Empathetic Instruction

Elisabeth Johnston

Spring 2022

Originally posted on Pedagogy, Play, & Practice on April 29, 2022

This spring I decided to focus on revising my section of Tackling a Wicked Problem (TWP), one of first year courses offered in our General Education program at Plymouth State University. Each section of TWP focuses on a wicked problem. The last several times I taught this course, our focus was the climate crisis.

When I taught this course last in the fall, it was a challenging. I felt like the course was going well and then we moved into our small group work and things started to shift. I didn’t know how to help the students to engage in the work more deeply. It was interesting for me to think about since it seemed earlier in the course, when we working more as a whole group, we had developed a strong learning community and the group had articulated interest in the wicked problem. I don’t want to go into more details of what happened or didn’t happened, but I know that it was not successful.

Now, I feel like I have an opportunity to reimagine how I teach this course and I decided that I needed help thinking about these possibilities. I reached out to Martha Burtis (again), from our Open Teaching & Learning Collaborative (CoLab). Since spring break, I have been meeting with Martha about once a week to talk about the course. When we first started these conversations, my goal was to get help with the second part of the course, when students work primarily in small groups. Students use the design thinking process to develop a potential way to take action on climate change. Even before the fall, this aspect of the course was challenging. I always ask myself what are the best ways to support the students’ work without taking it over by scaffolding too much or asking questions that are too directive rather than open ended. So this seemed like the place to start.

Martha and I began our conversations here, but as we talked more about these ideas I came to the realization that maybe I needed to redesign the beginning of the course. I honestly can’t remember exactly how we started talking about empathy but this idea emerged in our conversations. I do know that it relates to many ideas that I consider in my practice. I have been working to analyze the structures in my courses and why I have certain policies in place. Also, I have transitioned to ungrading in my courses. All of this work plus the pandemic has put empathy in the forefront of my mind and has pushed my thinking about my teaching. As we talked about the course, it seemed that empathy might be the place to start. I am at the beginning of thinking what this might look like and I would like to share my initial thoughts of what I think I will do.

First, I want to share a couple of other connections to empathy. As I mention, I use Design Thinking in the course to help the students approach their work of taking action. The first part of this process is to gain empathy and this seems to be a piece that the students find challenging. Often they are ready to define the problem since this is the element they are most familiar with in the Design Thinking process. They have many experiences focusing on finding information to help them learn more about a particular topic. The second connection relates to the Habits of Mind. I started wondering how empathy connects to the skills the students develop as part of the Habits of Mind. With these two connections in place and my thoughts about empathy in my teaching practice, I developed the following outline for the first part of the semester. I have organized my thinking with 5 main questions and I put them in the order I think we will explore them in the course.

What is empathy?

I am thinking that we will want to spend time defining empathy. We will start by considering our experiences with empathy and what it means to us. Then we will do some reading. How did this shape our thinking? How could we create a class definition for what we mean? This could change over time as we learn more but it could be a starting point to the work.

Below is a list of potential resources to help us gain an understanding of empathy.

How can we get to know each other’s perspectives? (Individual)

These activities would happen during the first week/second week of class. I think that these could pair with the discussion of empathy. I am not sure if I would highlight the thread of empathy as we do this work or wait until after and use it as a way to reflect. Where did you use empathy? One way that the students might share some of this information is by creating a One Pager about themselves.

Below is a beginning list of the individual perspectives we might explore.

  • College- worries/concerns/what are you excited about
  • Prior Educational Experiences-successes/challenges
  • Learning Inventory- This is a list of questions I use to learn more about my students’ perspectives of their learning.
  • Individual Interests
  • Likes/Dislikes

The next step would be to explore our personal perspectives related to the topic for the section of the course.

  • Why did you decide to take this section of TWP (climate change)?
  • What knowledge/experiences shape your thoughts about climate change?

How will our individual perspectives inform our work together? (2nd/3rd week of class)

  • Right now, I think the next step would be to discuss how what we learned about our individual perspectives will inform our work as a group. What do we need to consider so that we can learn?
  • We will want to talk about ideas that relate to our course structure and expectations for learning.
  • We will have discussions related to how we will approach learning about climate change.

Where do you see empathy in the Habits of Mind? (2nd/3rd week of class)

This might go with the conversations of how we will do our work together. This is at the heart of the course so it seems important to do this work early on. Below are some of my initials thoughts about how empathy connects to the Habits of Mind.

  • Purposeful Communication (awareness of context & effective application of strategies for communication)
  • Problem Solving (problem framing & challenge identification)
  • Integrated Perspective

How can we use empathy to understand other people’s experiences/perspectives about climate change?

This question will allow us to learn about the wicked problem and design thinking. My hope is that if we focus on learning about different perspectives on climate change that this might inform our work and help us to consider ways to take action. As a group we will develop these ideas by exploring the resources below. I am considering including an assignment where the students will interview someone about their perspective about climate change but I haven’t fully developed this idea.

I am excited about the potential of this idea. Starting with empathy could help us bring a focus to the beginning of the course that will allow us to thread several aspects of our work together. My hope is that bringing empathy to forefront of our work will provide students with a better way to connect to the course learning community, to the course structure, to the Habits of Mind, and to the topic of climate change. Connect. Can focusing on empathy do all these things? I am willing to try to put empathy first to see where it will lead.


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Cluster Learning at Plymouth State: A Community-Based Approach to Pedagogy Copyright © 2019 by Elisabeth Johnston is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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