The Science of Empathy: What Researchers Want Teachers to Know

EdSurge Podcast

The Science of Empathy: What Researchers Want Teachers to Know

By Sydney Johnson     Feb 19, 2019

The Science of Empathy: What Researchers Want Teachers to Know

This article is part of the guide The EdSurge On Air Podcast.

There’s a lot we don’t know about how the brain works. But scientists are finding out more everyday. And one maybe surprising thing experts are saying these days is that empathy pretty seriously affects our ability to learn.

This weekend, EdSurge caught up with John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and affiliate professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine, and a keynote speaker at the Learning and the Brain conference last week in San Francisco.

Medina studies the brain for a living, exploring a range of topics including how the human brain evolved and the microscopic happenings in our heads. And it’s all complicated. But he thinks that there’s information out there about how the brain works—and in particular, how empathy changes learning outcomes—that classroom instructors should understand.

Listen to the discussion on this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast. You can follow the podcast on the Apple Podcast app, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen. Or read a portion of the interview below, lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: In your book you define a list of so-called “brain rules.” What are those brain rules, and which ones should we know when it comes to learning?

Medina: Well, the brain rules start out with a fair amount of skepticism. I was asked a while back, if you had an unlimited budget and few bureaucratic constraints and could do anything for the system of education in United States, what would you do? Would you bring the brain sciences in? And I said originally, no, I don't think you can. We don't know enough about how the brain works. I mean, we still don't know how you know how to pick up a pencil and write your name with it.

I'm still actually fairly skeptical about it, but the more I got into it, the more I saw that I was being a little disingenuous. There are 12 [brain rules], and it begins with what I call the evolutionary performance envelope of the human brain, meaning the human brain appears to have been designed to solve problems related to surviving in an outdoor setting, in unstable meteorological conditions and to do so in near constant motion.


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So even though we don't know very much about the brain, the little that we do know suggests that if you wanted to design a learning environment that was directly opposed to what the brain is naturally good at doing, you design a classroom. There's between 8 and 10 million years since we diverged from chimpanzees.

Tell me a little bit more about that.

We're built to move 20 kilometers a day probably, seven days a week, all the time. If we sit still in one place for 30 minutes in the Serengeti given our extraordinary weak claws and bad incisors and hair, we'd be lunch. Yet we take kids that were designed to be moving around 12 miles a day, and we put them into a classroom for eight hours and expect them to sit still. That's like taking a jet airplane and just saying, I want you to taxi around the airport. I don't want you to fly. Now, airplanes can do that, [but] it's not what they're built for.

And so how does that play out in terms of learning. Are students benefiting from the classroom or not?

Well, let's take exercise as a perfect example. From the idea that we were really moving 12 miles per day and that we evolved under conditions of near constant motion, you could hypothesize that exercise would improve brain function. The more kids move and not just kids, adults, seniors. This has been tested at every age group and wherever it has been tested has been found to be the same result. Exercise improves cognition.

Is it fair to say your solution to challenges in the American education system is more P.E.?

That would be a part of it, but there's a huge range. And what's really weird is that you actually don't have to be fit, you just have to be exercising all the time. The ability to shift up and get that blood flow. So yes, part of the powerful solution to changes in the American education system would involve P.E. in terms of the school, and that's about half of what I would do.

Here's the other half. Do you know what it is a great predictor of executive function? The emotional stability of the home in which the kid is being raised. So if you challenged me to say let's change the school system, I can only give you about a 50 percent answer because the other half I would ask you, well, what do you do about the home life?

My research interests are the genetics of psychiatric disorders. I spent a long time thinking about how the brain develops in the womb and then what happens when things screw up years later and a psychopathology emerges? And one of the things that predicts those psychopathologies if you're depressed, if you're anxious, your grades usually suck. Your risk for suicide goes way high, your risk of social withdrawal is strong. So anything we could [do to] improve that is going to be of great power.

How much neuroscience should classroom teachers really understand and apply to teaching?

I actually think that we should change a great deal of how teachers are taught what they're taught. I will go out on a limb, I get in trouble for this and I actually don't care. In most universities, the departments of education do not study the very thing they are charged with studying. A geologist studies rocks, a molecular biologist is going to study molecules. Well, if you were to argue that learning involves the brain, you don't process information with your pancreas, you would argue that the colleges of education should be the cognitive neuroscientist units of an entire university setting.

To start, I would retrain teachers so that they are the cognitive neuroscientists of learning. They would be the people that everybody in the university would look up to to say, “exactly how does the brain process information and why is it that executive function?”

What have you discovered in your own research about the relationship between empathic behavior, brain function and student performance?

Human learning is primarily a relational enterprise. Empathy is a part of that. I'm convinced that if you teach empathy for the teachers, the kids’ grades go up.

Is empathy training for the teachers or for students that you're talking about?

Well, in this particular case, we'll start with the teachers because it flows out from them. But you can also show that [Social Emotional Learning] programs, which are designed for the students, those that have a strong emphasis on executive function and empathic training usually improve the grades of those kids that do it. The whole idea is that if you teach somebody and they begin to feel safe.

We are so isolated in our own brains. There's a fair amount of barriers that are put up between any two people because we can't access each other's thought life except if you feel empathetic then you get the illusion that somebody is sharing your space.

The human brain wasn't built for learning, the human brain was built for surviving. That's its job. But if those survival instincts are tamped down so you [know you] can survive now, it allows all the other angels of its nature to move forward.

Is there not enough empathy in the classroom today?

I believe that teachers increasingly are some of the most stressed populations in the world in the United States. The amount of standards that they have to give, the funding that might be a problem. It doesn't surprise me at all that strikes are occurring in districts like popcorn. They're just popping everywhere.

People are reaching a limit to what they can do with the standards that are out there, the kinds of things they have to do, the parents that they have to put up with. They are so stressed. Empathy has a huge what we call a cognitive load. It takes a lot to be empathetic on a regular basis. And if you're already stressed out because you don't make enough money and you just got yelled at by the superintendent’s assistant, and then a parent came in and you had a lousy conference, you don't have anything left.

And when you stress a teacher, the ability for them to be consistently empathetic wanes. In fact, we have a term for it, “empathetic distress.” If you don't have much reserves left, you can reach that empathic distress at a fairly low level. One of the things you'd have to do is to give that frickin population of professionals a break.

What's the key takeaway that you're hoping folks will come away with from your talk later today with?

Well, one of the biggest is to understand that empathy can change somebody's grades. That's a big deal. Most people don't know that when a kid is beginning to get empathy training or feel training in the few places where it's actually been tested, you see some extraordinary changes in grades, and it's simply because I think the safety issues are so settled.

 

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