Teaching Empathy in the 21st-Century Classroom

Use current studies on empathy to design technology-based lessons to facilitate the enhancement of this social-emotional skill.

By Marianne Green

Classrooms today use different forms of technology to enhance learning. The question is how technology can be harnessed to complement social-emotional learning, specifically empathy.

If empathy is “the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling,” then how can technology aid the development of this much-needed social skill?[1]

Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, Ph.D. and Founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom points out that human beings possess a “negativity bias” where the mind primarily focuses and recalls negative experiences rather than positive ones. If technology can be used to rewire this bias, then learners can literally transform their minds to become more empathic. Hanson suggests the HEAL method: “Have a good experience; Enrich it; Absorb it; and Link positive and negative material.”[2]

Lessons can be designed with the HEAL method as a template. Students can reflect on personal experiences, character development, or primary source journals using this method. Writing reflections using the classroom’s preferred technology (Google or Microsoft) and then design video reflections using Screencastify, iMovie, or YouTube are some ways that technology can enhance these reflections.

Similar to Hanson, Roman Krznaric, Ph.D., author of Wonderbox: Curious Histories of How to Live and How to Find Fulfilling Work, comments that empathy can be nurtured and developed over the course of one’s lifetime improving the quality of life. Krznaric’s suggests the following habits as ones used by highly empathic people: 1) Cultivate Curiosity about Strangers, 2) Challenge Prejudices and Discover Commonalities, 3) Try Another Person’s Life, 4) Listen Hard – Open Up, 5) Inspire Mass Action and Social Change, and 6) Develop and Ambitious Imagination.[3]

Using Krznaric’s suggested habits of effective empathic people, middle to high school classrooms can analyze their application to real-world examples.

One such case is the Tariq Khamisa story from 1995. Tariq Khamisa, a college student, was shot point-blank by 14-year-old Tony Hicks. In the wake of this murder, Tariq’s father Azim reached out to Ples Felix, Hick’s grandfather. These two men understood that gun violence claims two victims – the one holding the gun and the one shot. In the spirit of healing, they founded the Tariq Khamisa Foundation whose mission is “to create safer schools and communities through educating and inspiring children in the restorative principles of accountability, compassion, forgiveness, and peacemaking.”[4]

Another real-world example for consideration is Jessica Ekstrom’s Headbands for Hope initiative. Started after her college internship experience with Walt Disney World, Ekstrom during her hospital visits noticed children with cancer wearing headbands. Her organization now supplies thousands of headbands to cancer patients.[5]

Elementary classrooms may consider examples from age-appropriate books such as The Hero Two Doors Down: Based on the True Story of Friendship Between a Boy and a Baseball Legend by Sharon Robinson, The Forgiveness Garden by Lauren Thompson, or Maya Lin Artist – Architect of Light and Lines by Jeanne Walker.

Technology applications like MakeBeliefs Comix and Vocaroo can be paired together to design creative presentations to real-world applications and age-appropriate books using the following questions posed in Terry Heick’s Edutopia article “Teaching Empathy: Are We Teaching Content or Students?”:

  1. Who am I?
  2. Who is “other”? And how? In what functions and degrees?
  3. How do we relate? What do we share?
  4. What do they need from me, and I from them? [6]

If according to Pope Francis, “Love opens our eyes and enables us to see, beyond all else, the great worth or a human being,” then using current studies on empathy to design technology-based lessons can help facilitate the enhancement of this social-emotional skill.[7]

Photo credit: George Martell/Bayard Inc. All rights reserved.

Photo credit: George Martell/Bayard Inc. All rights reserved.

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Marianne Green has been educating Catholic students in K-12 schools for the past 16 years and has collaborated on programming with the Institute of the Incarnate Word’s mission in Hafnarfjöđur, Iceland. She currently works as an independent consultant for the Catholic Apostolate Center in Washington, DC. She strives to help students live their missionary calling through the Ignatian philosophy of “seeing God in all things.”


[1]Tariq Khamisa Foundation – Stopping Teen Violence.” Tkf.org. N. p., 2018. Web. 12 June 2018.

[2] Hope, Headbands. “Meet Jess.” Headbands of Hope. N. p., 2018. Web. 13 June 2018.

[3]Teaching Empathy: Are We Teaching Content Or Students? | Edutopia.” Edutopia. N. p., 2018. Web. 12 June 2018.

[4] Pope Francis. “Amoris Laetitia – The Joy Of Love.” Vatican Va. N. p., 2018. Web. 12 June 2018. 128.

[5] Heick, Terry. “Teaching Empathy: Are We Teaching Content Or Students? | Edutopia.” Edutopia. N. p., 2018. Web. 12 June 2018.

[6]Hardwiring Happiness: Dr. Rick Hanson at Tedxmarin 2013.” YouTube. N. p., 2018. Web. 12 June 2018.

[7] Krznaric, Roman. “Six Habits of Highly Empathic People.” Greater Good. N. p., 2018. Web. 12 June 2018.

Photo credit: George Martell/Bayard Inc. All rights reserved.

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