Thursday, July 1, 2010


This is going to be my final post based on reading Dan Pink's Whole New Mind book.  Empathy is one of the 6 essential right-brain aptitudes needed for the Conceptual Age.  Dan describes empathy as "the ability to imagine yourself in someone else's position and to intuit what that person is feeling."  He says it is something that happens spontaneously and is feeling WITH someone else (as opposed to sympathy which is feeling FOR someone else).  Dan says that in the world of information, logic alone is not enough - what will distinguish those who thrive will be "their ability to understand what makes [people] tick, to forge relationships and to care for others."

Empathy is definitely something that cannot be reproduced by computers.  It's also hard for anyone far away from a situation to feel, yet it is a universal language that connects us beyond country or culture and it is an essential part of living a life of meaning which I wrote about in an earlier post.

On the whole, the people who have chosen to enter the teaching profession are the ones who, themselves were successful at school and university.  Most of us, therefore, have little real empathy with what it is like to really struggle to learn something.  In my first international teaching post I was confronted with a class of 8th Grade Humanities students most of whom could not speak English.  Of the 19 students in the class, 13 of them were ESL (English as a Second Language - now more often called EAL - English as an Additional Language as for many of these students English was not their second language and may even have been their 3rd of 4th language).  Of the 13 ESL students, only 3 of them spoke a common language - Hebrew.  Before moving to this international school I had spent 6 years teaching in England.  The schools I taught in had a very small amount of students who were not English, and most of these had lived in England for most of their lives so there was not a problem with their reading, writing or understanding of English.  I had taught remedial English, but only to English speakers - I had never actually taught English to anyone who could not speak it.  This was going to be a pretty steep learning curve for me!

However at the same time I found myself in the same position as my students:  I had moved to Holland and I was learning to speak Dutch.  Like them, I was going to classes.  Like them I struggled to do my homework, to speak, read and write in Dutch.  On moving to Thailand some years later I was in the same position - actually it was even harder there because there was not even a familiar alphabet and in addition Thai is a tonal language with 5 different tones, so the same word can have 5 different meanings depending on the tone.  In the 4 years I was there I didn't manage to master much of the written language - I could recognise numbers and I could read and write my name.  I got on a lot better with the speaking though.  Now I'm in Switzerland and I balk at the idea of starting yet another language, German.  My daughter who moved here at the age of 15 with 4 languages also became very resistant to the idea of learning a 5th.  I certainly can empathise with the students who come to me in the same situation:  perhaps with parents who speak different languages with English as a common one and having also picked up a couple more languages along the way in the countries where they have lived.  In fact although some teachers refer to these students as multi-lingual, for many of them they are really semi-lingual as they have not really mastered one language before starting on another.  I feel the same about the languages I have picked up over the past 20 years too.

Another experience I have had has made me much more empathetic with parents too.  Back when he was in 3rd Grade and not doing at all well at school, our son was tested by an educational psychologist.  The diagnosis was that although he was extremely bright, he had ADD and was therefore struggling to really achieve his potential.  I had been a special needs teacher myself for some years while I was working in England, but the feelings I experienced as a parent watching my own child struggle to learn were so overpowering.  Yet now I look back on those days and find that it has really helped me to help other parents who are experiencing those same emotions following a similar diagnosis for their own children.  As for my son, he is currently at university and is hoping to become a teacher for special needs teenagers having already worked as a volunteer in a school in Thailand for students who had a variety of learning issues such as autism and Down Syndrome.  While in Thailand he also acted as a "big brother" to one of these students and spent his weekends taking him out and helping him to socialise - he did things like take him on the canal boats or on the skytrain to help him to cope with these situations, he did other simple things like teaching him how to take turns when playing a game of cards.

Of the 6 essential right-brain aptitudes I have written about as a result of reading Dan Pink's book, this one has taken me the longest and has been the hardest to write, but it's probably also the one that I think is the most important.  In the words of Alan November:
If we're going to teach teachers and students to use the Internet, then we should be teaching them to understand the perspectives of others.

Photo Credit:  Rosita by Schaaflicht

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