Compassion and empathy – surely, they aren’t really that important?
How do you measure compassion and empathy? You certainly can’t take an exam and receive a grade that will contribute to university entrance. However, it is clear to us when we see a student display it and also often clear when students or adults display a lack of it. So, why is it so vital that our students at Dulwich College (Singapore) leave with the ability to empathise and show compassion for other human beings? Why do we hold these skills in such high regard?
The world and its people are made up of countless complex physical and social systems; everything is interconnected. Compassion and empathy are human qualities that have a very strong connection.
If we deepen these connections and we actively try to develop and understand them, we will be creating a better and more peaceful world. Over the last decade advances in neuroscience and in psychology have meant we now have an improved understanding of the sources of these emotions and how they develop over time.
Equally, over this same period of time, and in the decades preceding it, divisions and separations have been created and are widening in culture, wealth, influence, resources and safety for all humans across the world. These divisions are putting an ever-growing strain on the interconnectedness of human beings and restricting the compassion and empathy we hold for each other. In his work “The Fifth Discipline,” Peter Senge discusses this systemic breakdown, and we only need to look at recent harrowing media headlines to identify these challenges. The military siege in Myanmar, the current climate crisis, the rise in reported sexual abuse cases worldwide and the level of gun crime in the United States are merely a few of the issues confronting us all, on a daily basis. We must help our students to navigate, thrive and contribute positively to this environment, and at Dulwich College (Singapore), the Compassionate Systems Framework is our route to achieving this.
We want to develop students who, quite simply, have a strong moral compass and willingly want to make a positive difference both now and for future generations. Through his research on empathy, Martin Hoffman supports this approach by arguing that the root of all morality can be found in empathy and that putting yourself in another human’s place, ‘. . .leads people to follow certain moral principles.’
This article will explore why it is imperative that we are explicitly teaching these skills in the Junior School and how different systemic tools are an excellent lens through which to do so, with both students and adults. It will explore our journey with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to develop this approach, and the successes and challenges of doing this at Dulwich College (Singapore). We call this approach the Compassionate Systems Framework and it is now a global project comprising a number of schools and educational institutions.
Let’s start at the very beginning. . .
In the Junior School, through our partnership with MIT, we are using the Compassionate Systems Framework to support the development of wellbeing across all areas of the curriculum. The core aim of the framework can be described as, ‘. . .growing compassionate integrity in students and teachers to have alignment between how we think, feel and act by virtue of an ever-unfolding awareness of inter-connectedness.’ Systems Thinking Tools and aspects of the Personal Capacities are being used across the Junior School to enhance teaching and learning. Systems Thinking Tools provide our teachers with a platform to explore sensitive, emotive, or controversial areas with confidence. It is vital that we overtly teach our students to try to understand the world from the perspective of others and how different social connections, and networks of connections, which we refer to as social fields, influence this. It has been a carefully planned, gradually implemented process over the past year and a half which has involved students, teaching staff, leadership teams and our parents. Explaining the tools will exemplify how they have been most effective in supporting our students.
Systemic Thinking – an art form of unpicking complex situations
Systems Thinker, Peter Senge, describes how ‘Systems thinking is needed more than ever because we are becoming overwhelmed by complexity.’ The problems we are facing in the world today have many layers with deep rooted issues that are challenging to comprehend. He goes on to discuss how, ‘We have such a tendency to rush in, to fix things up with good advice. But we often do not take time to diagnose, to really, deeply understand the problem first.’ The introduction of the following Systems Thinking Tools within our curriculum have really helped to navigate this:
- The Ladder of Connectedness
- The Ladder of Inference
- The Iceberg
- The Stock and Flow
- The Check in Tool
The introduction of these tools into the Junior School was, again, undertaken very cautiously and carefully. There was no big launch demanding that these tools are integrated into lessons a certain number of times per week. Staff were part of planning meetings when looking at how tools could be integrated into units of work and lessons. The first staff professional development session to explore these tools in more depth only took place with all Junior School staff members a full academic year later. It has been a very organic process, beginning with one year group, where there were individuals who showed a natural interest in experimenting with these tools. More experienced Compassionate Systems Practitioners went into classes and were observed working with students. These teachers then had the courage to go away and have a go at team teaching the same lesson, gaining in confidence, feeling safe enough to make mistakes. What we have observed is that the most successful and most powerful tool we have used so far has been the Check In Tool and it has had a profound impact on our students.
Check In Tools- a wonderful way to tell a story
Storytelling is one of the most ancient traditions of human society. For millennia, people have sat around and told their stories in every country and every continent. Everyone has a story to tell, and every story is unique and special in its own way. It might be a story from the past, something that has happened in the last week or an event that had an impact or resonated with us earlier that day.
We have developed a system within the Junior School that really focuses on developing storytelling and positive communication between both students and adults. As Covey describes ‘Communication is the most important skill in life.’ The Check In Tool is the vehicle that has been instrumental in teaching this. It has helped to encourage self-awareness, listening and connections between people. It allows different perspectives to be shared and helps us to understand how actions affect social fields. It is neither elaborate, nor overcomplicated and there are two basic rules:
- Only one person speaks at a time without interruption, giving everyone a turn to speak.
- All participants actively listen for the duration of the check in.
Taking it back a step
Initially, we introduced the structure in a slightly different way. The Check In approach in classrooms was scaffolded, with students identifying how they were feeling at the start of each day. Each class personalised a chart or system to identify feelings and emotions and used this as a catalyst to promote effective dialogue. This may be seen by some as tokenistic, however, it was essential and necessary to create clear signposting, airtime and it needed to be given real value. To begin with there was apprehension. Teachers had to be the role models, the ones who initiated the conversation with key prompts such as, ‘Would you like to tell me about why you are feeling like that today?’ or ‘I’m really annoyed today because. . . ’. Some students did not have the emotional literacy or emotional intelligence to describe how they were feeling, let alone unpick why, so careful building blocks were needed to support this. It also meant adults had to demonstrate a degree of vulnerability to their students by sharing their thoughts and feelings. Excellent modelling of this meant students were able to mirror this and gain confidence.
The Check In Tool has been a careful process that has grown over time to the point that we now see students checking in more naturally with one another. You can wander into a classroom in the morning and see a 7-year-old student looking proudly at the chart, seeking out their peers and striking up a conversation to find out why they may be sad, or angry or excited. Teachers have discovered all kinds of things students have been worried, angry or happy about, which in turn has made them more aware of the developing social field that day. Most importantly, we have seen several safeguarding issues raised through the check in system which has, perhaps, been the most significant breakthrough. Safeguarding is, I believe, the most important and crucial component we undertake as educators.
Checking in takes dedicated time and patience. It is acceptable if sometimes you don’t have that much to share or in fact, don’t want to share it. Trust is vital and when working with both adults and children, it is important to make this explicit. Being open minded is key. Open to sharing your own story but also keeping an open mind when listening to others too.
The power of listening, truly listening
Check in systems have now become more embedded within lessons and staff now use the two rules mentioned above to guide conversations and improve listening. So often today, our fast paced and busy lives mean we rarely sit down and genuinely listen to another. Sitting down and listening to someone tell their story, and just hearing and feeling this, is a real privilege.
Stephen Covey’s work references 4 types of listening; Ignoring, Pretending, Selective Listening and Empathic Listening. So often, both adults and children believe they are listening but in fact your brain is more focused on your reply, or getting ready to speak next and most probably on connecting what that person has said with a story of your own. Empathic listening is listening with real intent and something both adults and students must strive to get better at. As Covey so eloquently describes:
‘In empathic listening, you listen with your ears, but you also, and more importantly listen with your eyes and with your heart. You listen for feeling, for meaning. You listen for behaviour. You use your right brain as well as your left. You sense, you intuit, you feel.’
If you think of meetings amongst adults, everyone is so keen on getting their own point across and coming to a decision, they rarely unpick and really listen to what their peers are saying. We have used the Check In Tool at the start of leadership meetings to give everyone the chance to talk about how they are feeling that day and share anything they wish. It has only had a positive effect on the team dynamic and the generative social field.
As a result of using the Check In Tool, the development of positive relationships between student and student, and adults and students have increased significantly. Relationships with other people are everything and build a better and more effective learning classroom. Checking in has demonstrated how these relationships can really thrive.
The Compassionate Systems Framework is still in its infancy, but we are very proud of the positive impact it has had on supporting our staff and students. Has it been a smooth journey without bumps in the road along the way? Of course not. It has taken a whole army of adults and students from across the whole school to pull together, support one another and balance this with the everyday demands of curriculum and time pressures; the ‘How do it I fit it all in?’ question. But has it been worth it? Absolutely. The success of the Check In Tool has really ignited a passion in adults and allowed them to see first-hand the benefits of the Compassionate Systems Tools. This will continue to inspire and pave our journey going forward.
It is a fine balance between strong academic research and the day-to-day running of a wonderfully bustling international school that is striving to develop individuals who are woven together with compassion and empathy, and guided by a solid moral compass. Our students now have a greater awareness of the world and people around them. That they are confidently using language like social fields, cognitive empathy and emotional disconnect, shows a huge leap forward. After implementing all of these systems and experiences in the Junior School and witnessing some of the profound thoughts and actions of our students, I wholeheartedly agree with the words of former US President Barak Obama:
‘Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world’
Covey, S. R. (2004). The 7 habits of highly effective people. Simon & Schuster.
Goleman, D., & Goleman, D. (2004). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ & working with emotional intelligence. Bloomsbury.
Senge, P. M. (2008). The fifth discipline: The art & practice of the learning organization. Soundview Executive Book Summaries.
International Baccalaureate Organization (UK) Ltd. (2020). Compassionate systems approach.
Senge, P, Boell, M, Cook, L, Martin, J, Lynn, K, Haygaru, T & Urrea, C. (2019). Introduction to Compassionate Systems Framework in Schools. The Center for Systems Awareness, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab.