Teaching Empathy Through Place-Based Education

By Jenny Pieratt
As a classroom teacher deeply committed to social justice, I was often confronted with frustration by students who made biased comments about peers, people in our community or groups throughout history.
At the heart of my frustration was a desire for students to have more empathy and compassion. It was easy to blame parents, upbringing or surroundings for the lack of these mindsets, but in reality, I had to also acknowledge my own teaching practices.
Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 6.13.07 PM.pngI had missed many opportunities to explicitly teach empathy through the lens of classroom content. As I continued to grow professionally and personally, I learned the answer to the question “How can I teach both empathy and content?” is “With Place-Based Education (PBE).”
Interacting and engaging with our community afforded many opportunities to learn together.

PBE Humanizes Learning

“We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.” – Immanuel Kant
Once students were sent out into the field to interact with individuals in the community they heard stories that I could never relay to them in the same way. Through these exchanges, students began to see that their assumptions were often incorrect and, more importantly, they began to question those assumptions–where they came from and how they came to be. The takeaway to these interactions was always the same: students realized that we humans have more in common than we don’t.

PBE Unveils Inquiry

“What has been seen cannot be unseen, what has been learned cannot be unknown.” – C.A. Wolf
Community interactions inspired a heightened awareness in my students. Once they were made aware of something, had come to understand something anew, or seen someone in a new light, that couldn’t be reversed–the learning ran deep. Field work like shadowing a migrant worker or listening to the first-hand story of a refugee opened the doors for empathy.
Because of these experiences, students could no longer ignore daily things they previously accepted as status quo. These same students began to stop and ask “Why is that?” and with that beautiful question came a whole host of other questions about the ways in which our world operates.

PBE Creates Connections

“Invisible threads are the strongest ties.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
When students were asked to leave the comfort zone of their classroom with the goal of better understanding and exploring a specific context, they knew that listening was not optional; it was required. I wish I would have known about the value of listening dyads, because that would have been the perfect scaffold for the types of field experiences I tried to facilitate for my students.
Through trial and error, we eventually got to a place where my students listened enough to develop relationships. Once these relationships were established I observed a web of connections including connections to people, connections to places, connections to oneself; and therefore deeper connections to the content. Through the process of PBE, students developed relationships with people and places, and those relationships allowed them to see the relevance of what they were learning. With ears, minds and hearts ready to listen (not just hear) and a more empathetic perspective, students often took on a new approach to seeing the world and themselves as a learner in that world.
Empathy is a journey not a destination…and my journey has been an eventful one. Despite the many missteps early in my career to attempt to tackle equity in the classroom, I’m most proud of my eighth year teaching when I really tried to face it head-on by asking my students to observe and interview local migrant workers. Although it was uncomfortable, unfamiliar and uncertain at many times, my students and I were exposed to a new perspective, and together we grew in our minds and hearts into more empathetic human beings.
To learn more about building empathy in students through community interaction in design thinking, check out resources such as Intro To Design Thinking, Empathy and Equity.
This blog is part of our “Place-Based Education” blog series. To learn more and contribute a guest post for the series, check out the PBE campaign page. Join in the conversation on social media using #PlaceBasedEd. For more on Place-Based Education see:

Jennifer Pieratt is the Founder and President of CraftED Curriculum and a former teacher. Follow her on Twitter: @JennyPieratt.

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