empathy

It’s hard to believe it’s been three whole years since I began working in a 1:1 classroom. It all started when one of my teammates came up with the crazy idea to write a grant for the first iPad initiative in our school district. She ended up having great success with the pilot, and as a result, the program grew to include our whole team, and eventually the whole school.  Never before had I used technology at such high frequency, and I’ll admit, my understanding of what technology should be used for in the classroom was limited. I envisioned students humming through applications, using one for math facts and another for social studies content, meanwhile doing some word processing here and there.

But that was just my naiveté.

Quickly into the school year, I was able to see that technology was so much more than just a means for using cool applications in the classroom. I found that I frequently used it to document learning on my classroom website, allowing students a place to access daily lesson plans and interactive resources; I found that I was using Google Drive to share resources with my students and training them to keep online portfolios; and I found that I was using e-mail to communicate with them when they needed help on their homework or extra resources for a research project.

In retrospect, it comes as no surprise that these simple tools did way more than the flashy (and expensive) applications did. Those applications, while helpful for rote knowledge and, in some cases, interactive learning, weren’t able do the job all on their own. Instead, these tools and technologies—classroom websites, Google Drive, e-mail—were (and still are) simple ways to increase communication streams in the classroom. And in many cases, I think this painfully obvious and utterly simple idea is oftentimes overlooked in many of our technology-rich classrooms.

Technology and Communication

After all, technology has many of its foundations in communication. Thousands of years ago, something as simple as a large, covered ceramic jar was considered revolutionary technology. At that time, Sumerians needed a way to store surplus grain, a powerful byproduct of new hydraulic agricultural societies. Due to irrigation systems and refined processes for growing large amounts of food, they noticed they suddenly had an abundance—one they need not waste.

What’s more, this brilliant invention gave birth to another revolutionary technology: written numbers. Scribes, who specialized in writing, were able to keep track of this surplus grain through the language they had developed.

In this instance, specifically from some our earliest recorded examples of revolutionary technology–the ceramic jar and the writing system–communication and documentation lied at the crux of it all. They not only needed to know how much grain they had in their surplus stores, but they needed a systematized way to communicate it to themselves and to others. Our modern-day biases toward electronic technologies, however, generally disinhibit us from seeing this sort of invention as technology. We don’t realize all of the miraculous human thought, artful iteration, and groundbreaking innovation that has gone into the, now decorative, ceramic jars that sit on our hearths or next to our front doors.

And this pattern of innovation continued for ages: using paper eventually made letters and books easier to send, increasing the wide-spread dissemination of ideas; the telegraph eventually allowed messages to be instantly sent over long distances, paving the way for increasingly sophisticated communicative technologies such as the telephone, e-mail, instant messaging, and social networking. And all for the sake of helping people communicate, connect, and in turn, understand one another better.

Technology and Empathic Extension 

While we may not always know it, communicative technologies are not merely for the sake of efficiency itself. Instead, these tools develop our ability to understand ourselves and others. These tools develop empathy. That’s precisely what the first forms of communication did, and that’s precisely what communication continues to do as our society becomes an increasingly global one.

Jeremy Rifkin, in The Empathic Civilization, discusses the impact of technology specifically on human evolution, noting that advances in communication have not only increased our efficiency as societies, but it has also increased our capacity to see, know, understand, and value others through the written word and communication technologies. In essence, each communication system has increased our ability to empathize.

With the invention of the printing press, for example, succinct ideas could suddenly be mass-produced and disseminated to the public. Something similar occurred with the telegraph and the telephone. People were soon able to communicate over long distances, heightening an individual’s ability to understand and connect with someone outside of his or her immediate geography. In so many ways, communication and technology is how the world has managed to become smaller, and it’s because it has managed to increase our collective, empathic consciousness. Suddenly, because of technology, others didn’t feel so far away. They didn’t feel distant. They didn’t feel like the “other.”

And today, due to the Internet, we can go yet another step further than the telephone or telegraph ever could. We can now see and interact with people, groups, and stories that occur at almost any place known to man, and as a result, create empathic networks that expand further outside our immediate spheres of influence than ever before.

The heightened empathic capabilities of technology are even visible in smaller systems, though—systems like a classroom. In fact, I’ve been able to see this first-hand over the past few years, watching my students grow and develop in technology rich classrooms. One day, in particular, in the middle of my narrative writing unit, I asked my students to use Edmodo, a popular ed-social networking application for the classroom, to work on revising specific words, phrases, and sentences within their narratives.

Building up to this lesson, we pored through examples of strong and weak sentences on the SMARTBoard, provided feedback, and applied our knew knowledge individually from there. While this was beneficial to their writing development, I needed to find a way to facilitate more interactions between students, without me as a buffer in between. So, on this day in particular, my students used Edmodo to fulfill this same purpose. I asked each of them to submit a sentence they felt had strong sensory details, as well as a sentence they felt could use a bit of work.

The room fell so incredibly silent to the point that I thought all of my students were confused. I began to walk around, scratching my head, wondering if they had, in fact, understood the directions, or if they were just poking around on the interface, unsure of what to do. Lo and behold, they were reading each other’s writing, commenting, and learning how to make their own writing better. After students finished, we discussed the insights we drew from seeing others’ writing. We commented on various uses of literary devices, strong vocabulary, and even made connections to the stories they knew one other was writing.

While I didn’t realize it at the time, and while at first this lesson may not have sounded like a conduit to empathic development, I later discovered that it wasn’t just communication, thoughtful reflection, and effective feedback that technology was fostering within our classroom.

It was empathy.

In this case, this communicative technology, Edmodo, was not only removing me from the equation and turning my students’ writing into educational material, but it was creating a collective understanding, a network of ideas, and a strong sense of empathy between students. Students suddenly knew what their peers’ topics were, and as a result, were able to provide fruitful feedback to each other. I began to see elements of students’ writing in their peers’, an indicator that they were, in fact, taking the feedback to heart and learning from each other, strengthening empathy—both academic and social-emotional—within our classroom.

Edmodo isn’t the only communication technology, though, that allows these empathic benefits. Simple new technologies like YouTube or BrainPop! help bring unique experiences right to students’ desks. By watching news clips from around the world, seeing videos about foreign concepts or faraway lands, and allowing them to find new ways to see and communicate with each other, we’ve harnessed the power of technology as an empathic extension – as a way to bend, extend, manipulate, and transport ourselves into places we never would have been able to understand otherwise.

An incredible number of these communicative technologies have now permeated school culture, and the greatest part about it all, is that it doesn’t require an immense amount of expensive applications, or an extensive understanding of hardware or software capabilities. Instead, all that a teacher needs, in order to harness the power of communicative technology, is an understanding of its power–the understanding that it is an extension of ourselves, a medium for building a collective empathic consciousness, and a way of truly understanding of the world around us.

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