“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird

The above quote from Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) reminds us of the importance of learning the skill of empathy. But it extends beyond helping us understand others. As a prison psychologist at the WWII Nuremberg Trials observed, ‘evil is the absence of empathy,’ which means we ignore it at our own peril.

Empathy, in particular, enables us to understand and identify with other human beings, no matter how diverse or removed they are from our normative experience.

Our panel today will be discussing empathy as a life skill. Other life skills include self-efficacy, resilience and communication. Empathy, in particular, enables us to understand and identify with other human beings, no matter how diverse or removed they are from our normative experience.

The K-20 education system plays a crucial role in fostering life skills within the curriculum and through extracurricular programs. Well-developed life skills make a profound difference in student wellbeing and achievement. Conversely, negative behaviours like bullying can have tragic consequences.

Neuroscience is extending our knowledge of how empathy functions. For example, when we observe another individual in a painful situation, it triggers pain-related responses in our own neural networks. These neural circuits provide a “functional bridge” between individuals.

Educational assessment is evolving too. For example, the goal of the ATC21S partnership (between Intel, Microsoft and Cisco) is to “develop and scale globally assessments for the full range of 21st-century skills within the context of school subjects and real world problems.”

During our panel discussion, the following social entrepreneurs will share their related work in education and the community:
Orlando Bowen – One Voice One Team
Lorna Blumen – Girls’ Respect Groups
Nadir Shirazi – Multifacet Diversity Solutions
Taylor Gunn – CIVX
Howard B. Esbin – Heliotrope

There’s a reason our social enterprises exist. Across North America, demand is increasing for effective approaches to develop life skills and reduce bullying, disengagement and dropping out. The result has been a blossoming of social innovation in education.

This pervasive activity isn’t widely known or appreciated because it has many names, forms and applications. For example, in lower school grades one may find the following programs: Education Outcomes Model, Head Start Child Outcomes, Seeds & Roots of Empathy and Tools of the Mind. Similarly, programs in the upper grades include Character Education, the Developmental Asset Framework, Positive Behaviour Support, Resilience Education, School Climate and Social & Emotional Learning (SEL).

However, these programs remain insufficient. A recent American study indicates that almost half of all public schools have no SEL programs.

Atticus Finch’s directive rings as true today as ever before.

Howard B. Esbin

Dr. Howard B. Esbin is the founder of Heliotrope, a social purpose business, and the creator of Prelude, a group learning game that fosters 21st-century skills. Howard has over two decades of senior management experience in international development, philanthropy and the private sector. His work has been published by Education Canada, the International Labour Organization and UNESCO. See more…