Empathy and common courtesy as the cure all for education?

I wonder if the more complicated someone makes something, the less you should trust what they’re saying? There’s a lot of high falutin’, big word talk about education revolutions and systematic transformation, and I’ve been as guilty as the next wannabe world changer with a laptop and an internet connection. But it’s occurred to me that a lot of, if not all, our educational difficulties might be solved by employing a little bit of a term I’ve hated since I first heard it – ‘common sense’.

Now, in Ireland at least, whenever you usually hear common sense it’s from a mammy or a teacher who’s trying to cajole some young one or fella into doing what everyone else is doing. Common sense becomes a sort of ‘lowest common denominator’ to adhere to because it’s convenient for everyone who’s already doing things that way. Or at least that’s how I used to see it.

But other times it’s just a kind of common decency. In an educational setting that could be as simple as asking student’s what they think of school and what they want to do on a regular basis, and actually listening.

A couple of examples:

Jimmy the student: “Here sir, can we go outside? It’s so sunny, we’ll be good we swear!

Teacher: “No Jimmy, get back to your books and if you concentrate the clock might tick faster for you.”

Now Jimmy might nag for a bit and the teacher might quieten him with the threat of a write out. But sure if it’s a sunny day would it not be good for the kids to get a bit of fresh air and sunlight into their bones and wouldn’t they be more inclined to concentrate in a lovelier setting?

Or say students were complaining about the leaving cert?

A first year finds out about the Leaving Cert and Junior Cert for the first time:

Student: Is it not a lot of pressure to have us turn into reclusive bookworms for two years whether we’re into that or not, and then the whole two years of work come down to one week where any kind of shite could be going on in your life?

Teacher: Well if you want to go to college and get a good job then I’m afraid you have no choice.

Student: But what if I tried lots of things and with the guidance of you and my other teachers became confidant and skilled and figured out what I like so that I can make myself into the type of person who can make a living doing that kind of thing. Like if I want to be a writer could I not just write a load of stuff and learn and improve and show a portfolio to a college to prove my worth? And fair enough if I want to do something that takes a load of memorizing and book learning – sure won’t I do that!

In the unlikely event of a teacher engaging a first year on this topic the conversation would probably be shut down to get back to racing through the curriculum the teacher has to cover within a certain time frame lest the island of Ireland sink and be forgotten, leaving expats to roam the earth in search of their lost Holy Land/Atlantis ancestral home and resulting in even more melodramatic and inaccurate Irish films being rolled out of Hollywood like beer barrels full of drowned leprechauns. Not to mention a lot of Irish and Jewish jokes being combined in semi-amusingly disrespectful ways.

But yeah, that’s a point I’ve hear made by students a lot and I don’t think the world would lose an awful lot if we took it on board.

There’s got to be mutual respect in schools and when you consider that it’s the adults who want the kids in school most if not all the time and the kids who think it’s boring and pointless than really it’s down to the adults first to respect the kids for turning up and try and make it not boring and pointless, and only then can you expect anything from your students. A lot of the time school can be very hierarchical and very much ‘you respect me because I am a figure of authority and a teacher and you do as I say without questioning’ (only they wouldn’t say it like that because they’d be laughed at, but its nearly always implicit, and sometimes explicit, in my experience and from speaking to other students).

And we all know Ireland’s unsavory history of letting teachers and priests and any type of authority figure run amok and do scandalous things purely because we’re afraid to question it.

But really anyone with a bit of empathy knows it should be “I respect you because we’re both human beings and sure don’t we all want to do our best and be happy and let’s get cracking and haven’t we made you attend her so shouldn’t we make it worth your while before we go telling you what’s what.”

And probably if education was a bit more humane and flexible (because we’re not computers where we can all be programmed to do the same thing by the same means, and learning is like brain yoga, there’s loads of ways to stretch and we can’t all do the lotis position) that would iron out the majority of the kinks.

If you want to leave a comment, I’d particularly like to know what a bit more empathy and listening and whatnot wouldn’t solve in schools, as you folks see it. Don’t be shy!

302775_10151293900863142_1316271912_n

Here is me with my friend mushroom, giving our version of what empathy might look like. #Poormushroomisamushroom

2 comments

  1. This is interesting, a I had a ‘beer and philosophy’ discussion with a few a friends about this very subject, a few weeks ago. We decided that both skepticism and empathy should be included as actual high-school courses in the US, focused on first, what are these terms, how do they work (sociologically and neurologically), and why are they beneficial? Encouraging students not only be science-smart, but emotionally smart will provide more capable employees, more balanced individuals, and therefore more productive communities. But…where does this start? With the highschools that have funding to start an “extra” course, and the right motivation. This will take time, too much time, we thought.

    1. Nothing quite like a bit of beer and philosophy! 😀 Personally I don’t think classes would be the way to go. I can’t see the usual class format of a teacher lecturing to students working well for intuitive social skills like empathy and skepticism, although in fairness I don’t think that format ever results in any kind of understanding that can genuinely be taken and applied by someone anyway (A truly passionate teacher might spark curiosity in someone for a subject through a lecture, mind.). And in an education system which teaches obedience as its most valued trait, a class teaching skepticism would have a lot of work to do to be anything other than a sad irony. A lot of the time the issue is that teachers don’t treat their students with empathy and there can be a general ‘them and us’ vibe between certain students and teachers. As a result I think its more important to instill a culture of empathy and skepticism throughout school culture. This could be done by changing teacher training to equip teachers with an equivalent skill-set to a passionate social worker. And really just by teachers and students communicating with each other as people first and students and teachers second. ‘Roots of Empathy’ is an interesting programme dealing with these issues.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s