Teaching Empathy Through Social Studies


Our Grade 2 Social Studies World Cultures curriculum allows us exciting opportunities to explore different cultures and countries around the world. Since January, we have travelled in a gondola through Venice to explore the Venetian Carnival, taken part in a reenactment of the Spanish conquistadors’ invasion of Mexico, and tantalised our tastebuds with the flavours of Italy, Mexico and India, and that’s just the start!  


But apart from having fun, what is the point of these activities?


By experiencing the lives of people around the world in this small way, students develop an understanding, empathy and compassion for the perspectives and lives of others that may be different from their own. Psychologist and youth development expert Marilyn Price-Mitchell asserts that by developing empathy in children, teachers help them feel valued and understood while impacting social change and innovation for decades to come.


Empathy is a key ingredient of a bundle of social emotional skills widely known as emotional intelligence. It is the link between ourselves and others, and is a vital human skill that sets us apart from the machines of the future. The World Economic Forum places it within the top 10 growing skills in their Future of Jobs report 2018. Top business executives such as Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma are increasingly emphasising the need for education to move beyond content-based schooling to developing ‘soft skills’ - those relating to interpersonal, communication and social skills that enable a person to respond to and interact positively with others.


While we may predict but will not actually know what the world of tomorrow will be like, what we can predict is the importance of soft skills such as empathy and its role in supporting one’s ability to connect and communicate with others. It is for this reason that they are so integral to the THS curriculum.


Research suggests that the best way for us to support students in developing empathy is by making meaningful connections with peers from different countries, cultures and backgrounds. One way we have encouraged global connections is through our Italian pen pals. While learning about Italy, we reached out to a school in Modena, in northern Italy which enabled our G2 students to ask questions and find out more about Italian culture. Not only did this provide valuable real-life information, but it was also an authentic and purposeful writing task. The students were motivated and excited to receive letters back from their pen pals and have made a connection with the lives of their Italian peers.  


Communication and collaboration are two more vital soft skills that we hope to foster during our trip around the world in Grade 2. According to Google, technology can help classrooms be more like real-world environments and better prepare students to enter an increasingly connected and globally-competitive workforce. As we head into the final term, we are continuing to explore connections outside the classroom. Just this week we have launched our Seesaw blogs to share our learning with our friends in Italy, further developing our relationship with our Italian friends and enabling the students to reach a wider audience for the work they are proud of in class. We’ve also set up a Skype classroom and started conversations with educators in New Zealand and Tanzania as we look to connect with students and teachers around the world.


We, the teachers, are by no mean experts in everything. In the pursuit of giving our students authentic experiences, this has meant that we needed to look for experts to help in the delivery of these experiences. Whether it’s understanding life in Italy through the eyes of Italian children, or learning how to make roti from our Middle School teacher Mrs T, who is Indian, looking outside the classroom to experts provides for different perspectives and deeper knowledge than we teachers would be able to provide on our own.


By supporting the students in realising that the world is smaller than it once was, we are able to break down the classroom walls and develop global connections and collaborations. We cannot learn simply within the confines of the four walls around us, and nor do we want to. It has also demonstrated to our students that learning can come from many different places, from many different people, and in many different forms - and that, for us, is the greatest lesson of all.


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