„I regard it as the foremost task of education to ensure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an indefatigable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self-denial, and above all, compassion.“Kurt Hahn, founder of the first Outward Bound school
Empathy and compassion are some of the key social skills that allow us to be cooperative, tolerant, understanding, and offer and accept help.
Although we may have more than ever possibilities to digitally connect with other people, it seems like the lack of face-to-face communication has led to a decrease in empathy among young people.
We’ve already discussed the benefits of occasionally engaging in a digital detox and how this can benefit your self-image and ability to connect with others.
In this post, we’re going to answer the question of what empathy is, why it’s important and whether children can develop it through outdoor experiential learning activities.
What is empathy?
Empathy is an important topic in psychology and education sciences, and numerous scientists who research it agree on the importance and positive impact of empathy on interpersonal relationships.
More so, empathy is a prerequisite for human survival and leading a successful life as part of a community.
Empathy is a term that is difficult to pin down from a scientific point of view, since it encompasses a large number of phenomena, among others:
- the feeling of care for others which creates a motivation to help,
- the experiencing of another person’s feelings,
- knowledge of what another person thinks or feels,
- the feeling of blurring the line between self and the other.
We can explain empathy as one of the following phenomena: an interpersonal process and individual ability, a personality trait, a skill or competence, a response or reaction to an observed experience of another, and interpersonal behavior.
Researchers often divide empathy into affective and cognitive empathy:
Cognitive empathy encompasses the intellectual understanding of another person’s mental state, intents, and beliefs – I understand what the other person feels.
Affective empathy includes taking over another person’s perspective and recognizing his or her emotions – I feel what the other person feels.
One of the basic definitions of empathy, as we understand it today, is the one provided by the sociologist George Herbert Mead:
Empathy is the ability to put ourselves into another person’s position and consequently adapt our behavior. (Bošnjaković, Radionov, 2018)
The importance of empathy
The simple reason why we must teach empathy to children and adults is that as humans, we are fundamentally social beings whose lives are determined and formed by social relations.
It is empathy that enables us to form and uphold them successfully throughout our lives.
Empathy helps us interpret and understand our social environment and foresee the behavior of other people, which enables us to interact successfully with them. By understanding other people’s desires, thoughts, behaviors, and intentions we can adapt our behavior.
That is why empathy is the key to healthy relationships and prosocial behavior.
On the other side, the lack of empathy is connected to aggressive and antisocial behavior, such as bullying.
The experience of empathy is the first step towards compassion, which isn’t feeling the same as another person but feeling for another person and being motivated to help, ease discomfort, and care.
Empathy doesn’t only implicate the experience of other peoples’ feelings but also the understanding of different perspectives through mental flexibility. Therefore, the development of empathy comes with a differentiation of the self from the other and an increase in self-consciousness. (Bošnjaković, Radionov, 2018)
Can you develop empathy?
Empathy, if seen as a skill necessary for the improvement of our relationships with others, can be developed using various methods. Most importantly, the key persons in a child’s education and upbringing need to role-model empathic behavior.
Science has also shown that empathy can be taught.
You can implement educational activities that encourage the development of empathy using various methods such as experiential learning, practicing skills, and didactic teaching. Practicing empathy increases students’ tolerance, academic performance, emotional intelligence, prosocial behavior, and can prevent prejudice and aggression. (Bošnjaković, Radionov, 2018)
Marilyn Price-Mitchell suggests 6 habits a teacher can contribute with to the development of empathy of his students:
- Build rapport with your students. Let them know you care about them.
- Build your students’ self-confidence by being their mentor.
- Teach students to be responsible and active citizens who act as carriers of change in their community.
- Be a role-model in your work and inspire them to also give their best at what they do.
- Expose your students to different opinions and worldviews.
- Use service-learning to connect the content of your lessons with real life in the community.
Experiencing empathy on an Outward Bound course
Since Outward Bound outdoor education courses aim at developing children’s and youngsters’ social skills, the development of empathy and compassion are right at their core.
So, how does outdoor experiential learning develop participants’ empathy?
An important feature of the course is that it encompasses a group of participants who are focused and dependent on each other. It is not possible for the team members not to cooperate, while it’s up to them to discover how to make cooperation on their outdoor adventure more efficient.
David Kolb’s experiential learning model implies that after conducting an activity, the participants need to engage in a facilitated discussion to reflect on their experience.
The participants then share one by one their understanding of the situation. This also allows them to hear their peers’ perspectives on it and compare it with their own.
When a group is feeling unsuccessful in a certain activity, they very soon come to understand that the differences in the interpretation of the situation are what makes the communication so difficult.
This leads them to understand that the development of empathy, meaning the understanding of the experience of another person, is a prerequisite for successful cooperation and coexistence.
Empathy is a key competence for the development of satisfying interpersonal relationships and a base for the development of all other social skills.
Teachers, youth workers, and other educators need to keep in mind that you can develop empathy through training and that it must find its way into formal and non-formal education.
An excellent method for developing empathy in young people is outdoor experiential learning.
We’re interested to hear from you – how do you address the topic of empathy with your students?
👇 Let us know in the comments section below!
While you’re here, have a look at our blog-post where we explain how to motivate students in the classroom. 😉
Bošnjaković, J., i Radionov, T. (2018). ‘Empathy: Concepts, Theories and Neuroscientific Basis’, Alcoholism and psychiatry research, 54(2), str. 123-150. https://doi.org/10.20471/dec.2018.54.02.04
You might be interested in
Liked it? Share it!