June 23, 2010 by Willy Cardoso
Very commonly teachers need to deal with students’ feelings of frustration, disappointment, anxiety, etc. When asked how they cope with it and how they motivate students, many say that they try to talk and understand what causes the frustration or anxiety.
The next step though is rather blurry. Some teachers are able to play better the role of a counselor and give advice on how to overcome the situation, some others are able to act as an entertainer/motivator and show the bright and fun side of learning, and some other ones can tell students about their own learning experience and how everything turned out fine once they did so and such.
As far as my experience goes, teachers consider the above as good practice. All in all, we want our students to see that we accept their feelings and are willing to help. However, it is important to pay close attention to this “we accept”.
We know that learning is dependable on psychological safety. So, if we say “I accept you”, but know nothing of you, this is a shallow acceptance indeed, and you realize that it may change if I actually come to know you. But if I understand you empathically (…) then this is safety indeed. (Rogers, 1961:358)
I have recently had amazing conversations with some teachers and students about empathy, and very often this construct is ambiguous to them, most of the time it’s mistaken for sympathy.
Sympathy is an agreement in feeling, it’s also a kinship, an acceptance expression. In Psychology it’s better defined as a relationship between persons in which the condition of one induces a parallel or reciprocal condition in another.
Empathy, most often refers to a vicarious participation in the emotions, ideas, or opinions of others, the ability to imagine oneself in the condition or predicament of another.
Notice that in empathic understanding the educator doesn’t necessarily agree with the learner, neither induces a reciprocal condition. Instead, she is able to step aside from where she stands and enter in the world of the learner, for a moment in this relationship she neglects her experience, values, opinions, and puts herself in the other’s shoes.
The illustration made on the second paragraph is valid, of course, but it seems that they are all ways to provide extrinsic motivation. My contention in this series is that through a more humanistic approach, so far characterized by realness and empathy, we can attempt to facilitate learners’ intrinsic motivation. The educator’s experience, expertise and external referential point are all extrinsic to the learner (accidentally intentional overuse of ex- here). Thus, not enough – my perception. More in(s) please.
I now feel obliged to extensively quote C. H. Patterson (1985).
“Empathy, of course, is not a trick, nor is it simple. Our society is externally oriented; we do not normally or easily see things from another person’s point of view. We are too preoccupied with our own frame of reference. On the other hand, once we know what it means, most of us can relatively easily assume temporarily another’s point of view.
Students are also often bothered by the apparent subjectivity of empathic understanding. They are obsessed with the need to obtain ‘objective facts’. But the so-called facts are nothing more than the subjective perceptions and impressions of other observers, usually with added evaluative or judgmental aspects.”
I also feel that to conform to the subjectivity and ideology of this post I don’t need to come to a conclusion. (clever me ? : )
Instead, I invite you to join me in the conversation.
Patterson, C.H. Empathic Understanding
Rogers, Carl R. Empathic: An Unappreciated Way of Being
the links above take you to the original articles