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Topic: Beyond standardized tests - teaching empathy
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Beyond standardized tests - teaching empathy
Posted: Aug 23, 2012 7:59 PM
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From The Christian Science Monitor, Friday, June 8, 2012. See
Beyond standardized tests - teaching empathy

More than ever children need skills in how to work with changing
teams of collaborators and how to seek solutions rooted in the needs
of others, the author says.

By Alison Hockenberry,

As most American parents are oppressively aware, our children are far
behind their counterparts in Asia when it comes to academic
achievement. Departments of education around the country and on the
national level have aggressively attempted to remedy the discrepancy
by drowning our kids in standardized tests.

So it came as quite a surprise to me - and a breath of fresh air - to
discover that the leadership at a prestigious high school in China is
heading in a very different direction. Peking University High School
is focusing on a skill its educators believe is the key to success in
the 21st century. Not calculus, not computer programming, not filling
in little ovals; this forward-thinking institution emphasizes
teaching empathy.

"There's convincing scientific, psychological, pedagogical, and
anecdotal data to suggest that children are naturally empathic, and
learn best through collaborating with each other, and at their own
speed," explained deputy principal Xueqin Jiang.

Xueqin actually sees empathy as the missing ingredient in China's
educational system, and one that is absolutely critical to his
students' future success in a rapidly changing, globalizing economy.

"There's a consensus that the Chinese system doesn't work," Xueqin
said. "One question the Chinese like to ask is, 'Why does China not
produce any Nobel Prize winners in the sciences? Why doesn't China
produce innovative entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg
and Bill Gates?' And I think that the key here is empathy."

"Empathy is the basis for collaboration of course, as well as also
communication and creativity," he explained.

This is an important way of looking at empathy-as a teachable,
fundamental skill, without which innovation, collaboration, and
creativity cannot happen. Empathy is more than just awareness and
concern. It's about cultural sensitivity and conflict resolution.

In a world in which more and more people are able to-and
are-demanding to have input into products, services, institutions,
and systems, the most successful adults are those who can embrace
this fluid new world, work with changing teams of collaborators, and
see solutions rooted in the needs of others.

"We have to have a set of social skills so we can contribute in a
world defined by change, rather than repetition," said Bill Drayton,
founder and CEO of Ashoka, the pioneering global social
entrepreneurship organization. Ashoka is spearheading an ambitious
push to put empathy front and center in education. This global
initiative is based on the experience and wisdom of its fellowship of
social innovators who have witnessed the role and power of empathy in
social change.

Drayton sees empathy as an imperative, and the centerpiece of "a new
paradigm for growing up."

"The old paradigm was: Master a set of skills and the associated
rules, and then that defines you," he said. "You are a baker. You are
a banker. And then you just repeat that for the rest of your life.
And in a world where things don't change, that works. But it doesn't
work anymore."

For me, this is both a revelation and a relief. As a parent it's not
hard to feel unsure of how best to help prepare our children for the
future in this dizzying time.

Should we push our kids to do well on state tests? Perhaps
encouraging a pursuit of technology courses? Or finding a school that
offers Mandarin?

Trying to anticipate how the world will be, where our kids will fit
in, and how to help them get there is an exhausting-and ultimately
fruitless-endeavor. But armed with an understanding of the value of
empathy and its role in fostering individuals' flexibility and
nimbleness, I can view change with more confidence for my children's

From incorporating empathy into curricula, to rethinking discipline,
to providing teacher training and parental support, schools and
organizations are putting empathy at the center of young peoples'
education. And the early results are undeniably positive.

Dovetail Learning's Toolbox Project, for example, is a K-6 human
development program in 60 schools that teaches kids to use their
inner resilience to work through frustrations and conflict. [See ]The
program helps young children see the power they have to solve
problems and succeed by helping them see their own innate "tools,"
giving them a common language for defining and utilizing them, and
encouraging them to use the tools often. The 12 Tools include the
Listening Tool, the Please and Thank You Tool, and the Empathy Tool.

My older children are in their teen and pre-teen years, and while
they are pretty empathic and resilient kids, every child going
through those turbulent years can use support in seeing other
perspectives and being understanding. But I don't think the Toolbox
is going to be up their eye-rolling alley (it is, after all, for
elementary school kids). For them, I'm intrigued by Parents Forum, a
peer support group that offers role-playing workshops called, "How To
Tell Somebody Something They'd Rather Not Hear."

Ultimately, it's in schools that the major shift must happen-and is
starting to. Teachers are discovering that placing an emphasis on
empathy creates a positive impact in their classrooms. Some schools
in Washington, DC, and in Baltimore, Md., have implemented an
empathy-centered teacher-training program called Inspired Teaching.
At these schools, 82 percent of teachers report students are more
engaged in class.

The Inspired Teaching training gives teachers hands-on activities
that put them in the position of learners-so that they understand the
school experience from the students' perspective. Teachers get a
glimpse into students' minds to better understand and appreciate
their way of looking at the world, activating empathy, and increasing
their ability to individualize instruction and engage their students.

To discover the fascinating array of approaches to teaching children
empathy, and to take action to support the success of initiatives you
find are most inspiring, visit the Ashoka Changemakers Activating
Empathy Competition. Peking University High School, Dovetail Toolbox,
Parents Forum, and Inspired Teaching are among the 12 finalists
chosen from among 628 entries from around the world.

Vote for your favorites and the winners will receive prizes from a
pool of $110,000 to advance their initiatives. [See ]

See Ashoka's empathy initiative website, Start Empathy to learn more
about how educators and parents can help activate empathy and why
it's such an important skill.
PHOTO SIDEBAR: The Center for Inspired Teaching in Washington, D.C.,
invests in teachers to ensure that schools make the most of
children's innate desire to learn. Courtesy of Ashoka Changemakers
SIDEBAR (RELATED): College rankings: Which countries have the best
education systems? See
This article first appeared at Ashoka Changemakers, a global online
community that supports everyone's ability to be a changemaker. See
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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