Teaching Empathy for Inclusive Education

Inclusive pedagogy aims for more diverse students to interact with more positive outcomes. I think this could be achieved by teaching students how to empathize. Empathizing not only helps you to welcome other’s ideas (which can turn into a great outcome), but also allows engineers (civil engineers in my particular case) to develop more human centered, sustainable, infrastructure.

Education should start with perspective taking, from the point-of-view of users (students). Teaching empathy as a core teaching value can be mirrored to other engineering designs that use empathy. For instance, when taking office, the mayor /of Curitiba, Brazil recognized that the majority of the 2 million citizens did not own, or have access, to an automobile. Because the majority of potential users did not have access to an automobile, the decision was made to transfer money allocated for a highway system to repurpose existing road lanes from automobiles to above-ground ‘subway’ systems of buses and elevated waiting areas. About 75 percent of the population, now use this system every day. Curitiba’s system was cost-effective both in terms of the initial investment (less expensive than adding highway lanes or an underground subway system) and in the long-term, as residents enjoy the lowest per capita transportation costs and best air quality in the country. Fuel consumption in the city has been slashed by roughly one third (Lindau et al. 2010).

As the Curitiba example illustrates, starting with the intended users of the system offers solutions tailor made to suit their needs; in this particular case, the users are the students from diverse backgrounds, ethnicity, age, gender, etc. Defined here as user-centered design, this is vital to building more sustainable higher education.

The ability to empathize with all students, from different backgrounds, is also a necessary skill for developing and delivering sustainable educative solutions because recognition alone is likely not enough (Brown and Wyatt 2010; Liedtka 2011). Empathy is a central concept of user-centered design (Frascara 2003) and the first step within the five stage design thinking process (Brown 2009; Burnett 2016).

“Empathy is the first step to peace in a war zone” – unkown

It’s not you, it’s me…

This week’s readings called me for deep reflection. While it looks very evident, an effective way to become a good teacher through one-self awareness, it was not that evident to me. For sure there are strategies to gain student’s attention or to leave a lasting memory from a lecture, however, these strategies and techniques should be match with particular personalities to be efficient. Often times, people with opposite personalities try to use the same teaching strategy, which is no surprise that it will not produce similar outcomes. I enjoyed learning that to be a good teacher, it is necessary to first learn about our own styles, personalities, and confort zone. Once we are aware, and confident, of these personal characteristics, our style will adapt easier to the classroom personality. 

When I got the opportunity to start teaching, it was a last minute invitation. This rush in the getting things ready for joining the university faculty did not give me time to think about my teaching techniques. I remember that after turning in the required documentations, I only had time for reviewing the material I was going to teach, figuring it out, the classroom location and running to class. This sudden opportunity helped me to start teaching in my own natural way, without poses or forced techniques. This resulted in a an honest teaching approach.

However, honest does not mean efficient. In my particular case, I soon realized that the different classes had their own personalities, and like with our daily interactions, we must adapt to the way we interact and communicate with these different personalities. And it is here, where all of these techniques and strategies become useful. It is not about changing our honest ways of teaching, but about adapting it for an efficient interaction with the different classrooms’ personalities.