intolerance can be most apparent in schools. Utilizing historical contexts provide a viable context whereby students may understand diverse experiences and develop empathetic perspectives.

Teaching Historical Empathy

Endacott and Brooks (2013) contended that any attempt at "historical empathy" must include historical contextualization, perspective taking, and effective connection. Historical inquiry that does not encompass all three of these aspects cannot be called "historical empathy" but may, instead, be more accurately described as "historical perspective

taking" or "effective connection to history" (p. 43-44).

Yilmaz (2007) posited that engaging in historical empathy is both demanding and challenging for students even at the lowest rank of educational objectives, 'Knowledge' as outlined in Bloom's Taxonomy (1956), or 'Remembering' per Anderson and Krathwohl's (2002) new revised Bloom's Taxonomy. The author also asserted that students must first know historical facts, concepts, and interpretations in order to practice empathy. Cowan and Maitles (2012), however, contended that actively engaged students who can voice their opinions develop empathy through active learning. The authors also suggest that pedagogical practices like "role play can be used to develop empathy by, for example, giving students a choice of scenarios or allowing them to devise their own scenario where they can apply what they learned." (p. 125). Along similar lines, Tannebaum (2013) perpetuated the educational vision and argued that students need to (a) work in a classroom that reflects "a functional democratic society" (p. 99), and for (b) ".the necessity for teachers who incorporate controversial social issues into their lessons through various forms of discourse" (p. 99).

Further, Healey (2012) looked at controversial topics in higher education and argued the importance of teaching controversial topics through debate and reflection for students to develop critical thinking skills. Specifically, Healey argued that the skill " ... of 'thinking on your feet' which forms a central part of the debate ... " is an essential element in critical thinking (p. 240). Misco (2014) argued, "Controversies constitute a normative anchor within citizenship education curriculum, and the degree to which they are subjected to reflection has profound implications for the vibrancy of democracy" (p. 48), and that "Engaging controversial issues pay a democratic dividend for student-citizens by increasing civic participation, critical thinking skills, interpersonal skills, content understanding, and political activity" (p. 48). The research is clear that teaching historical empathy is a crucial tool available to teachers in the development higher order thinking of their students (Cowan & Maitles, 2012; Endacott & Brooks, 2013; Endacott & Pelekanos, 2015; Healey, 2012; Tannebaum, 2013; Yilmaz, 2007).

Barriers to Teaching Empathy

According to Brooks (2009), empathy is difficult to achieve because it runs counter to intuitive ways of thinking. Researchers have identified several obstacles that can prevent students from displaying empathetic regard for people of the past, e.g., students' tendencies to explain unfamiliar practices as the result of a moral or intellectual deficiency, a lack of technology, a lack of intelligence or assumptions of ignorance, or being old-fashioned (Lee & Ashby, 2001; Barton & Levstik, 2004, as cited in Brooks, 2009). In other words, students struggled to recognize that practices that now seem outdated were at one time seen as the...

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