When I was a kid, there was no such thing as a social and emotional curriculum. Feelings were something to work out on the playground, or after the last bell of the day rang.
Today, my elementary-age son learns about emotions in the classroom. This is progress, without a doubt, but these conversations tend to be siloed from academic work. They talk about their moods, learn tips for self-regulation, and then move on to science and writing.
Researchers from the University of Cambridge explored what happens when you combine social and emotional learning with more traditional academic work.
Bill Nicholl, lecturer in design and technology education, and Helen Demetriou, lecturer in psychology and education, have been collaborating on a new initiative called “Designing Our Tomorrow.” As part of it, they created and oversaw a study for which students at one inner-London school spent the year following a curriculum that integrated empathy into a design challenge.
The students were challenged to design an asthma-treatment “pack” for young children. The lesson plan included practical details on how asthma is treated and the tools required, as well as opportunities to better understand the emotional dimensions of living with asthma. The winning pack, which includes a monkey design and banana-scented materials, is in the works to be used by the United Kingdom’s National Health Services.
After the students completed the challenge, the researchers compared their outcomes to same-aged students at a different school who did not participate. Through a thorough quantitative and qualitative assessment process, they found that empathy boosts creativity, that teaching empathy in a specific context boosts empathy in other settings, and that learning empathy can deepen the students’ overall engagement with learning. It also helped close the gender gap in learning styles.
CNN.com spoke to Nicholl and Demetriou about the link between empathy and creativity, and why cultivating empathy should be a lifelong pursuit.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CNN: Can you help unpack the relationship between empathy and creativity? Where is the overlap?
Demetriou: There is a direct relationship between the two. Empathy is a form of creativity in its own right – it involves imagination. Broadly speaking, there are two types of empathy: cognitive, or thinking about things from another’s perspective; and emotional/affective, feeling along with the other person. With creativity you also have this cognitive side and emotional side, and if you are designing a product with someone else’s needs in mind, it is important to project yourself into the other’s world. The two really go hand in hand.
Nicholl: We didn’t just tell the kids about the problem, we also helped the kids feel what it was like to have asthma and see things from their perspective. We showed them videos of a child having an asthma attack and got them to suck through straws. We also had the kids role-play and think about the other stakeholders involved with children’s asthma: How did Mom feel? What does Granny do when her grandchild has an attack? They had an understanding of the problem and this gave them insights, which helped them come up with many creative ideas.
This is different from making something in a workshop class, where students follow the teacher’s instructions leading to a predetermined outcome. With this they needed social and emotional skills to understand the problem, and with those feelings they became really engaged with the problem. It became meaningful to them and made them more creative.
CNN: Why is learning empathy so important for kids?
Demetriou: When you teach empathy, it allows learners time to think about others’ perspectives. Having knowledge about anything is empowering, let alone about other people’s situations. The pupils also felt valued and respected through affording them a task that had life-threatening implications. This process encompassed their whole beings, dimensions they might not have known they had. One pupil said: “I didn’t know this was in me. I want to be like this every day.”
CNN: Today social and emotional learning tend to be kept separate from academic subjects. Is that a mistake?
Nicholl: Social and emotional learning should be integrated into every subject. In this case, it helped them see how the challenge went beyond a design problem. They could relate to people dealing with asthma and came up with better solutions as a result.
This goes against the more didactic approaches to teaching and learning, where children are passive receivers of information. In order to nurture empathy, kids need time to reflect on their work, and engage in meaning-making. As philosopher John Dewey said, “We don’t learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.”
Demetriou: Curriculums can often be compartmentalized, and that is a shame. Children should be learning in a more holistic way, as we are, after all, multidimensional beings. Even in math and science, a bit of imagination and empathy can make those subjects more accessible and exciting.
CNN: Unfortunately, distance learning has taken away a lot of the social and emotional aspects of education altogether. What can parents do to make up for this loss?
Demetriou: We need to keep reminding children to always think about things from someone else’s perspective. How are they feeling? What are they thinking that made them behave like that?
Reading helps, too. There is lots of research that shows that books can elicit empathy, and conversation about the characters and stories helps children see what it is like to experience life as another person.
Nicholl: Parents can also watch movies or news video clips and ask questions. Get them thinking about why others behave and act the way they do.
CNN: Should we be focusing on cognitive empathy, which is thinking about others; emotional empathy, feeling with others; or both?
Demetriou: Both. At least make people aware that we think in both these dimensions to different degrees.
CNN: In your paper, you point to research that shows we are born with empathy, but it can leave us if we don’t work on it. How do we ward off the potential decline of empathy?
Nicholl: In order to nurture it, you need to experience it in different contexts. The more you do it, the better you get at it.
Demetriou: Research shows that if you don’t use it, you lose it. So we need to keep promoting it and reminding people that this is an important and useful tool, one that can help us think outside of the box and not make erroneous assumptions about other people.
CNN: Let’s dig into the gender piece. You found that boys made more gains in emotional empathy, while girls made more gains in cognitive empathy. Is there a gender gap when it comes to types of empathy?
Demetriou: Yes, the developmental psychology literature typically shows that girls tend to be more emotionally empathic from early on. Research suggests that this is the impact of socialization.
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What our research showed to me is that when you give boys the license to show emotion and show them how emotion is beneficial to the task at hand, they see how having and using emotions can be socially acceptable and useful. And with the girls, the fact that they were given the time and instruction to address something that involved cognitive perspective-taking gave them more confidence to take on the task.
If this type of learning can help girls and boys address the stereotypical imbalances for learning and life, then how wonderful is that?
Elissa Strauss is a regular contributor to CNN, where she writes about the politics and culture of parenthood.