For better or worse, students in classrooms today — even down to the elementary level — are firmly part of the selfie generation. Many, in just a few years’ time, have more pictures on a smartphone of their own faces than older generations have from their entire lifetimes.
Teachers, principals and districts have a unique challenge to expand children’s learning beyond the classroom and connect them to others’ experiences across the world. Social studies instruction, when done correctly, is a potent tool to get students outside of selfness, and teach them empathy — or the ability to imagine what others are feeling outside of their own experience.
Social economist and author Jeremy Rifkin, in his August 2010 RSA Animate talk, explained that scientifically speaking, “we are actually soft-wired to experience another’s plight as if we are experiencing it ourselves.” Rifkin went further to assert that, contrary to what we see in the world around us today, humans are not soft-wired for aggression and violence, but for connection.
Social Studies teaches empathy
Of all the elementary school subjects, social studies has the power to tap into children’s natural empathy and need for connection. Social studies is full of stories — from both leaders and common people, all who valiantly or violently constructed change within their own sphere. Many of these narratives come from different lands and diverse viewpoints.
“When we encounter a multiplicity of voices and human experiences, we are humbled by the vast sea of events, information and ideas, and how little we know,” said Matt Doran and his team in February 2016 at the teacher resource site, Social Studies for the 21st Century.
That humility helps students of social studies empathetically experience and understand another’s condition from that person’s perspective.
Social Studies expands our view
At its very basic level, social studies teaches us about ourselves by teaching us about “the other.” Thus, through its stories, conflicts, compromises and resolutions, social studies teaches empathy with authenticity. Teachers have no need of crafting character lessons because their students discover the true character of historical figures through questioning, pondering and debating sources and views.
Lauren Owen, in a November 2015 Edutopia article, explained that modeling, teaching and using empathy in the classroom not only benefits that room, but beyond.
Empathy instruction leads to:
• A more positive classroom culture and helps students build friendships outside of themselves.
• Strengthening the community. “As children learn empathy skills by communicating cross-culturally with their classmates, those skills will transfer to their lives in their community. The deeper relationships that result from strong empathy skills have the potential to strengthen a community and build trust,” Owen said.
• Preparing students to be better leaders in their world as they learn to understand the perspectives of those they lead.
“We have more in common than that which divides us,” said HRH Princess Lamia Al Saud, secretary general and member of the Board of Trustees at Alwaleed Philanthropies, in a 2017 Huffington Post article.
T’Challa, king of Wakanda, echoed this sentiment in the 2018 movie, “Black Panther.” But in today’s politically charged and consistently contentious society, it is hard for students to believe this.
Studying the stories of history is a proven way to get students outside themselves, and find the hope and bravery needed to reach out to others.