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April 12, 2018
Vol. 13
No. 15

How to Build a Culture of Empathy to Support Design Thinking

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Social-emotional learning
"Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world."–Barack Obama
Design thinking without empathy is like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without the peanut butter—which is arguably the best part. Design thinking isn't just a problem-solving process, it is a human-centered problem-solving process where empathy is the key differentiator. It is the key that unlocks relevant and innovative solutions to both large and small problems. Empathy allows the designer to connect with the needs of the end user and understand the problem with new perspective. When you can truly empathize with both the conditions of a problem and the affected people, you are 100 percent more invested in finding a solution.
It can be difficult for students to connect their passions and interests with the materials or concepts they are studying. In many cases, the content just doesn't feel relevant to them. Using design thinking as a productive learning strategy offers a bridge for students to inject questions and insights into what they are learning in an authentic and meaningful way. It allows them to affect their world and offers a way to apply their ideas to the content being learned. For those connections to occur, it's important for teachers to build empathy skills with students.
Here are three ways to build a culture of empathy with your learners.

Share in Others' Stories and Experiences

Empathy isn't just about feelings. It really is about listening to and understanding the experiences of others. In early 2017, IDEO's Teachers' Guild launched an empathy campaign called "This Is Me and I Matter." The campaign invites students to share short videos stating who they are and what they want others to know about them. This allows students to share a dialogue about stereotyping as they build deeper understandings about each other's differences and similarities. Teacher's Guild launched this campaign because they believe greater empathy can transform classrooms and schools by helping students feel more connected, supported, and safe. What might it look like to launch a #knowmystory campaign in your classroom? Follow the hashtag to get some ideas.

Talk to Outsiders

Talking to people outside of our classrooms can build empathy. The simple act of engaging with others with diverse backgrounds moves the conversation from abstract discussions to real interactions. An elementary school in Virginia, interested in exploring projects that do good in local or global communities, hosted two college students who founded Pan Clothing. The mission of Pan Clothing is to eliminate illiteracy and improve the lives of children in Haiti. For every item of clothing they sell, they provide five textbooks to students in the country. Fourth and 5th grade students spent time interviewing the college students about what their company needed to succeed and what students in Haiti needed. What the students learned from the project will help them understand what students in other places in the world might need help with, providing meaningful insights that will inform their own philanthropic design projects. What conversations can you set up with people outside of your classroom for your learners?

Observe Until You are Bored (then Observe Some More)

Another way to build empathy is to hone your powers of observation to see what others overlook. Preschool students at Mt. Vernon Presbyterian School in Atlanta took a trip to the infant care unit in a hospital. There were no expectations that they might find a problem or solution; they just went to observe and question. The preschoolers noticed the babies were attracted to a shiny top that one of the students was wearing and then questioned why they didn't have any shiny toys. This became the need they solved for. They studied colors, shiny materials, and safe baby toys before prototyping a few toys for the babies to test. Every student was committed to this important task. They were no longer creating something just for fun, they were solving a problem for the babies. The commitment to learning and joy was apparent on every face. What might your students observe inside or outside of your school to identify needs?
Practicing empathy with your students will build a stronger learning culture and community because we learn most deeply from things that make us curious to learn more. So, while you can practice the design process and build something amazing, grounding your work in empathy is the key to building something that truly matters. It is also the practice that will help students think like designers!

Alyssa Gallagher co-leads BTS Spark in North America, helping school leaders across the United States and Canada access leadership coaching and professional development. Alyssa combines experience of school leadership and school district administration with expertise in leadership development. She spent 20 years in the U.S. public education K–12 sector, filling many roles, including teacher, principal, and assistant superintendent. Under Alyssa’s guidance, Los Altos School District (California) became a nationally recognized leader in educational innovation, and her work was featured on CNN and by Forbes, Wired, The Economist, and 60 Minutes. Alyssa has coauthored two ASCD books: Design Thinking for School Leaders (2018) and Design Thinking in Play (2020).

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