Saturday, November 10, 2012

Why social studies should teach empathy

I have seen some teachers argue against teaching empathy in social studies. I admit I don't really get their point of view, but in danger of simplifying it, it sounds to me something like "it is not our job to teach students how to feel about a topic" or "you are presenting history in a (liberal) bias on this topic."

I totally disagree. It is our job to teach multiple points of view. And to be honest almost all history textbooks are extremely biased towards WASP viewpoints (aka the "winners" of history). That is why I use Howard Zinn in my classroom to show the other side (but of course not exclusively). My other argument is that every person, every source, and yes every teacher is biased. Therefore just by the materials the teacher selects she is making a biased decision. The best option is to give multiple sources from multiple viewpoints and PBL takes it one step further by encouraging students to go out and research and find these different views.

The problem with student research sometimes is that it too is biased. Students often lack the historical background to start their research and identify different viewpoints. My approach to this is that during "work time" I give them specific articles, primary sources, etc to steer them into interesting questions and alternative viewpoints for their topic. Then I encourage them to continue to research on the topic and go deeper. Then we come back in a class discussion or Socratic circle and they can discuss different aspects of it.

Case in point is the 9/11 project we are currently working on where students will design a monument commemorating that time period. Students immediately gravitated toward the American victims/heroes side of history. But our driving question was "Why did 9/11 happen and how should we respond to terrorism?"
We read Ender's Game and used the concept of "Speaker for the Dead" to shift students to think of 9/11 and the following wars in Afghanistan and Iraq from a Middle Eastern perspective. After researching all of the American Interventions since the end of the Cold War students were able to see (but not justify) the motives of terrorism. Looking at the events post 9/11 such as the civilian casualties in the wars, Abu Graib, Guantanamo Bay, and abuses of the Patriot Act students were also critical of many of our responses to 9/11. Now students are designing much more complex monuments that are not just American "hero worship" but actual critiques of history.

In reality I believe we do our students an injustice if we do NOT ask them to be empathetic and look at history from the viewpoint of its "losers"-the weak, the down trodden, the humble citizens who are just trying to raise their families and live the best they know how. Because that is ultimately the category that most humans (including myself) fall into as few of us will ever be famous or huge centers of power. I also think most of the greatest heroes humans in history such as Gandhi, Dr. King, Mother Theresa, and Nelson Mandela fall into the "loser" category but rise above through humility, justice, and love. And isn't that the goal of social studies? To teach students to be responsible, critical thinking citizens? But what good is critical thinking without an empathetic heart to go with it.


  1. Mr. Kaechele,
    Hello! My name is Nancy Nelson. I am a student in Edm 310 at the University of South Alabama. I was assigned your blog for my C4T or comment for teachers. I am required to read and comment on two of your blog post and later post on my blog a summary of your post and my comment. I found this post very interesting. I had never thought this before and now I see it. As I think back to my high school years, I was taught in a biased way. I was ignorant about so many points concerning topics that i was supposed to have learned about in high school that were being reintroduced in college. Your post has opened my eyes. I want to try and teach my students not only the general point-of-view, but the alternate point-of-view, or as you put is the views and attitudes of the winners and losers should be taught. If you would like to contact me please do so by twitter at NancyN91 and/or my blog at

    1. Nancy, thanks for stopping by. The beauty of today is that the alternative sides of history are accessible on the internet for all to find.

  2. "We learn history not in order to know how to behave or how to succeed, but to know who we are."
    Leszek Kolakowski

    We don't necessarily have to "teach" empathy...but simply teach in a way that allows students to feel it...get inside the heads of the leaders, and the followers.

    My guess is that you do not teach it, but you allow time and space for kids to imagine. Do you teach multiple view points? or give them multiple viewpoints? A subtle difference, but an important one. Those that are against your "empathy" lessons probably interpret it as you are telling them how they show evil Obama voting liberal :) Us libertarians would never get accused of this touchy feely stuff ;)

    1. Paul, I guess I rarely "teach" anything, but expose kids to many different things and encourage them to explore.

      Why do you assume I am not a libertarian like you? My actual voting patterns would surprise even people who know me well :)