15 years into the 21st century, we find ourselves in the midst of an era that values mastery learning and standards-based achievement. While these ideas are valuable and helpful in our every day practice, they are not absolutes, and should not be treated as such. Mastery learning and standards-based achievement imply a linear mindset in the classroom, and the classroom is anything but linear. What’s more, the classroom cannot simply be defined by academia. The mastery learning philosophy lacks a critical component; it lacks the social-emotional component. Some educators affixed within the mastery learning paradigm will create and advocate for programs meant to achieve social-emotional mastery, but social and emotional education is not something to be “achieved” or “mastered.” Social and emotional education can only be achieved through process-oriented learning.
Building the Empathic Classroom
In my opinion, one of the underpinnings to social-emotional learning is empathy. The other is vulnerability. I’d like to examine these two in isolation and then in tandem with each other.
Humans are hardwired for empathy. In fact, everything I’ve read so far has supported this idea. It is instinctual and equally as beneficial to our survival and evolution as breathing and eating. We are hardwired to connect with others, and this connection is critical to our development as well as our mental and physical health. This is no different in the classroom. I know it makes teachers crazy, but this is extremely apparent in each and every moment we find ourselves asking our students to “stop talking” to a neighbor. They sit within feet of these other little humans, and they yearn for connection with them. So what do they do? They talk.
But it doesn’t stop here. Empathy is not as simple as interpersonal communication. However, basic interpersonal communication is one of the pathways to empathy. In fact, Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly, argues that communication is simply a byproduct of our hardwiring for connection and empathy. In order to empathize, we need to communicate. It could not be achieved without communication. Further, Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Empathic Civilization, argues that as the human race develops empathically, we do so because of increasingly complex communication systems, ones which allow us access to more populations and in turn, different types of people, helping us to broaden our perspectives and open our eyes to how big the world truly is.
While humans are hardwired for empathy, societal norms and constraints oftentimes do not allow us to achieve this. These vestigial constraints put upon us, rather than helping maintain a sense of order and civilization, promote shame and inauthenticity. These norms of which we are all victim may–in some way, shape, or form–have been purposeful hundreds of years prior, but they no longer hold a purpose in a global civilization where our need for connection transcends the need for norms. However, to break free of these norms, to truly connect, and to truly begin to develop empathy, vulnerability is critical.
Students come into our classrooms, having already experienced the shame and constraint that social norms put upon them. Especially as they grow older, the develop an understanding of what a student “should be,” what a woman “should look like,” or what a man “should act like,” and in their minds, anything that deviates is scary; it instills a sense of shame in them.
However, to combat this, creating an environment where vulnerability is taught and modeled will help to build an empathic classroom. But it all begins with the teacher. Not only does the teacher need to artfully, authentically, and purposefully reveal parts of himself or herself to establish this connection, but he or she needs to build an environment that safely and carefully nurtures the vulnerability of his or her students. Once students feel safe being vulnerable, they will take risks, they will be themselves, and they will find their own identity in the context of the greater classroom community, hopefully one day extrapolating to a broader social context.
Even though I’ve discussed these two concepts discretely, empathy and vulnerability are continuous and reciprocal. While vulnerability is critical to empathy, empathy is also critical to vulnerability. Neither initiates the other; rather vulnerability and empathy are representative of a mutualistic relationship that makes up the foundation of human connection. In order to feel the desire to be vulnerable to our peers, we need to identify with them in some way, whether it is with their joy or their plight. Conversely, in order to empathize, one needs to be vulnerable enough to share his or her feelings, while the other needs to be vulnerable enough to accept those feelings and treat them as their own.
In the classroom, this does not mean implementing a social-emotional program. Instead, creating an empathic classroom requires students to value the process of connection and relationship building, and students may learn this through making mistakes, taking risks, and learning from those mistakes and risks. This process will eventually take them towards a differentiated outcome, one that lies in connection, but one that also takes on a radically different meaning for each individual. This process spirals onward, not towards a standardized outcome, but towards a never-ending quest for belonging.