In this article, the author reflects on her experience as a member of the 2015-2016 Peace Teachers Program cohort. Learn more about the USIP Peace Teachers Program.
The first time one of my colleagues recommended using Ted Talks, I was skeptical. Watching a live video of an expert in their field talk about the importance of their research for 19 minutes struck me as the antithesis of engaging pedagogical practice. I questioned the impact of a taped lecture, the dearth of both audio and visual stimulation, and my students’ ability to “capture the significance” in less than 30 minutes. My inaugural Ted Talk experience, and the first Ted Talk I shared with my students, was Chimamanda Adichie’s “The Danger of the Single Story”; I understood within minutes of watching my students respond to her authentic, impassioned presentation that the power and the potential of Ted Talks in the classroom was undeniable. Years later, after watching “The Danger of the Single Story” in my classroom, it was a student who recommended that I watch Sam Richards’ “A Radical Experiment in Empathy.” Richards’ message became a professional imperative for me, I felt compelled to share it with as many students as I could, and, like Adichie’s, it transformed the way I thought, planned and taught.
My work with the Global Peacebuilding Center’s teaching cohort over the last few months inspired me to repurpose Richards’ message about empathy. When I began thinking about how to develop lessons that both complement and add to the existing global peacebuilding curriculum, I knew that in addition to non-verbal communication, active listening and distinguishing between position and interest, calling on students to recognize the impact of empathy on conflict management, resolution and peacebuilding was critical. Richards’ asks his audience to call upon empathy, “to walk in the shoes of others”, before constructing accusatory narratives that exacerbate fear and perpetuate stereotypes. He clearly establishes, contrary to what some assume, that being empathetic means making an attempt to understand another person or perspective, not necessarily supporting the actions of that person or the implications of the particular perspective.
He begins by asking his audience to imagine living in a United States that is controlled economically by China. In his hypothetical scenario, China is a colonizing force that capitalizes upon and ultimately exploits American coal, leaving Americans without recourse. Throughout his talk, he reminds his audience to walk in the shoes of these Americans living under duress, beholden to the dictates of an outside power. Richards’ strategy is simple, he calls on his audience to “understand” why Americans living under these conditions might rebel, why they might involve themselves in an insurgency, which ultimately allows him to develop parallels between his hypothetical Chinese example and the insurgency in Iraq.
"Okay, now follow me on this, because I'm taking a big risk here. And so I'm going to invite you to take a risk with me. These gentlemen here, they're insurgents. They were caught by the American soldiers, trying to kill Americans. Put yourself in the shoes of the Americans who caught them. Can you feel the rage? Can you feel that you just want to take these guys and wring their necks? Can you go there? Now, put yourself in their shoes. Are they brutal killers or patriotic defenders? Which one? Can you feel their anger, their fear, their rage at what has happened in their country? Can you go there? What do you think they're feeling? You see, that's empathy. It's also understanding. (Richards “A Radical Experiment”)"
The ability to listen, understand, negotiate and compromise is dependent upon empathy. Richards’ Ted Talk focuses on the utility of empathy, urging us to see empathy as a pathway to understanding, and in this particular Ted Talk, the motivations and actions of people who commit acts of terrorism. “Attend to other lives, other visions. Listen to other people, enlighten ourselves. I'm not saying that I support the terrorists in Iraq, but as a sociologist, what I am saying is I understand. And now perhaps -- perhaps -- you do too” (Richards “A Radical Experiment). Concluding his talk with this distinguishing commentary is powerful; understanding why people do what they do does not mean that supporting their actions is inevitable.
While Richards’ does develop a working definition of empathy over the course of his talk, I decided that introducing the concept of empathy, and its use within a variety of socially scientific fields, would be helpful to my students prior to watching his talk. My initial search led me to the University of California at Berkeley’s “Greater Good” interactive website. In addition to distinguishing between the two types of empathy, affective and cognitive, the site also includes a research focused explanation of empathy’s impact on human behavior and an empathy quiz (http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/empathy/definition). I also developed a free writing prompt and several discussion questions, which I reviewed with the students before they watched Richards’ talk.
Before I introduce the students to “Greater Good,” I ask them to brainstorm a list of words that they associated with empathy, and we create a word web on the board. We discuss the difference between empathy and sympathy, and we discuss the role empathy plays in listening to another’s perspective, position and interests. After giving them some time to explore the site and make observations about its purpose, we read the definition of empathy together. We use the conflicts that students have been tracking for the last few weeks and the parties involved in each to help us connect our understanding of empathy’s utility and the outcome of their conflict. When we finish reading and discussing the “Greater Good’s” definition of empathy, I have each of the students take the Empathy Quiz and share their reactions to the results. The interpretations of the scoring outcomes offer a narrative explanation of the individual’s level of empathy, but they also include what types of activities, such as reading fictional novels, each test taker can do in an effort to inculcate empathy in themselves.
We begin the class period by reviewing the highlights from the day before, then I introduce Sam Richards and provide a brief overview of Sociology as a discipline. Students also have an opportunity to look at Sam Richards’ profile on the Ted Talk website, paying particularly close attention to the “why you should watch” narrative. I then pass out the discussion questions and the interactive transcripts. We review the questions, and I tell my students they will be given time in small groups to identify specific lines or passages from the transcript after we finish watching.
When the Ted Talk is over, students share their initial observations and reactions to what they saw. They comment on his attire, his cadence, his nonverbal communication style and the examples he develops over the course of his talk. Some of them are irritated, some of them are mad, but most of them are struck by Richards’ distinction between understanding and supporting the motivations and actions of others. We talk about the link between empathizing with the positions and interests of all parties involved in a particular conflict and the efficacy of negotiation, mediation and resolution. Students then break into smaller groups and begin their discussion of the three questions they were asked to keep in mind as they watched the Ted Talk.
Students discuss the questions, harvesting specific quotations and examples from the interactive transcript. When they finish in their small groups, students are randomly selected (by calling numbers that they assigned to themselves before the discussion began) and each of the students whose number is called shares their answers and specific references to the text.
We begin the period by discussing what they wrote about for homework:
To what extent could empathy affect the management of the conflict you have been tracking for the last three weeks? Student responses focus on the opposing parties and their responsibility to each other, as well as the process, to make an attempt to not only listen, but also to understand. Whether it’s the conflict in the Central African Republic, Venezuela or the South China Sea, the impact of empathy on both the management and resolution of their respective conflicts is clear.
I ask the seniors currently enrolled in my Economics and Conflict course to reflect upon their Ted Talk journey with me, and call on them to make connections between “The Danger of the Single Story,” which they saw as freshmen and “A Radical Experiment in Empathy.” Using a variety of lenses to evaluate situations and considering the perspectives of others is an inherent part of the Riverdale High School experience. The school and the class sizes are small and students are encouraged to push themselves beyond the confines of their perceptions and experiences. However, I didn’t expect to overhear one of my students share his desire to write his op-ed piece for a local newspaper (a regular column he was asked to write for The Lake Oswego Review over the course of his senior year, last spring) about empathy. This student has been in at least one of my classes every year since he started at Riverdale, which makes his decision to write about empathy and make clear its universal applicability all the more meaningful and relevant. He is mature, thoughtful and ready to share how our review of empathy has impacted the way he perceives the world and his responsibility to it. His determination to write the piece, as well as the paper’s willingness to accept it, is evidence of empathy’s pervasive influence and universal applicability.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily of the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Learn more about USIP’s resources for educators and students.