Empathy: We Need It Now More Than Ever

While listening to talk radio over the weekend, I heard an analyst posit that there has been an increase in violent shooter massacres across the world. As a rebuttal to the analyst’s statement, someone called in and asserted that there’s been no increase in these types of situations, just an increase in their media coverage, and that we’re more aware of these situations now because of social media and the 24-hour news coverage cycle.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, there actually has been an increase in these types of events. That being said, no one seems to agree on the root cause of these issues. Researchers, analysts, talking heads, and armchair experts have blamed these massacres on everything, including video games, popular movies and music, traumatic home lives, healthy diet imbalances, mental health issues (which may result from Adverse Childhood Experiences/trauma), etc.

Through my preliminary research, I’ve noted that it’s very difficult to isolate one variable as the root cause of these situations. Granted, in many cases, the perpetrators seem to come from broken homes where they may have experienced some sort of trauma that may have resulted in mental health issues. In no way am I downplaying that explanation. In fact, I agree that trauma and mental health issues probably contribute to the majority of these situations. However, I hypothesize that there’s another issue at play.

In my career as an educator, I’ve noticed something very troubling.   Many students (not all) have serious difficulty understanding someone else’s emotions, coupled with the inability to sense and understand how someone else is thinking or feeling. This is usually referred to as empathy. In my day-to-day experiences with students from a variety of grade levels, I’ve seen that many students don’t grasp the concept. Many students lack the ability to predict/foresee how their actions impact others or how their actions are perceived by others. Often times, they can’t put themselves in someone else’s shoes. They don’t conceptualize that, “Hmm. I wouldn’t like it if someone did this to me, so I probably shouldn’t do it to them.” I don’t know why students seem to lack empathy. What’s happening now that’s causing this major paucity of empathy? I can’t put my finger on it, yet.

Regardless, I try to employ certain practices/strategies/approaches that will help teach/display empathy. For instance, while dealing with behavior issues, I always employ Restorative Practices. For years, Restorative Practices have been touted/advertised as a way to decrease the school-to-prison pipeline, and subsequently decrease crime and other issues. Restorative Practices emphasize how our actions can harm our relationships with others and our community. While using these practices with students, we focus on our actions, the consequences, and how members of our school community feel as a result of our actions. Not only do we focus on the way our actions harm relationships, we brainstorm and implement solutions that help repair said harm.

What other ways can we inculcate our students with empathic dispositions? I know some schools have social-emotional curricula. But, I’m just looking for ways throughout my everyday interactions with students where I can help teach and model empathy.

The STEM Challenge Conundrum: Learning and Making Meaning Through Interactive STEM Challenges

DISCLAIMER: I LOVE STEM! I was a cofounder of a STEM school. I spent summers developing integrated project-based learning (PBL) curricula for the school. I procured computer coding and Project Lead the Way engineering curricula for those students. My doctoral dissertation focused on STEM (specifically, challenges facing upper level female undergraduate engineering students). I LOVE STEM!

All that said, I can’t help but be somewhat critical of the “STEM Challenge” craze currently gripping schools throughout the nation. I’ve observed this craze all over Pinterest, Teachers-Pay-Teachers, and at teacher stores like Lakeshore Learning. Again, don’t get me wrong. I’m sure STEM challenges garner high levels of student engagement. It seems STEM challenges also really pique student interest. Yet, that’s not what concerns me regarding STEM challenges. I’m focused on the actual learning that occurs while students engage in STEM challenges (currently, I can’t find any research on this. Maybe it’s still too new).

I once participated in a STEM challenge a teacher was conducting with her students in her classroom. She distributed the directions, gave the students a bunch of supplies, and then told them to accomplish the task clearly delineated in the directions. Like I said, as I watched and participated, there was no denying the high levels of engagement and interest. Later that year, I was presenting at the International STEM Education Association Conference in Branson, Missouri, and I sat in on another STEM challenge presentation. This teacher did THE SAME EXACT THING. Obviously, two teachers (out of the millions who probably conduct STEM challenges with their students) who conduct STEM challenges the same exact way is NOT generalizable. However, that got me thinking… What learning (if any) is actually occurring during these STEM challenges?

Applying what I know of cognitive psychology and cognitive load theory (which, admittedly isn’t a lot), I’m attempting to better understand and articulate how students learn (or don’t learn) during STEM challenges. First, let’s briefly discuss a basic premise of cognitive psychology. Knowledge is stored in long-term memory (LTM) and new information is processed in short-term memory (STM). When considering learning and problem solving, for people who have the necessary information stored in LTM, it’s easier for them to bring that information into STM and manipulate it to make sense of newly received information.

Cognitive load theory suggests that our working memory capacity has inherent limits. Many cognitive researchers posit that our STM can only hold seven plus or minus two units of information at a time (some people can hold and manipulate up to nine units of information while others can only hold and manipulate up to five units of information in STM). When excessive cognitive load exists, it creates error or some kind of interference. So, for people who don’t have the necessary information stored in LTM, asking them to manipulate a variety of supplies and simultaneously learn new content and concepts may be excessive cognitive load (i.e. STEM challenges).

This may then suggest that students, depending on the capacity of their STM and how much knowledge they have stored in LTM, would only have space to possibly manipulate some of the supplies, rather than also learn the new content and concepts associated with a STEM challenge.

I always refer to this in my integrated PBL presentations and when talking about other constructivist approaches to learning as well. If students don’t have the necessary information already stored in LTM, and they’re being provided with too many units of information during a STEM challenge (being given a variety of supplies, being asked to learn new content, and being asked to understand new concepts), they may be experiencing cognitive load which could be hampering their learning.

I’ve heard from some teachers that they like to engage in a KWL or anticipatory set in order to gauge prior knowledge before starting a STEM challenge. I think this is definitely a good way to start a STEM challenge. However, I’m very interested in empirical research about learning using STEM challenges. Know any? Please share!

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Does Over-Assessing Students Perpetuate the “Is This for a Grade?” Mentality?

DISCLAIMER: I am in NO WAY saying assessment is bad. I don’t mean to place value judgment on any type of assessment with this blog post.

I don’t think it’s any secret. We assess students a lot in schools these days. In addition to the daily formative assessments that teachers utilize in their classrooms, students still take summative assessments/exams, interim assessments (MAP, Discovery Ed., etc.), and state-standardized tests (I may even be missing some).

Of course, I don’t think anyone would argue that certain types of assessments are very important. I posit that the majority of teacher-created assessments designed to assess a student’s level/progress with the intention of providing feedback immediately (or closely) following the assessment are far better than state standardized tests (of course) and a good portion of the interim assessments currently available. Obviously, this brings up the debate about the quality of teacher-designed assessments and how teachers actually use the data generated from the assessments they administer. I don’t really want to debate that. For the sake of this blog post, let’s just assume that teachers administer quality formative assessments and know how to truly utilize the assessment data to provide relevant and timely feedback.

While researching the validity and effectiveness of grades and homework, many researchers state that grades themselves turn students into “number/letter/grade monsters” or condition them to severely over-embrace the “is this for a grade?” mentality. Students often simply pursue a grade, rather than pursue learning for learning’s sake. In fact, researchers have found that grades diminish intrinsic motivation to learn anything. Obviously, this type of mentality, perpetuated by grading habits and traditions, is counterintuitive to actual learning. In addition to grades, I wonder if over-assessing students also contributes to that “is this for a grade?” mentality?

I’ve been cogitating about how all the assessments may add to the perpetuation of “is this for a grade?” mindset. I’d venture to say that the teacher-created assessments that informally gauge a student’s progress (or lack thereof) and that are often seamlessly embedded into classroom instruction do less to perpetuate the “is this for a grade?” mentality than interim assessments or yearly state-standardized tests. If the teacher-created formative assessments are seamlessly embedded into classroom instruction, I bet students don’t even think about a grade (some students may not even know they’re being assessed). However, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard students ask “is this for a grade?” when taking interim assessments or state-standardized tests.

So, when formative assessment becomes such a part of the classroom environment that students don’t even know it’s occurring, grades become less of a focus. Suppose we were to do away with interim assessments and state-standardized tests. Suppose we only focus on teacher-created formative assessments and the resulting feedback. Suppose we got rid of grades and replaced them with a standards-based grading system (many districts are moving in that direction as we speak). It’s strange to think about an education system that would look like that. But, I’d venture to say that this type of system would probably eliminate the “is this for a grade?” mentality and possibly increase intrinsic motivation to learn for learning’s sake.

I’m sure there’s research on this. If you know of a study, please share it! I’d love to read it!

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