Empathy and education

Day 3 of the Introduction to Digital Pedagogies (#dplintro) strand explored the roles of listening and empathy within teaching. It was a logical progression from a heart-wrenching keynote earlier by Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab (@saragoldrickrab) about college students’ struggles to meet their basic needs and the social justice imperatives behind affordable higher education (here she is on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah), and from exhortations in our pre-conference readings by the likes of Paulo Freire and bell hooks who stress teaching as a humanizing, dialogic endeavor.

Of course, one thing is to preach dialogic teaching and another is to practice it. We opened by going around the room sharing our most embarrassing teaching moments. Some were humorous and light-hearted anecdotes of clumsiness and jitters, inspiring laughter and mild pity, while others evoked visceral reactions as colleagues (including me) shared stories of exercising our authority as teachers in ways that undermined students’ individuality and very humanity. We then broke into pairs and exchanged memories of a time each of us had been overlooked, ignored, or disrespected. Having mined our own recollections for instances of objectifying or being objectified, we channeled the lingering emotions into a collaborative drafting of a students’ bill of rights in larger groups. Group after group, themes emerged about the needs to give students voice and agency in their learning, acknowledge and affirm their dignity as learners, and provide them with the tools to engage with, demonstrate, and deepen their learning.

Technology clearly has a role to play in these matters, if we allow it. In earlier sessions, we compared the affordances and limitations of different collaborative work platforms (e.g.: Google Docs), learning management systems (e.g.: Canvas), domain hosting services, video conferencing platforms, and social media outlets. These explorations investigated the cost, demands of students’ personal data, political involvement and inclinations of each company and its leadership, and ease of use. Now reminded of the importance of listening to our students, I look forward to putting some of these tools to use in ways that help students amplify their stories and their questions, challenge themselves to leverage existing skills in the development of new ones, and connect with the world outside the classroom to make learning relevant and transformational.