Empathy in Theory
Classroom - Empathy in Theory

Three Theories and Practices that Support Empathy in Education


Theory of Multiple Intelligences


Frames of Mind by Howard Gardener


Howard Gardner (1983) identified seven intelligences in his work to dispel the notion that intelligence is a single entity defined by a single IQ score. He indentified the linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligences. Gardner’s work supports Pink’s argument of the importance of empathy and ties it directly to the classroom. Interpersonal intelligence is the “capacity to understand the intentions, motivations, and desires of other people” (Gardner, 2003, p. 43). Recognizing that this is an intelligence that some students may be more proficient in than others should lead to an appreciation of the skill in those students, and recognition of the need to teach it to others. Empathy is an innate sense in most people, transcending culture (as seen in the studies conducted by Paul Ekman (2003) in his study of facial expressions) but Gardner’s theory supports the idea that empathy is an integral part of an intelligence that, like the other forms of intelligence, are strong in some individuals while weak in others. Empathy can be taught and our empathic skills practiced and grown. Skills such as listening, noticing and interpreting verbal and nonverbal cues are all important components of building relationships, and necessary skills in dealing empathically with those around us. The right side of the brain handles many of these skills, such as attending to nonverbal cues and nuances in facial expression and body language. The right side also sees the whole picture; where the left side of the brain may analyze only the actual words being spoken the right side takes into account the whole picture based on context and a holistic view of the person. Building these skills and exercising the right brain to better see the whole person that we are communicating with will build our interpersonal intelligence.



 Lev Vygotsky




Vygotsky (Dahm, 2008, Theory of Learning section) said that learning takes place in a relationship between the learner and the “More Knowledgeable Other (MKO).” From this perspective learning itself is a fundamentally cooperative and social function. Empathy is an important, implied concept within this learning theory in that the MKO must be able to understand and listen to the learner in order to determine what Vygotsky identified as their Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), or the area in which the learner is best fit to learn, linking interest and cognitive development. This requires the teacher to take into account, not only the child’s current knowledge base, but to look at the child holistically, with empathy to find their student’s optimal learning environment. Learning, to Vygotsky, was a process of developing “culturally organized, specifically human, psychological function…the development of higher order thinking skills (Dahm, 2008, Theory of Learning section, para.1).” Empathy itself falls in this category of higher order thinking skills. Analyzing another’s emotions and learning to react to their experiences in a manner that is positive, and rewarding to both parties is dependent on the ability to process information that may be out of the empathizer’s normal range of experiences (Dahm, 2008).


Problem-based Learning


Problem- based learning has its roots in the medical profession, as a response to the overwhelming wealth of information that students were expected to memorize (CTLS, 2006. Background of Problem-Based Learning section). This is an unrealistic expectation and in many ways unnecessary in light of the abundance and accessibility of information, whereas the skill of solving real life problems and building diagnoses from a set of symptoms is something that all doctors must be able to do. In problem-based learning, learners are presented with problems based on real life situations, and are facilitated through the process of solving this problem, while acquiring critical knowledge about the subject. Led by a facilitator, and in groups, students construct and build a body of knowledge in response to issues that they may face, acquiring traditional textbook knowledge, while building critical thinking and group skills. Teaching empathy involves discussing and analyzing real life situations or problems that students may be facing in their own lives or have seen experienced by others. Young students can learn to deal with bullying and treating others kindly, older students may tackle issues such as differences in religion or race, teaching them to be empathetic gives these students skills to deal with these problems. One way to teach empathy is to have students role-play to problem-solve these real life situations. Developing strategies to understand how another feels in a situation makes students respond to problems where the answers require discussion and may not have a certain right or wrong answer. Learning how to deal empathically with difficult real life situations is something that we as humans never stop learning or needing as we grow and encounter different situations and people. Teaching students to do this enables them to be able to live and thrive in a diverse world where the problems and people that they meet will not be simple. Built into this strategy itself, separate, from the topic being taught, is the need for students to work together to build knowledge. This cannot be done without empathy, learning to see the problem from another’s point of view and reacting to this difference to build knowledge.