Empathy is a skill. How do students learn it and why do they need it?

Empathy... "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another".

I was with a group of Year 5 and 6 teachers discussing STEM projects and design thinking. The consensus within the group was that students should start off a design project by 'empathising' with a user or consumer and then move on through the rest of the design process after that.

But one teacher pointed out that she felt most of her students were incapable of putting themselves 'in someone else's shoes'. When it comes to recognising other people's needs "they couldn't care less", she said.

That's a problem. Without the ability to empathise these young people will struggle to identify needs and create solutions - which are integral to the core workings of so many businesses and organisations.

So how do children acquire the ability to empathise? Do they find it within themselves (innate) or is it found somewhere outside (modelled)? Or does it somehow find them (in the journey of life)?

My experiences in the classroom have taught me that many students don't have the inclination and imagination to understand the feelings of others. To awaken their empathy muscle they need to 'rub shoulders' with 'the other'. That is, get as close as they (safely) can to the situation so that it impacts on them to some degree.

A design project can't start with empathy if the students can't empathise. There is an essential step before that. Students should commence the process by doing research (facilitated by the teacher) - investigating the issue and exploring primary sources - until the students are sufficiently 'moved' by a problem/need of a user. Now they care enough to engage fully with the project.

Practise Empathy

Here is an excellent opportunity for the students in your class or school to feel the effects of a problem experienced by another (with safeguards). This experience might just help your students to awaken and exercise that empathy muscle. They're going to need it!


Refugee Week is organised by the Refugee Council of Australia, which represents 200 organisations and charities who support refugees and asylum seekers.

Refugee Week takes place between 17th-23rd June this year and Act for Peace are once again running their Ration Challenge.

Plenty of details, support and resources can be found here:

James Phelps
Classroom teacher
Learning designer

James Phelps and Minds Wide Open are not affiliated with Refugee Week or The Ration Challenge. We simply bring this initiative to your attention in case you are unaware of it.