Empathy is the characteristic where innovation begins. It is crucial to put yourself in the place of those that you serve if we are going to create something that is better moving forward. This was highlighted in a great article I recently read titled, “Innovation, Empathy, and Introspection” (it is really an interesting read). I loved the part about “novelists” being masters of empathy.
Novelists are the world’s masters at empathy. We can learn a lot about empathy by looking at their work.
In a long novel, published in 1951, entitled Memoirs of Hadrian, the French writer Marguerite Yourcenar set herself a huge task around empathy. She wanted to write not simply about the Roman emperor Hadrian, she wanted to write from his point of view. And to do that she’d have to enter imaginatively into what it was like to be him. She was a woman, living in a small flat in New York, used to taking taxis and boiling the kettle, whose direct experience of power might have been limited to hiring someone to repaint the bedroom. Hadrian was master of the known world.
She did lots of research. She found out about Roman history, she read up on their religious assumptions, the background horizon and politics, the structure of family life, what they had for dinner, how the postal-system operated and how many slaves an emperor might have. But she wasn’t only trying to find out about Hadrian’s world. She was asking a more radical and creative question: what would it be like actually to be him?
This really pushed my thinking on the importance of subjects like english, that have a focus on developing empathy, being crucial to innovative pursuits for students.
It also pushed my thinking on the notion of not necessarily separating students from teachers, but seeing everyone as “learners” (although we obviously have different functions within the organization of schools). When educators view themselves in the same light as a student (as a learner), this practice is not only crucial, but necessary to innovation in teaching and learning. I have noticed in my workshops lately, when asked by educators about the concerns of some things that we might be able to do with students, I often answer the question with a question; how would you feel as a learner in that same situation? We often say things like, “kids can share a device amongst three of their other peers”, while having 2-3 devices sitting in front of us at a professional learning opportunity. Our mindset becomes different when we put ourselves in the place of “learner”, as opposed to separating student from teacher.
I remember once doing an activity with students where I asked them to write down on a whiteboard all of the ways they wanted to be perceived “offline” by others. When they wrote all of the attributes down (respectful, kind, helpful, humorous, etc.), I then asked them to write how they want to be perceived “online”. Their answers (obviously) were the same, although the reason the activity happened in the first place, was at the time, their actions did not align with how they said they wanted to be perceived. What if we wrote down what we wanted for ourselves as learners on one side, and then followed it up with what we want to create for the learners we serve (our students). Would those answers be any different? What do our actions say?
Only when we look at it from the point of view of those we serve, can we truly be innovative in teaching, learning, and leadership.