Maximpact Blog

Teachers Discover Empathy Is the ‘Mother of Invention’

By Sunny Lewis for Maximpact

CAMBRIDGE, UK, February 3, 2021 (Maximpact.com News) – Teaching children in a way that encourages them to empathise with others improves their creativity and can deepen their general engagement with learning, finds new research from the University of Cambridge. The findings are from a year-long University of Cambridge study with Design and Technology students, ages 13 to 14, at two inner London schools.

Dr. Ian Hosking, left, and Senior Lecturer Bill Nicholl, co-founders and co-leaders of the Designing Our Tomorrow long-term project at the University of Cambridge, UK. (Screengrab from video courtesy Cambridge University)

Dr. Ian Hosking, left, and Senior Lecturer Bill Nicholl, co-founders and co-leaders of the Designing Our Tomorrow long-term project at the University of Cambridge, UK. (Screengrab from video courtesy Cambridge University)

Co-author Dr. Helen Demetriou, a lecturer in psychology and education at the Faculty of Education, said, “We clearly awakened something in these pupils by encouraging them to think about the thoughts and feelings of others. The research shows not only that it is possible to teach empathy, but that by doing so we support the development of children’s creativity, and their wider learning.”

Learners at one school spent the year following the lessons dictated by the standard curriculum. At another school, the study group’s Design and Technology lessons used a set of engineering design thinking tools called Designing Our Tomorrow that are intended to foster students’ ability to think creatively and to engender empathy, while solving real-world problems.

Both sets of learners were assessed for creativity at the start and also at the end of the school year using the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking: a well-established psychometric test.

The results showed a statistically significant increase in creativity among pupils at the intervention school, where the thinking tools were used.

At the start of the year, the creativity scores of pupils in the control school, which followed the standard curriculum, were 11 percent higher than those at the intervention school.

But by the end of the year, the situation had changed – creativity scores among the intervention group were 78 percent higher than the control group.

The researchers also examined specific categories within the Torrance Test that show emotional or cognitive empathy such as “emotional expressiveness” and “open-mindedness.” Pupils in the intervention school scored much higher in these categories. The researchers said those scores demonstrate that an improvement in empathy was driving the overall creativity scores.

They found evidence that boys and girls in the intervention school responded to the Design and Technology course in ways that defied traditional gender stereotypes. Boys showed a marked improvement in emotional expression, scoring 64 percent higher in that category at the end of the year than at the start, while girls improved more in terms of cognitive empathy, showing 62 percent more perspective-taking.

Designing Our Tomorrow Together

The research is part of a long-term collaboration called Designing Our Tomorrow at the University of Cambridge between the Faculty of Education, led by Senior Lecturer in Design and Technology Education Bill Nicholl, and the Department of Engineering led by Dr. Ian Hosking.

The collaborative project challenges pupils to solve real-world problems by thinking about the perspectives and feelings of others.

The particular challenge used in this study asked pupils at the intervention school to design an asthma-treatment pack for children aged six and under.

The students were given creative and empathetic tools to use to accomplish this task. They were shown data about the number of childhood asthma fatalities in the UK, and they saw a video which depicts a young child having an asthma attack.

“Crucially,” said Dr. Hosking, “we wanted students to address the anxiety that a child feels the first time a spacer mask is placed on their face. Students watched a video of a real instance of this, where the child recoils backwards each time the mask is placed over their mouth.”

“This is a complex, messy problem requiring solutions that are not only effective but cheap, simple to use and scalable. When I first saw the monkey mask design, where the child becomes a monkey and the inhaler and spacer becomes a banana to feed to it, I knew we had something special. It is so simple, so elegant as a design solution, and gets to the very heart of the child’s initial anxiety. Changing that moment from fear to fun for the patient as well as other family members makes it a better experience for all,” Hosking said.

The students in the intervention school explored the problem and tested their design ideas by role-playing asthma patients, their family members, and medical staff involved in their treatment.

The gender differences charted in the study indicate that the intervention enabled students to overcome some of the barriers to learning that assumed gender roles often create. For example, boys often feel discouraged from expressing emotion at school, yet this was one of the main areas where they made creative gains, according to the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking.

In addition to the Torrance Tests, the researchers conducted in-depth interviews with pupils at both the intervention school and a third, girls-only, school who also undertook the asthma challenge. This feedback again suggested that pupils had empathised deeply with the challenges faced by young asthma-sufferers, and that this had influenced their creative decisions in the classroom.

 Child-friendly asthma treatment kits designed by students who took part in the study, which gave them empathetic tools to inform their Design and Technology lessons. London, UK (Photo by  Designing Our Tomorrow project) Posted for media use

Child-friendly asthma treatment kits designed by students who took part in the study, which gave them empathetic tools to inform their Design and Technology lessons. London, UK (Photo by Designing Our Tomorrow project) Posted for media use

Many students used phrases such as “stepping into their shoes” or “seeing things from another point of view” when discussing patients and their families. One boy told the researchers, “I think by the end of the project I could feel for the people with asthma… if I was a child taking inhalers, I would be scared too.”

Another responded, “Let’s say you had a sister or brother in that position. I would like to do something like this so we can help them.”

“This is something that we must think about as curricula in general become increasingly exam-based,” Dr. Demetriou said. “Good grades matter, but for society to thrive, creative, communicative and empathic individuals matter too.”

Fostering ‘Emotionally Intelligent Learners’

Overall, the co-authors point to a need to nurture “emotionally intelligent learners” not only in Design and Technology classes, but across subjects, particularly in the context of emerging, wider scientific evidence that our capacity for empathy declines as we get older.

“Teaching for empathy has been problematic despite being part of the D&T National Curriculum for over two decades. This evidence suggests that it is a missing link in the creative process, and vital if we want education to encourage the designers and engineers of tomorrow,” said co-author Nicholll, who trains teachers studying in the university’s Design and Technology Postgraduate Certificate in Education course.

“When I taught Design and Technology, I didn’t see children as potential engineers who would one day contribute to the economy; they were people who needed to be ready to go into the world at 18,” Nicholll explained. “Teaching children to empathise is about building a society where we appreciate each other’s perspectives. Surely that is something we want education to do.”

The study, “Empathy is the mother of invention: Emotion and cognition for creativity in the classroom,” <https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1365480221989500> is published in the January 25, 2021 issue of the peer-reviewed journal, “Improving Schools.”

The project is sponsored by Peter Brett Associates, now owned by Stantec UK, and developed by The University of Cambridge in conjunction with the National Health Service and Asthma UK.

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