working together so learners can flourish

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.


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