Why Empathy Holds the Key to Transforming 21st Century Learning


Like other aspects of modern life, education can make the head hurt. So many outcomes, so much important work to do, so many solutions and strategies, so many variations on teaching, so many different kinds of students with so many different needs, so many unknowns in preparing for 21st Century life and the endless list of jobs that haven’t been invented.

What if we discovered one unifying factor that brought all of this confusion under one roof and gave us a coherent sense of how to stimulate the intellect, teach children to engage in collaborative problem solving and creative challenge, and foster social-emotional balance and stability—one factor that, if we got right, would change the equation for learning in the same way that confirming the existence of a fundamental particle informs a grand theory of the universe?

That factor exists: It’s called empathy.

To make that argument requires a deep dive into the profound nature of empathy. Right now, empathy roughly equates to “I like you and am willing to tolerate you regardless of differences because I am a good person.” But the textbook definition hints at something more profound: It’s ‘the feeling of being able to understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions.’ That all-encompassing definition means empathy results from a complex mix of other meaningful emotions and attitudes that fuel human personality, such as openness, curiosity, self-restraint, vulnerability, sensitivity, awareness, respect, appreciation, and even love. Add this list to the fact that empathy can’t manifest unless we have had our own experiences and emotions to contrast, compare, and connect with others—and we can see that empathy is more than a simple connector; it’s the subterranean, fundamental glue that holds humanity together.

Thus, it shouldn’t surprise us that such a potent emotion resonates across mind and body, influencing behavior and brain function. That is exactly the case. Empathy has the potential to open up students to deeper learning, drive clarity of thinking, and inspire engagement with the world—in other words, provide the emotional sustenance for outstanding human performance.

I see this regularly in my work with project-based-learning teachers who create classrooms that hum with good vibes and focused work. But to understand the full potential of empathy, let’s connect some dots. Those dots may appear unrelated at the moment, but they constitute a scatterplot with a trend line, predicting that empathy will eventually not be an add-on or ‘soft’ skill or one component of a middle school advisory program, and in the process confirm that a school system focused on cognition and testing alone cannot bring forth the greater purpose, focus, collaboration, and creativity necessary for 21st century students.

I see seven ‘dots’, if you will, that begin to paint this emerging picture of schooling in the future:

Empathy underlies collaboration
As social-emotional learning becomes more necessary to help students navigate life and work, empathy is getting more popular by the day, for good reason: Empathy lies at the heart of 21st century skillfulness in teamwork, collaboration and communication in a diverse world. Speaking or listening to someone without radiating empathy narrows the channel of communication or blocks connection altogether. Particularly in the new reality of a global world, without empathy you’re not ready to engage the 21st century, either in the workplace or across cultures. It has to be taught, practiced and coached.

Empathy is healthy
In the last twenty years, discussions about emotions have taken a radical turn. For years, negative emotions dominated theory and research. Today we know that positive emotions enhance well-being, health, relationships and personal strengths. At the top of this pyramid are the emotions associated with empathy: curiosity, openness, appreciation and gratitude. Empathy simply powers up the mind, body and spirit.

Empathy promotes whole-child learning
A critical dot, overlooked in our brain-centric world, is that empathy may activate the heart. As I’ve written many times, the heart has a role in learning equal to the brain. In fact, science does not support the mistaken notion that the brain does all the work. Research on heart rate variability and emotions shows that the heart engages the brain in constant conversation, using the language of emotions to direct the ‘state’ of the brain. To perform its role, the heart contains upwards of 40,000 neurons identical to nerve cells in the brain; eighty percent of nerve traffic then travels upward from heart to brain, making it clear that the heart influences brain function. While we don’t fully understand the implications of this partnership, two findings have been confirmed: Anxiety and negative feelings alter the coding of the messages sent by the heart to the brain, resulting in stress or fight or flight responses; at the same time, positive emotions such as gratitude and appreciation—close cousins of empathy—show pronounced, positive effects on brain processes.

Empathy ‘opens’ us up
The frontal lobes of the brain, at least as much as we know now, are the seat of planning, execution, problem solving and creativity—and when the frontal lobes are working well, so are we. In that well-documented ‘flow state,’ humans function at their peak, moving into a whole-body feeling of openness, relaxed focus, and creative possibility. If we know empathy activates the frontal lobes, why can’t we imagine intentional lessons about empathy and openness designed to put students in an optimal state for learning?

Empathy powers up inquiry and project based learning
Instruction is clearly headed in the direction of student-centered approaches such as inquiry and PBL. These approaches succeed in an atmosphere of care and positive relationships, both between student and teacher, and student and student. Classrooms that lack this foundation cannot succeed at project based work or open-ended questioning that relies on students’ ability to care about their learning. Setting up a culture of care is very much an exercise in making empathy central to daily work.

Empathy triggers creativity
Beyond rounding out the skills of collaboration and communication, empathy, design and collaboration are interconnected pieces of the creative puzzle. Empathy is now identified as the first step in the design process, whether crafting new software for a user or creating form-factors that inherently please the consumer. Right now, empathy is described as ‘step.’ But that easy designation belies a very deep process in which a designer must, for lack of a better term, ‘sink into the mind of another and take on their persona’. That is a deep descriptor of an ultimate form of empathy—and it may be a necessary component of an educational system increasingly tilted toward design and inquiry.

Empathy unites
The list could have started here, but on a planet that is now close to completing the globalizing process, empathy assumes a special role as the key emotion critical for seven-plus billion people to live in harmony and cooperative relationship. For our Stone-Age brethren, fear and separation were appropriate mechanisms for survival. But that has been flipped by sheer numbers, technology, resource scarcity, and environmental impact. Empathy is required curriculum, and without it, eventually our current focus on high test scores and fulfilling college requirements will be rendered meaningless by untoward events.

The takeaway? Ready or not, education is entering an age in which social learning is the new norm. Pure academics are giving way to increased opportunities for students to work together; teachers increasingly take on the role of co-learner and facilitator; listening, learning, and teaming are the new core skills. At the heart of this new skillfulness for everyone is the ability to forge deep connections lead to creative problem solving and positive pursuits. Taken all together, this makes empathy critical to schools. In fact, very soon we will need to invent a new taxonomy of learning that makes empathy the base of the learning pyramid.

Source : https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2016/11/16/why-empathy-holds-the-key-to-transforming-21st-century-learning/



‘Lil’ moments of meaningfulness

Untitled-2 copyIt took him plenty of courage in that already fearful state of mind, to cross over and go to the outer side of the rappelling wall. It is at this point that one is supposed to lean behind as an initial step to climbing down the wall. It is at this point that the fear reaches its peak. As one participant child told me, ‘It felt like I would fall down and the back of my head would hit the floor!’ Although all the safety harnesses are used, and the participants are aware of that, fear finds its way. This boy, around eleven years old, already seemed too scared – most participants are, children and adults alike, when they climb those stairs which feel like they are floating in the air, with no walls around them. This, coupled with the widely prevalent fear of heights, makes the activity even more challenging for many, especially the first timers!

The moment he got himself to the outer side of the wall, he almost freezed there.  The technical expert tried encouraging him to lean back and start rappelling down, but in vain. Just when I started telling the technical expert to get the boy back inside, I saw tears in his eyes. We got him inside. I told him to sit, breathe and relax; offered him some water. It seemed liked he wanted to be alone for some time. So I started attending to the other participants, while constantly aware of the boy and how he was feeling. After sometime, I sat beside him, and we began conversing.

JBCN1We were looking at other participants doing the activity while we were talking. Almost everyone had that look of ‘I’m scared but I would like to be able to do it!’ on their face. I made him aware of how the initial part of leaning behind was scary for all of them, after which it got easier. He expressed his concerns and I explained to him how the safety gear that we use keeps us in total control and keeps them completely safe. Not once in the conversation did I ask him, ‘Would you like to try again?’ That didn’t feel right to ask at that moment. In fact, I told him that I’ll take him safely down the stairs if he wishes to do so. I reminded him that we had already decided earlier as a group that we would be following the principle of ‘Challenge by choice’* and no one would force him to complete the activity. I was quite surprised by the way I was dealing with the situation. It almost felt to me like I was being his ‘mum’ at that time, who was trying to make him feel safe and was trying to do the right thing for him at that moment.

A few minutes passed by while the other participants continued doing the activity. And then came that moment of magic! He told me that he wanted to do the activity, this time, with a lot more confidence in his voice. He got up. We helped him put on the safety harness. He crossed over to the outer side of the wall. No wonder he was scared! But this time, he did not freeze. With some encouragement from our side, he leaned behind and went down rappelling on the wall. I saw him from above when he reached the floor. With both his hands up in the air, he felt and expressed a strong sense of victory!

A few minutes later, almost the same story got replayed, with another participant. Only this time, when he finally reached the floor rappelling down the wall, he happened to say, ‘Hey, this was easy!’ – wondering, why was he so scared at all in the first place. Untitled-3While this was happening, one of the participants, who had mustard enough courage to climb those stairs after some initial hesitation, was standing there on the top for quite some time, looking at other participants doing the activity. She was the only one remaining.  I asked her, ‘Would you like to try?’ She said yes. And during that crucial moment when she had to lean back, she got highly scared and changed her mind. I told the technical expert to get her back inside. She almost rushed to go back down the stairs. I told her to wait, breathe and I accompanied her down the stairs. I tried telling her things like ‘It was quite brave of you to climb up those stairs and attempt the activity’. But I knew that nothing I would say would make her feel completely fine about the fact that she didn’t go ahead with it, while most others were able to do so. A few moments ago, when she was up there, on the outer side of the wall, I had a choice. I could force her down the wall (while ensuring her safety) and hope that it would help her overcome her fear and feel good about herself. But that would bring with it the risk of it becoming an experience that she would thereon associate with a state of ‘panic’, and may be, never ever attempt it at all. And this would not only defeat the entire purpose of the activity, but could also cause damage to her overall self-confidence.

The activity was over. I walked away from the wall with a lot of thoughts in my mind, but with an overall positive feeling in me, a feeling for which I haven’t yet found the exact word. A feeling that I would like to further explore in the years ahead. A feeling that may be the prime reason behind my current desire to be a part of more such experiences as a facilitator. A feeling that comes back to me every time I think of those moments – those ‘Lil’ moments of meaningfulness in which the power of ‘Challenge by choice’ came alive!

Nikhill (raahi)

* This experience was a part of the three-day camp for a school organized by ‘Kshitij – Redefining Fun’. At Kshitij, we try and add value to the lives of participants by using a methodology called ‘Experiential Education’. One of the key principles we follow is ‘Challenge by Choice’, wherein the participants themselves choose the way they want to participate in a particular activity and the level of challenge they would like to attempt. It has been observed that learning that happens in this way is more effective and ownable than in a situation where the participants are reluctantly made to do an activity on someone else’s terms.



After the successful commencement of our latest venture- The Kids Club, Team Kshitij was all geared up for the event listed under the month of July. With the way, monsoons were progressing, we were sure, the much anticipated Waterfall Trek to Kondana Caves – built in the late 200 B.C, would be full of fun for all our kids in the club. The trek was announced and soon all the preparations started gaining momentum. Much to our surprise, we got an overwhelming response with 72 confirmations! The footage in Mumbai Mirror generated more inquiries, but certainly we were booked to our limits, so we tried to squeeze in as many as we could.Image

On 28th July, 2013 both the buses started on the dot as per the scheduled time, and we reached our destination- base village : Kondiwadi via Panvel , in about three and half hour’s time. Since the kids already knew each other, they had a gala time during the bus ride, playing games and munching on snacks together. The trek commenced after a breakfast on idli and sandwiches with hot beverages. It was amazing to see a huge line of 72 kids waiting to be with their friends and yet obeying the guides for the formation of groups. Approximately nine kids per group, and we had eight groups with us, each headed by a Kshitij volunteer.Image

Tiny, cute little kids as they appeared in colored raincoats and their sacks on their backs, worried about their shoes getting dirty in the mud, and remembering their mother’s instructions to not spoil their clothes!! What responsible behavior they sported… Amazing!!! Walking in pairs, the kids began their first expedition into the wild. Full of curiosity, with what lay ahead of them, they forgot all their tender worries about school, homework etc. They all had only one question on their minds- where are the waterfalls?? When are we reaching the caves?? Lush green forest, slippery muddy paths, rains all the way, crossing tiny rivulets, helping each other and saving themselves from falling, understanding the laws of nature, step by step the gang made it to the Buddhist caves which had Chaityas, Viharas and stupas to boast of. The falls were mighty and abundant, full of force with breathtaking icy cold water ready to relax everyone! What a pleasant sight it was to see the kids enjoying in their groups. Though tired with an hour’s hike and their stomachs now growling for food as the lunch time approached, none of the kids showed any signs of impatience and pleasantly trotted on the way back, eager to change into a fresh pair of clothes and fill their bellies! All the mommies would have been stunned to see their tiny tots dress up and pack up dirty stuff neatly into plastic bags! Some even learnt to tie their shoe laces on the way up to the caves! How happy they were to be appreciated for this new effort by  their guides. Hot food, yummy rasgullas and lemon juice satiated the young hearts as much they fueled their tummies.

The way back home took a little longer due to the constant traffic right from Karjat to Vashi – but the mighty spirited kids, unaffected by the tiring day and honking horns, continued to have fun and joke- entertaining even our team and feeling so happy about being acknowledged! Everyone reached home with content hearts! Team Kshitij got overwhelming appreciation texts and mails from parents about how their kids had a great time! That is when the team smiled – The task taken at hand had begun fulfilling…. The Kids Have Begun Exploring…. Experiencing…Exploring….Image

In the laps of Himalayas…

 Almost a fortnight long camp was the highlight of this summer. As anxious as we were about the outcomes of the camp to Shama RamGanga, Uttarakhand with a group of 29 kids along with Maitri group (Borivali, Mumbai) ranging from 10-18 years, the success of it was well proven by the happy faces of all the participants throughout the journey. The journey in itself began with 36 long hours to reach the first destination: Corbett! Having retired in the cottages at night, the next morning started with a trek and bus journey to next venue: Ranikhet!

Aww gaped from every child’s mouth seeing the beautiful cottage of Ranikhet which were to be their quarters for next day. Refreshing juice of the Buraans (Rhododendron) flower quenched their thirsts every time they were tired! Local plantations, first long trek for 5kms, visit to the village temple and games at night kept the kids active all the while. And then began a bus ride to the next destination: Shama, a heavenly abode for the city-ites! The scenic beauty of the region was extremely pleasant with a lot of butterflies in the stomachs due to the ghats, but nevertheless, playing antakshari for 6hrs kept boredom away! 

Finally the baggage was dumped into a ramshackle garage, carrying stuff that would last for 3 days, the kids began climbing higher towards the Gyandhura Village located at a height of 8200 feet above the sea level! It was during this climb that they realized how vital the air is for sustaining! Tiny tracks lined by scary valleys at the edge were a marvelous sight. With all their might the kids trekked to their cottages… the pride of Shama! Once in the dining area, all the tiredness was washed off merely by looking the giant of Himalayas surrounding us. Seeing Nandadevi, Nandaghat, Trishul immediately brought geography textbooks in front of the eyes! No words would be enough to actually describe their might and beauty!


Shama stay was packed with never-done-before activities like Hay stack building, Earn-ur-meal, Egg Hunt, Present the location, entertain the locals and of course the campfire each night before the day ended! 29 aspiring enthusiasts with their heads high trekked for 15kms in the jungles of Shama without a single hurdle to stop their steps. The kids were amazingly supportive for each other and extremely careful! Guess it’s natural for all of us to get tamed in the demands of nature!


But as the itinerary would have its way, we had to move towards Nacchni for couple of days to enjoy water adventures! Resembling a base camp in every sense, passing through a metal bridge, staying in tents, the cold waters of the RamGanga river gushing by the side, swimming and body surfing in the mighty river and an inviting net in place for beach volley ball… what else would the kids have asked for??? The only lights at night were that of the moon and stars and that is when a kid came up to say “We waste so much of electricity each day”!! Nacchni was power-packed with the group divided in three teams for Mountain Bicycling, Kayaking and Slithering. The kids wouldn’t come out those cool waters inspite of such a strong current! None of them complained of their sim cards and earphones been taken away for almost a week now! Happy realization dawned: Life without screens is possible!!


The last of our destinations was Mukteshwar who welcomed us with chilly winds due to rains! The campsite couldn’t have been better than what we had. Apple plantations all around, with lovely flowers planted all along the tracks, the colors of nature surprising everyone with each step towards the massive tents well protected from the cold! Next day the kids did rappelling, rock climbing and flying fox. The adrenaline rush was felt right from the youngest to the eldest member in the group! Overcoming all their fears, may be for height, water or fall, the kids made sure that all their friends participate in each activity, boosting the ones who were hesitant! The sportsmanship spirit was indeed remarkable!


The camp came to an end but the journey continued… On the way to Kathgodam station, dinner was arranged at an South-Indian restaurant and to every one’s surprise the tiniest one in the group commented “We are eating with the lights and AC’s on after ages, it seems so out of the box after all these treats in Nature” . That is when Kshitij smiled, having served its purpose. 


Having a life full of amenities and hundreds of options even for basic necessities is freakingly awesome, but sticking to basics of simplicity is where all the fun lies in. The respect for resources, the willingness to preserve them and their proper utilization is all that nature would like in return for his extravagant gift to humans – Life!!


Thus the journey continues…from being in the laps of Himalayas… to the countless memories running in our minds, waiting eagerly for some more sun’s to shine…