Developing genuine empathy in students

True action can only stem from genuine empathy. While this is not a groundbreaking idea, the thought of how to create this genuine empathy isone I have been thinking about since a recent workshop that I attended (discussed here). For example, we can’t have students experience the poverty within Indian slums by dumping students in the middle of the slum and saying, “Survive. I’ll see you in a week”. The workshop mentioned in my previous blog post develops the idea that teachers need to involve students in simulations as a way to develop empathy beyond a surface level.

At the moment, my students are undertaking a unit of inquiry focussed on fresh water andrelated issues. I wanted students to really appreciate the value of water and respect the fact that, while water comes as easily as turning on the tap for us, it isn’t this easy for many millions around the world. To do this, I lead my class and another grade 5 class through the simulation that I called ‘water balloon farmers’.The idea is that students take on the role of farming families in remote India. They need to fetch water from a distant source, farm their crop (which is represented by filling water balloons using a water bottle with a small hole in the cap), keep themselves clean, go to school, etc. At the end of each month (represented in blocks of 10 minutes) the students need to pay their rent, have some drinking and cooking water set aside, etc. If they didn’t meet their needs, consequences applied.

The first month (10 mins) of the simulation went well, but the kids were still in make believe mode. There were no real connection being made, no real empathy. This was expected. By the second month however, students were stealing, pushing, shoving, kicking over buckets of water… their behaviour had changed significantly! They had taken on the role of farmers fighting for survival. The third month continued on this path with some families having been kicked off their farm for not paying rent.

The most important, and eye opening stage of this lesson for me was the debriefing that followed. Reflections from students were amazing!

I think we did this activity to help us understand that:

“Water is important to every living thing”

“Farming is very hard and that water has to be there to live”

“We are very lucky to have what we have now and we should appreciate it.”

The thing that made me think or surprised me the most was:

“That everything started to be real…”

“Seeing how much water we need to live because in here you don’t notice because it’s easy-peasy to get water”

“During this activity the people got really involved they all wanted money not to live but to survive. They did everything they can do, even steal.”

“It was that it felt weirdly real for the rush to get money. It also felt like we weren’t in school anymore.”


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