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Archive for February, 2017

Nurturing Lovers and Doers of Justice – 3: from empathy to compassion

In the last paragraph of Nurturing Lovers and Doers of Justice – 2, I said:

“The experience of the student in the learning space and the learning experiences in which they engage must foster compassion. . . . Lovers and doers of justice are moved by their surroundings. . . . This requires a culture of paying attention. Compassion leads to caring engagement that must begin in the learning space among those that inhabit that space.”

As a follow up to that post, I think it is important to distinguish between sympathy, empathy, and compassion – especially between empathy and compassion which are often used interchangeably.

Wiggins and McTighe identify empathy as one of their six facets of understanding. “It is not simply an affective response or sympathy over which we have little control, but the disciplined attempt to feel as others feel, to see as others see.” Empathy is the “ability to walk in another’s shoes, to escape one’s own responses and reactions so as to grasp another’s.” (Wiggins and Mctighe, 2005, p. 98) Empathy is a form of insight that involves the ability “to get beyond odd, alien, seemingly weird opinions or people to find what is meaningful in them.” (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005, p.99) Empathy involves not just a change of mind, but a change of heart that requires “respect for people different from ourselves” which causes us to be “open-minded. To carefully consider their views when those views are different than ours.” (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005, p.99)

They continue their discussion of empathy by saying that developing empathy requires confronting students with strange or alien texts, experiences, and ideas to see if they can get beyond what is off-putting. But especially important in developing empathy is insight gained from experience be that direct or simulated. “The absence of such experiences in school may explain why many important ideas are so misunderstood and learning is so fragile, as the literature on misconception reveals.” (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005, p.100)

Developing empathy requires overcoming egocentrism, ethnocentrism, and present-centeredness. (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005, p.100)

Clearly, developing the ability to be empathetic is crucial to any discussion of nurturing lovers and doers of justice. However, we need to take developing empathy a step further.

Langstraat and Bowdon in “Service-learning and Critical Emotion Studies: on the perils of empathy and the politics of compassion” say, quoting Martha Nussbaum, that empathy entails an “imaginative reconstruction of another person’s experience without any particular evaluation of that experience.” However, again quoting Nussbaum, compassion is a much more specific, painful emotion “occasioned by the awareness of another person’s undeserved misfortune. . . . Compassion is usually more intense and entails both judgment and action, unlike empathy which may result only in a judgment.” (Langstraat and Bowden, 2011, p.7)


Empathy says: I feel bad for that person.

Compassion says: I feel bad because this is unjust and I am going to do something to change that injustice. (Langstraat and Bowden, 2011, p.7)



  • includes identification with other humans
  • that leads to an evaluation of injustice and suffering
  • which results in ethical actions in response to that evaluation.


While empathy involves feeling and thinking, compassion involves feeling, thinking, and acting. Compassion leads to caring engagement.


I think our classrooms provide many opportunities to develop empathy but how many of those opportunities foster compassion? Perhaps using the following questions to evaluate the opportunities/experiences we provide can help us extend developing empathy into the realm of compassion.

  1. Did this activity or experience give students the opportunity to identify with others?
  2. Did this activity or experience give students the opportunity to evaluate what caused the injustice and suffering?
  3. Did the learning experience provide the opportunity for ethical actions in response to the critical evaluation?


The definition of compassion is a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is hurting, in pain, or has misfortune and is accompanied by a strong desire to help the suffering.

Jesus Christ is the greatest example of someone with true compassion.


Wiggins, Grant and McTighe, Jay (2005). Understanding by design 2nd ed. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Langstraat, Lisa and Bowdon, Melody (2011). “Service-learning and critical emotion studies: on the perils of empathy and the politics of compassion” in the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning.


Asking Good Questions – 2

In a previous post about ‘Asking Good Questions’ I highlighted the work of the Right Question Institute  which is dedicated to making it possible for all people to learn to ask better questions and participate more effectively in key decisions. I want to follow up in this post by pointing to an example of how their Question Formulation Technique (QFT) can be used to engage students in topics related to African American History Month.

“Black history month is a great opportunity to celebrate the many accomplishments of Black Americans. It is also important to closely examine these accomplishments and their surrounding context.”

History Detectives: Voting Rights in Mississippi, 1964 is a lesson that incorporates QFT as a part of a lesson on voting rights in the 60’s. The lesson is framed by:march-on-washington-1963-300x200

Enduring Understandings

Democracy demands that all voices be heard.

People in Missisisippi have risked everything for the right to vote.

Essential Questions

  1. Was Freedom Summer necessary to secure voting rights?
  2. Why hasn’t suffrage been universal throughout U.S. history?
  3. How do you fit into the story of maintaining voting rights for all in the United States?

As part of setting the context, students were asked to generate every possible question they could imagine in response to the Question FocusPeople in Mississippi have risked everything for the right to vote. The instructions for this section of the lesson:voting

Have students, working in small groups, generate every possible question they can imagine related to this statement. There are no wrong questions. They should not discuss the questions — simply list as many as possible. For example, “Why did the risk everything?” “What did they risk?”

Once the groups have at least 15 questions each, have students review their lists and pick the three questions that are most important to them. Explain that these are some of the questions they can explore as they engage in this lesson.

The lesson ends with a performance task that asks them to travel to the future, to the year 2060 to work as historians researching the history of Mississippi. You can see the whole lesson here.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, history, and culture. It was established by Act of Congress in 2003, following decades of efforts to promote and highlight the contributions of African Americans. To date, the Museum has collected more than 36,000 artifacts and nearly 100,000 individuals have become charter members. The Museum opened to the public on September 24, 2016, as the 19th and newest museum of the Smithsonian Institution.

You can find teacher resources here.

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