Cultivating empathy and compassion in education

Vinciane Rycroft considers the value of teaching compassion in schools

Many commentators are now calling for children to be educated in empathy and compassion. Bill Drayton for example, one of the fathers of social entrepreneurship, calls on educators to ensure that every young person learns applied empathy to avoid being marginalised.

British author and theologian Karen Armstrong has emphasised the importance of learning about compassion, while Simon Baron Cohen, professor of psychopathology at Cambridge University, says that empathy is the most valuable resource in our world and should have a prominent place on the school curriculum. The Dalai Lama repeatedly reminds educators in his public talks of how crucial it is for our common future that young people understand compassion and its usefulness.

An education in empathy gives young people opportunities to acknowledge the perspective of others. An education in compassion brings it one step further by identifying our fleeting response to an individual’s suffering and transforming it into a sustained altruistic attitude.

The writings of Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, have led to empathy being accepted as a foundation skill for social competency in the workplace. As a result there is a better chance that it remains relevant even to people who view education as a process to fit people to our economy, but compassion needs to become a core skill in our education system.

Where altruism is honoured in schools, it is often in the form of service, but this needs to be combined with an understanding that compassion is an attitude of mind. To be meaningful, compassion should be based on personal conviction. While schools can’t force that, they can create favourable conditions for all their students to investigate what compassion actually is, in a universal manner.

A first step is to explore the benefits of compassion, and its roots. Evolutionary biology, behavioural science, and neuroscience can bring challenging elements of information to the debate.

Is it our daily experience that empathy and compassion leads to increased wellbeing? What prevents us from experiencing empathy, and acting out of compassion? Do we still believe that empathy and compassion bring about positive social change?

With the pressure from exam subjects, teachers can find it difficult to make the necessary time to deepen their own understanding of empathy, but it is how they answer questions such as these in their teaching that will have a key impact on the learning of our students and above all on the harmony of our school communities.