The Quest for Empathy in Art Education

By Jane B. Montero, posted on Sep 12, 2022

With ongoing global conflicts and the need for compassion and respect for all human beings, empathy is once again in the forefront of our minds. Stanford University psychology professor Dr. Jamil Zaki stated, “Modern society is built on human connection, and our house is teetering.” Now more than ever, empathy has become an increasingly important trend in education.

SchoolArts magazine, The Empathy Issue, October 2022, The Quest for Empathy in Art Education
SchoolArts magazine, The Empathy Issue, October 2022, The Quest for Empathy in Art Education
Artworks by Emily W. and Cassie B., inspired by the painting A Girl with 3 Orbs by Jamea Richmond Edwards.

Empathy describes a range of experiences defined by researchers as “the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.” In other words, putting yourself in another person’s shoes.

Can Empathy Be Taught?
In December 2019, author A. J. Juliani stated, “Even though we know [21st century] types of skills are imperative to success in the workplace, in relationships, and in life—they are still seen often as ‘nice to have’ instead of ‘need to have’ for our students.”

Dr. Riess, director of the Empathy and Relational Science Program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, has completed research proving empathy can be taught. Riess stated, “Our neural networks are set up to interact with the neural networks of others in order to both perceive and understand their emotions and to differentiate them from our own.” Current research indicates empathy can be taught in two ways: through modeling (being empathetic yourself and reflecting on what this looks like) and through stories (literature that mirrors our world).

Empathy Projects
Storytelling is a way for everyone’s voice to be heard. Sharing individual stories of how a problem is solved helps students identify empathy. A successful digital art project using Google Draw was inspired by the painting A Girl with 3 Orbs by Jamea Richmond Edwards. Students brainstormed three places that were important to them, such as a family vacation spot or the house of a relative.

Using Google Images, students found free-to-use photos representing these places or used their own family photos and added their own photo in the middle. Before assembling these collages, students were shown how to create a collage background by overlapping free fabric and pattern wallpaper art.

Students uploaded their finished works to our online portal and wrote reflective statements about the places they included. Students viewed the work of their peers and read about each other’s important places.

Reflecting on Empathy
As we move forward with immersive technology, popular games such as Pokémon GO allow students to put themselves into specific situations virtually. These interactive games provide opportunities for students to build empathy skills in an engaging manner. The goal is to make empathy a learned skill so that as students move through the educational system, they become more aware of its impact on a global level.

As we continue to educate students to become productive, empathetic, and creative thinkers, we need to promote a curriculum that is open to diversity, understanding, and respect for all members of society. Terry Heick asks, “How has the push of digital and social media into learning spaces emphasized the need for empathy—or naturally reduced it?” (See Resources.) This new area of research can further justify the need for an empathy-based design thinking curriculum in education. The future trends in education are complex, but if we can teach our students the importance of empathy, perhaps we can create more caring and compassionate students in our classrooms.

Jane B. Montero is an art teacher at Creekside Intermediate School in Dexter, Michigan. MonteroJ@DexterSchools.org

How to Teach Empathy in the Classroom
Terry Heick Teaching Empathy

View this article in the digital edition.