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December 1, 2018
Vol. 60
No. 12

Empathy Is Academic: Lessons from Lotus Slippers

Social studies classrooms can set the scene to challenge cultural misunderstandings and broaden perspectives.

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Social-emotional learningSchool Culture
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How do we help students lead with curiosity instead of judgment? Even when a practice or culture seems counter to students' own values and beliefs, educators can take steps to frame inquiry with an empathetic lens.
When the Field Museum—Chicago's museum of natural history—opened the Cyrus Tang Hall of China, a permanent exhibit surveying 5,000 years of Chinese culture and history, I immediately thought of my former 5th and 7th grade students. What would help them connect to this material?
Most of my students had no personal experience with people of Chinese descent, outside of the Chinese restaurant in their neighborhood. Growing up in rural California, I could relate; most world cultures I studied were completely outside my personal experience. I sat in classrooms, as a student and as a teacher, where common misconceptions and biases were maintained, both passively and actively. As social studies instructional design specialist for the Field Museum, I knew that students would need help understanding the rich culture and history represented in the exhibit. With the support of a teacher advisory board, I created the China Educator Toolkit to support learning about China and to engage, challenge, and overcome cultural misunderstandings.

Common Concerns, Different Solutions

A guiding principle of Field Museum exhibitions is "common concerns, different solutions," meaning that all humans share the same needs and concerns: food, shelter, community. The way we pursue these needs both reflects and builds our cultural identity. The China Educator Toolkit was designed for students and teachers to experience this journey of discovery, across time and cultures, firsthand.
What I really wanted was for students who study culture and history to cultivate empathy. Empathy can sound like an education buzzword and another layer added to teachers' workload. But it is an important component of social and emotional learning and a challenging academic skill. To empathize requires understanding others in their own context, overcoming personal biases, asking important questions, and seeking new learning.

Three Empathic Lenses

The idea of historical empathy is familiar to social studies teachers. Part of historical study is building connections to the past to understand what it was like to live and make decisions in different historical contexts. But historical empathy alone is not enough in understanding world cultures. Isolating a historical lens runs the risk of silencing contemporary voices. Most natural history museums face this challenge: Exhibitions on Native American cultures are often rooted in historical contexts, and many visitors walk away with the myth that these cultures are all but dead in the contemporary United States. Similarly, studying world cultures with a purely historical focus may leave students with the belief that other cultures are backward or stuck in time.
To address this potential problem, I divide academic empathy in the social sciences into three categories: historical empathy, pushing students outside presentism to understand people living in other times; cultural empathy, engaging with contemporary cultures outside of students' experiences and challenging students' cultural biases; and social empathy, building activities in which students learn to listen to one another's perspectives and collaborate to form new learning. These lenses can be found throughout the China Educator's Toolkit.

Empathy Through Inquiry

The skills required for the three lenses of empathy overlap, and they also complement the critical thinking subskills of connecting, clarifying, comparing, evaluating, interpreting, questioning, and suspending judgment. In their 2001 article "The Role of Empathy in the Development of Historical Understanding," Elizabeth Yeager and Stuart Foster present an inquiry-based approach to engaging empathy by providing students with a paradox to overcome.
First, teachers present a paradox. For example, "How have charismatic leaders enabled decent people to contribute to genocide?" To address the paradox, students research historical context, analyze historical sources and interpretations, and construct reasonable historical conclusions that include multiple perspectives.
The concept paradox presents a challenge. How can we introduce a paradox without contributing to misunderstandings and the formation of new biases? And particularly, how can we do this with middle school students, who can be quick to judge?
One paradox from the Cyrus Tang Hall of China exhibit that drew a lot of attention is a pair of lotus slippers belonging to a woman whose feet had been bound. When introducing the concept of foot binding to students, or simply observing them encounter the slippers in the museum, I heard a similar set of comments: "How could they do that?" "They hated women." "That is so gross."
This paradox—that a beautiful cultural artifact also caused pain and physical deformity—led students to ask questions, but the answers they came to confirmed stereotypes of Chinese culture without conveying anything new. One key instructional strategy, when introducing a paradox, is to do it in a way that draws out and directly addresses biases before students form arguments that affirm the supremacy of their own cultural lens.

The Empathic Paradox

When presenting paradoxes, I have learned to bring cultural biases to the front of discussion and have students address them directly. Here's how that played out when I worked with middle and high school students visiting the museum on field trips. Together, we looked at the lotus slippers, and I prompted, "What do you already know about foot binding? What do you think and feel about it?" The perspectives that I had overheard in the exhibit automatically came to the front: "It's disgusting," "It looks painful," "It's sexist."
After students had a chance to air their opinions, I offered a frame that would extend the conversation into new territory. I said, "It's natural to have opinions, even biases, about cultures and time periods that are different than our own. We grow up with our own cultures, and what we do seems like the natural way. What anthropologists do is try to overcome their cultural biases to understand other cultures in their own terms." I then introduced a new piece of information and asked a question: "We know that foot binding was practiced in China for around a thousand years. I don't think anyone does anything for a thousand years without a reason. What do you think are some reasons foot binding lasted so long? What purpose did it serve?"
Almost instantly, the empathy switch turned on. Students who previously flinched at a "backward," "disgusting" practice were comparing it to present-day beauty standards in their culture, wondering how the practice was reflected across social classes, and reaching for their phones to learn more. Simply posing the question "why?" gives students an opening to empathize with paradoxical issues. Now they were ready to seek new information, analyze a variety of sources, and create new arguments rooted in empathy and the desire to truly understand another culture and time.
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