How might we provide children the agency to practice empathy?

Photo: Students work on building a robot.This is a representative image only. Courtesy: Wikimedia

A Culture of Learning

School districts often function as institutions of oppression. Hierarchical and compliance-based, they are reluctant to change. The model starts at the top, permeates the organization and lands squarely on students. Albemarle County Public Schools wants more and wants better. Here, learning how to learn is most important, and we work through seven key pathways to get there. We believe real change happens from the inside out and that leaders need outsight, not just insight, to catalyze district-wide culture of learning. We trust teachers, and we trust students.

Empowering Pedagogical Entrepreneurs

As a district-level leader, I seek to encourage, support, and resource pedagogical entrepreneurs — those instructional risk-takers committed to enhancing the public school experience for every child. I work to shoulder the administrivia and shield them from the bureaucracy that encumbers their wings. In other words, it’s my job to hold the umbrella so the muck from above doesn’t hit them. Their job is to keep me from using it.

Many educators enter the profession with a sense of altruism. When talented, student-centered educators are given the support they deserve, empathy-based learning opportunities naturally emerge.

For instance, Sutherland Middle School teachers Robbie Munsey and Beth Evans designed a year-long, cross-curricular learning experience in which students empathized with the physically impaired. They developed an appreciation for both the power and the limitations of everyday objects. In the culminating project, students invented resources for people with disabilities. The designs supported activities the student-inventors found meaningful in their own lives (think prosthetic hands designed to operate a lacrosse stick). Scottsville Elementary School teacher Phil Woodson sets the tone each year through his “Change the World in an Day” activity that prompts students to identify a social issue that’s important to them and design a solution that they continuing developing throughout the year.

We encourage our educators to take instructional risks. We ask them to design for learning, not just plan for teaching. To feel what their students feel, the voice of the end-user should be at the core of the work.

Unleashing Student Potential

We are born changemakers. Most children walk through the schoolhouse doors ready to make the world a better place. As with the altruistic teacher, the cells-and-bells model of schooling offers little time and space for actionable empathy beyond a token fundraiser for the latest natural disaster. That changes when we democratize the tools of creativity and create time to access them.

High-schooler Noah was known to hang around Monticello High School’s Learning Commons— an award-winning hub of student innovation resulting from a reconceptualized library space. His friend Brenda’s condition caused her to struggle with eating independently. Leveraging the tools and materials openly available in the Learning Commons, Noah innovated and iterated. Because Brenda struggled to move her wrist separately from her arm, the spoon required a bend. The initial prototype was a basic spoon modified to be angled at 90 degrees. When Brenda indicated the handle wasn’t substantial enough, Noah redesigned the spoon with a large-handled clamp that grips a standard spoon at an angle that can be determined by the end-user. Today, Brenda continues to the clamp, benefiting from a tool that can be adapted for access with her changing skill level. Noah was not only able to expand his 3D design abilities, but he also grew as a result of his positive, impactful contribution. No class, no grade attached, just the agency, autonomy, and space to tap into his own amazing potential.

We can also create authentic opportunities to innovate beyond the school day. For instance, we organized an education-themed Startup Weekend last fall that was open to the public. A high school student that suffers from muscular dystrophy-induced hand fatigue pitched an idea for “Paperless Math,” a tablet application for digitally writing mathematics. Lisa Boyce, a teacher at Henley Middle School, pitched “Gogoloc,” a protype for fingerprint locker access. Considered a Universal Design for Learning solution, Gogoloc allows special needs students unrestricted access to their lockers:

Can Empathy Be Taught?

Maybe teaching empathy directly is not our job. Perhaps our job is to provide the fertile ground, to nurture the seeds that are already there. We create experiences and opportunities for empathy to not only be cultivated but to become actionable.

At the entrance of Meriwether Lewis Elementary School

If we want to actualize empathy — to make feelings tangible — then we must move away from cells and bells toward a place where agency matters. Through trust and support, and by democratizing access to the tools of creativity, we are cultivating changemakers. They will make the world a better place, because they will believe they can.

Bio: Chad Ratliff is Director of Instructional Programs for Albemarle County Public Schools in Charlottesville, VA, where he focuses on integrated curriculum, the maker approach, and entrepreneurial opportunities as part of the district’s emphasis on student-centered and experiential learning. Ratliff is also an adjunct professor of entrepreneurship and the father of two elementary-age children who attend school in Albemarle. You can read more about his work on his website. This blog has been published as a part of the #StartEmpathy series, an ongoing campaign by Ashoka for the Think it Up! initiative. Ratliff is recognized as an Ashoka Empathy ambassador.