Why We Should Teach Empathy To Improve Education (And Test Scores)
John Converse Townsend, Contributor
Empathy matters. And it needs to be taught in schools. I’ve seen, read and written this before, but I wasn’t quite convinced until earlier this week when I plugged into an episode of “This American Life” on a bus to New York City. Episode 474: Back to School.
Cognitive development has been the absolute focus of education for as long as I, or host Ira Glass, can remember. Test scores for reading and math are not just how students are graded, but also how their schools are evaluated, most notably since 2001 with the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act, which mandates universal “proficiency” by 2014 with penalties for those schools which are unable to reach state standards—standards many schools seemunable to reach. This has to change.
Education writer and broadcaster Paul Tough broke it down on air for Ira Glass like this: “Well, I’m definitely not saying that none of that stuff matters at all. I’m saying that we have put way too much emphasis on it, and especially in the early years.”
A new skill set to improve the old one
Tough added that psychologists, neuroscientists, economists, and educators have envisioned a new direction for education emphasizing on a different set of qualities, that are—for a lack of a better term—“non-cognitive skills.” In other words: soft skills or social skills. It’s empathy. And empathy pays off, according to researchers at McGill University in Montreal. They studied parent-pup interaction among rats.
“What they discovered is that there were certain mother rats called ‘dams,’ who, in their laboratory, tended to lick and groom their pups more, especially in stressful situations,” said Tough. The rat pups that did get a little T.L.C. from mom in their first few weeks in the lab lived better: they were more confident, better at mazes and less fearful than the pups which did not.
Stress is a troublesome issue for humans too, but empathy can help; in this sense, perhaps we’re not so different from our furry rodent friends at McGill University. In humans, stress negatively affects learning and brain development in children, mostly affecting the prefrontal cortex which manages non-cognitive skills like self-control along with memory and reasoning. Poor children, who are at greater risk of adverse childhood experiences, are disproportionately affected. Dr. Nadine Burke Harris who opened a clinic for poor minorities in Bayview-Hunters point in San Francisco has studied the effects of stress on young minds.
By Flickr user WoodleyWonderWorks
“For our kids,” Dr. Harris told Ira Glass, “if they had four or more adverse childhood experiences, their odds of having learning or behavior problems in school was 32 times as high as kids who had no adverse childhood experiences.”
Tough introduced listeners to what’s called a secure attachment relationship, a concept that’s been around since the mid-20th century. Secure attachment in rat pups is built through grooming, but in humans it is provided by an adult (usually a parent) comforting a child during tough times.
“Researchers say that about two-thirds of American kids have a secure attachment, one-third don’t,” said Glass. “And the two-thirds with a secure attachment are more socially competent and confident through their lives. They’re better at dealing with other people and making friends. They’re better able to deal with setbacks. They’re more likely to be engaged in the classroom. They’re more likely to graduate high school.”
Empathy can help reduce the damaging effects of repeated stress in human children—like it did for the rat pups in the McGill University laboratory—which seems to suggest that empathy has tremendous implications for achievement, both socially and intellectually. Empathy isn’t just something for youth, either. It’s a skill that can transform a community and build social capital.
It is not too late to learn
James Heckman, Nobel Prize winning economist at the University of Chicago, is a leader in rethinking education in the 21st century. He joined Paul Tough and Dr. Nadine Burke Harris as a guest on the podcast, noting that it is not too late to learn these skills:
“What we’ve learned is that [human] capabilities can be shaped,” said Heckman. “And as an economist, what I like about it is that it has this possibility of reducing inequality, but not doing it through the standard mechanism of just handing out money and transfers from the rich to the poor. That’s ancient.”
“The idea is you make the poor highly capable. That there really is a possibility of giving people more possibilities. That there really is the chance of improving their capabilities,” said Heckman.
Facts: new skills = better scores
Chicago has a social program called One Goal which works with about 1,300 high school kids in the city, helping them to develop non-cognitive skills and leadership principles—Paul Tough described a One Goal classroom as a sort of ongoing group therapy session. But it’s more than that, and Tough admitted as much.
Kewauna Lerma, once an aggressive 15-year-old girl who was arrested for punching a police officer, was one of the students helped by One Goal’s social-emotional learning program. As a freshman in high school she had a GPA of 1.8. On her first practice ACT, she scored an 11, which put Kewauna in the bottom one percentile of everyone who took the test that year. By sophomore year, after she enrolled in One Goal, her GPA had jumped to 3.4. She graduated high school with a GPA of 4.1 and scored a 15 on her ACT and enrolled in Western Illinois University.
One Goal isn’t the only program changing the future prospects of youth in Chicago. This summer, I wrote a piece on Changing Worlds, a program that’s bringing empathy and the arts to Chicago’s low-income schools with both tangible and transformative results.
“At the end of the third year of the program, test scores for students in Changing Worlds’ program were greater than control group students, with an average positive difference of 11.5 points across all schools for composite scores,” Executive Director Mark Rodriguez told me in a phone interview.
Looking at the numbers, it is hard to accept that standardized testing is still the norm, when it is clear that we are failing our students by only emphasizing cognitive skills. Higher curriculum standards don’t correlate to higher student achievement, according to a study by the Brookings Institution; empathy does.
The capacity for empathy builds the socio-economic potential for individuals, and, further, likely holds the key for the success of business in the 21stcentury. Empathy isn’t just about hugs and pats on the back. It is a skill that can make young people more productive in work environments that require cooperation and in a global economy that becomes more complex with each passing day. It is what turns them into future leaders.
Changing Worlds was selected as one of two Judges’ Awards winners in the “Activating Empathy: Transforming Schools to Teach What Matters” competition hosted by Ashoka’s Empathy Initiative.