Empathy & Language A

In the IB, educators talk about lifelong learning and international-mindedness. In the Language A class, with a wider range of international authors and the introduction of the global issues in both courses, these abstract concepts can come to life through the activation of the ATL of empathy. Empathy is complex but a lifelong gift every educator should seek to give their students, assuming they value and practice it. Like other complex skills, empathy cannot be taught in haste – rather, it needs to be discussed, developed, modelled, and cultivated. And Language A is an excellent medium to do this. Empathy is a personal choice and a private journey. Yet, educators can also enable students to talk and think about it, maybe even feel it though the literary/non literary works/texts they explore. Here, the empathy continuum visualises and verbalises thinking to enable metacognition and reflection on empathy via the texts/works explored. In the big scheme of things, this activation of empathy is an act of hope; it is the sowing of a seed. For when the DP exams are done, empathy is the education that remains.

In the Language A class, it is worth exploring the difference between sympathy (vs. empathy). While some students are natural empaths, most need to work on developing this skill. By making the level of connection explicit, visible and shame free, we can focus on compassion as a worthy goal – there is a limit to how many causes we can truly be empathetic about. One simple way to use this tool is to get students to gauge their level of connections before and after reading a text/work. Alain De Botton’s video short makes a great flipped lesson on the purpose of literature. In my class, the empathy continuum is a constant we keep coming back to for discussions and makes a great addition to the students’ learner portfolios.

“The use of imaginative fiction is to deepen your understanding of your world, and your fellow (wo)men, and your own feelings, and your destiny.” 
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Language of the Night

TOK discussions could include views of some experts like Paul Bloom who think that empathy is overrated and even harmful. Personally, I think empathy is not the issue – it drives connection. Well-intentioned, unexamined actions stemming from empathy though can cause harm. This links to CAS where the IB learner profile  ‘Principled’ needs to be evoked before any action is taken. Humility, listening and an examination of ethics are needed to avoid falling into the trap of sympathy, pity and the saviour complex.

It is after much deliberation and research that empathy has been put at the pinnacle of this continuum. In many dictionaries, empathy is defined as ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’. Modelled on the German translation of Greek empatheia, Einfühlung (ein “in” + Fühlung “feeling”), empathy drives connection. One is literally able to be “in” another’s emotion. Compassion , on the other hand, is defined as ‘feeling of sorrow/pity excited by the sufferings/ misfortunes of another’- and is closer to the definition of sympathy which drives disconnection. The work of Brene Brown on the power of vulnerability and other psychologists on empaths has been instrumental in shaping this choice. For a world full of empathetic young people imagining what it is like to be in the shoes of another through what they read is better than one where they do not. And whether we use the words compassion, kindness, care or empathy, connection is the aim.

Compassion vs. Empathy

Yes, there is a limit to how much we can truly understand the pain of another. Yet, activating empathy helps us imagine, connect and care- and not for altruistic purposes The ability to empathise affects our happiness. To activate empathy, students can think back to a happy or painful moment in their own life and use these as a medium to forge connection. Students can imagine what they might feel if the issue was happening to them. Sharing stories of receiving empathy and reflecting on its impact helps students evaluate its worth. Inspired by the works/texts your class reads, talk about the importance of being principled empaths, not apathetic bystanders – the world needs more hummingbirds. Thus, if this is the door we want to open, emotional risk taking is key to being able empathise with others- and as Language teachers we have a wonderful medium to illustrate how empathy makes us more human, more humane. 

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” 
 James Baldwin

Brene Brown says, “Empathy has no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgement, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘you’re not alone’.”  Yet, the actions Brown describes (listening, holding space, withholding judgement) are neither simple nor always natural. Plus, these are adult-level skills. The young people we work with need a map to navigate this complex skill and emotional landscape. They need honest conversations about empathy in all its variations and explicit teaching of the skill of empathy whenever Language A content lends itself to its integration and activation. The process and pathway to deeper connection need to be clear to our IB students if they are “to create a better and more peaceful world” (IB mission) by making kindness commonplace, one human at a time. With a mindful approach, your Language A classroom can become the fertile ground where empathy is fostered.

And if not in literature, then where?

“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.” 
Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

First presented at the IB Global Conference in Hong Kong, 2019 as part of the Service Ladder.

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