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Learning and mirror systems
Q: Why is empathy important to learning and teaching?
Learning in social contexts, like schools, depends on recognizing, understanding, and sharing goals. If people do not recognize that another's actions are goal directed, simulations will not be activated, and the intended learning may not occur. Learners must understand teachers' goals, and teachers will be more effective if they understand their students' goals. Of course, as we have seen, in addition to understanding goals, teachers and learners must share a sense of the emotional relevance of the goals. It's possible to understand others' actions and goals but not to care about them. To foster meaningful learning, the goals must both be understood and matter to teacher and student. Most of us have been in classrooms in which the goals seem either misunderstood or misaligned—or both.
For example, Mr. Davis stands in front of his ninth-graders and begins a lesson that asks students to identify direct and indirect objects. He writes two sentences: "Sally kicks the ball to Sam," and "Sally kicks Sam the ball." The students, with Mr. Davis's help, will circle the subject, underline the verb, box the direct object, and star the indirect object. The goal is crystal clear to Mr. Davis, and he has explained it to his students. They have studied sentences, sentence parts, and parts of speech several times before. Mr. Davis begins: he asks questions, discusses the suggestions he gets and marks the words.
Sarah looks out the window at the soccer field, where she notices her coach getting ready for the afternoon game. Jamie stares at the white board, sees the first group of words and the marks: circle, underline, box, but no star. So he follows that pattern when marking the second sentence, making "Sam" the direct object. When Mr. Davis points out that the second sentence should have a star over "Sam" and a box around "ball," Jamie is quick to pick up the new pattern. "Ball" in both sentences is in a box, so why not a star over each "Sam"? Bob, who sits in the back row next to Sarah, a pretty girl whom he likes to make laugh, cracks a joke about Jamie. Clearly, the goals in this class are not shared. Sarah has more important things on her mind. To Jamie, the teacher's actions appear random, though he tries to figure them out, and it may be that Jamie's actions appear equally random to Mr. Davis. But everyone understands Bob's behavior.
Hallie Cohen, a music teacher at a public school in Ohio, had a class like this one. She teaches classes of as many as 45 middle school students, many of whom have no musical background. "I struggle with communicating and being able to pave a clear path between my knowledge and what I want to impart to students. The most effective way that I have found is through demonstration. But demonstrating has its limits. My toughest class to instruct was a group of seventh graders, a violin class. I had a small group within that class that had a different agenda from mine. They were hellbent on making my life and others' lives difficult. So my struggle was to get them on the same page (top)
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as the rest of the class without compromising instruction. The biggest lesson that I had to teach this class was how to work as a team: they had to be able to be part of a violin section in their school orchestra. Teaching teamwork to kids who are struggling with their identity and who have an inherent lack of respect for people in authority is challenging."
|"Kids like to know that they are going to be heard, and that what they are saying is important and valuable. That is fundamental to all..." – Hallie Cohen|
Although Hallie's goal and her students' goals seemed to conflict, she realized that they shared a common thread: the desire to communicate. The students wanted to gab with each other about social stuff, and Hallie wanted them to work with others to communicate through music. Re-examining her class using the idea of aligning the teacher's goals with those of the students, she developed the plan of having them use the violin as an instrument for social communication. She began by having them work in small groups to develop skits about any social topic, whatever was going on in their life, but they were not allowed to use words to communicate with each other. Instead, they had to use the violin to create sounds that would express what they wanted to say to each other in the skit, and the audience would then guess what the skit was about.
At first, the students acted silly, but then the challenge of the game engaged them. As they became more involved, they began to understand that the purpose of the violin, of any musical instrument, is to express feelings and thoughts to someone else in a musical medium. The students connected with the violin as a way to connect with each other. Hallie's intervention succeeded because they used the violin in a way they could understand by connecting it to their goals.