Why Empathy is Fundamental to Personalized Learning

Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda

Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda are authors, friends, and colleagues. They co-authored the 2017 book, Students at the Center: Personalized Learning with Habits of Mind.

The heart of personalized learning is personal — we partner with our faculty and our students to create an environment in which the identity of each individual as well as the collective identity of the school and the classroom is recognized. Our purpose is to make it psychologically safe to express the various identities we each have (e.g., cultural, racial, gender, interests, social history, teacher, student) in the context of tapping into the strengths and aspirations that will motivate learning. Listening with understanding and empathy requires two key elements of personalizing:

  • Understanding: being able to suspend your own thoughts temporarily while you make certain that you really understand the thoughts of others.
  • Empathizing: putting “you” before “I” in the way you respond with understanding about how the other person is feeling. For example, instead of saying “That would have made me feel frustrated” you say, “You must have felt frustrated about that.”

The goal of empathizing is to lend your mental energies to another before you engage with your own ideas and responses. Allowing the time for understanding and empathizing before communicating from your own perspective leads to new insights for both the person sharing and the person listening.

In our work, we find that the attributes of Voice and Self-Discovery are at the heart of personalizing through empathic listening.

  • Voice: lending oneself to listen to another’s beliefs, feelings, questions, concerns without judgment. The listener acknowledges another’s perspective or feeling and probes (as needed) to better understand. Lending your ear and your humanity, often times makes the speaker feel more valued and their voice is strengthened.
  • Self-Discovery: When we stop the chatter in our minds about what to do, how to fix the problem, or what implications this might have for the future, we have a space for each of us to better identify what we are struggling with. Some questions we might ask ourselves are:
    • Are we trying to rush to a solution?
    • Are we dismissing the worry/issue as being less important or irrelevant to the task at hand?
    • Are we valuing the beliefs, feelings, questions, and concerns mainly when they line up with our own thinking?

Although the answer to those questions might be uncomfortable, awareness of your thinking is important in maintaining the time necessary to amplify voice, increase the trust in relationship, and allow both people engaged to remain open to continuous learning.

Impact for the person with whom you empathize:

  • Provides the person, free from judgment, to take responsible risks in their thinking
  • Empowers the person to recognize that their feelings can be heard
  • Allows the person to feel more connected to you

Impact for you as a result of the process of empathizing:

  • Identifies differences as well as commonalities with the person
  • Generates alternate approaches or new ideas to personalize,perhaps realizing that there might be a different way to elevate the thinking.

We would love to hear some concrete examples of how you model and grow empathy with your students, colleagues, and faculty.

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