The question of what learning matters most to our students is one that I return to regularly. A fascinating range of models are available each with similar elements but presented in a slightly different manner. Most could be summarised by the ‘Four C’s’ model outlined in ‘Most Likely to Succeed’ by Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith. Critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity are vital and each plays an important role in allowing us to manage the complexity of modern day life. Beyond being relevant to success in the classroom the Four C’s are the foundations of life-long learning but I question if alone they are enough. I believe we must include a fifth; compassion.
Compassion is empathy in action according to Sean Gordon of ‘Kids Give’. It is the capacity to read another person’s emotional state, identify a need and take positive action. Without compassion the Four C’s are at risk of producing somewhat shallow results and as is the case for creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration we should not assume that compassion comes naturally or does not need to be taught.
Empathy is the first step in the design cycle as described by IDEO. The American design company recognises the importance of understanding the human factors that underlie their designs and the impact that their solutions will have. Danish schools also understand the importance of empathy and have a programme, mandatory for students and teaches children to read and respond to the emotions of others while improving their own emotional awareness. Developing opportunities to build empathy and to reflect on our emotional states without judgment is important and strategies such as ‘Circle Time’ (where children develop their socio-emotional intelligence through shared experience and discussion in circles) can be effective in building these moments into the school day.
Empathy alone is not enough though. Our children are bombarded by images of grief, sadness and loss and these images leave many with feelings of hopelessness. Empathetic understanding and the capacity to speak about these feelings may open doors to sharing these feelings but compassion prompts action that delivers hope. Through the compassion of a global community impacted by images of extreme poverty the number of people whose lives are destroyed by ‘stupid’ or extreme poverty each year has halved according to Rev. Tim Costello of World Vision.
Compassion should play a role in every aspect of learning. Collaboration clearly hinges on the capacity for each member to interact with compassion for the needs of their collaborators. Understanding that a classmate finds contributing to group discussion requires empathy, taking action to gently include that person demands compassion. Critical thinking on the lessons of history is nothing unless we learn from our past and look with compassion for how we make things better. Communication without compassion for our audiences and our subjects is bound to have reduced impact and our creative energies unless directed to making the world a better place are somehow lacking.
‘Now you know it, so what?’ is the powerful question Lane Clark asks her students as they master new knowledge. ‘Know you understand another persons needs, So What?’ may be the question to take students from empathy to compassion. Helping our students to find compassionate answers to their growing perception of the inequities, sadness and human challenges we all face may allow them to be agents of hope in their own lives.
By Nigel Coutts