Design Thinking: Education from a Place of Empathy

Design Thinking: Education from a Place of Empathy

We kicked off our first Jewish Placemaking Accelerator seminar exploring how to bring empathy into our classrooms and schools. In keeping with the Makom Community’s pedagogy, we ended up applying the principles of Design Thinking to our learning spaces, and we got there through Jewish text.

What is Empathy?

Participants started out with brief introductions and a small get-to-know-you prompt, because in order to access empathy, we need to know who’s in the room with us. Then we defined empathy together:

  • The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
  • Empathy starts with noticing and correctly reading what someone’s emotional state is.
  • Feeling what someone else is feeling.
  • Putting yourself in a place to see from another’s perspective.
  • Imagining a similar experience of your own to relate to the experience of another.

We read a children’s book about empathy called I Am Human that interestingly seemed to mostly address the feelings, wonder, and humanity of the speaker, the “I,” rather than someone else. The book reminds us to treat ourselves gently and kindly. It reminds us that we make mistakes, and that’s OK. It reminds us that we’re growing and changing. It reminds us that everyone is significant. If all those things are true about me because I’m human, then they must be true about you too!

Taking it to the Text

Finally it was time to get into text. I love this part. We looked at just half a pasuk (verse) of Torah, just five words in Hebrew: וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָֽה – Love your neighbor as yourself: I am God (Leviticus 19:18). Our participants came with beautiful insights, questions, and connections ranging from the ambiguity of the grammar and punctuation in the verse to the ambiguity of who exactly is denoted by the word rei’acha; from linking the kamocha in this verse to mi kamocha in tefilah to noticing the way Avraham prioritizes loving his neighbors by running out to greet the people who visit his tent in this week’s Torah portion.

Many folks learning this bit of text focus on the “love your neighbor” part. However, like the book we started off our text study with, the Torah is prompting us to first and foremost know how to love ourselves so we can use that as a jumping off point for loving our neighbors. What does it look like to love yourself? What are ways that you’ve seen people do that?

  • When you love someone else, you take them with both the flaws and good things they bring to the table, even if there are things that bother you or make them imperfect. Loving ourselves is an invitation to look inward when you know all those things about yourself and still be patient with yourself and know you are important and deserve good things even when there are parts of yourself you don’t like.
  • Focusing on this part of the verse is a lightbulb moment for me.
  • In order to love other people the way that I want to/experience that the way that I want to, I have to start with loving myself.

If we had had more time, our discussion would have continued from there with connecting the love for ourselves to love for our neighbors and then linking both of those ideas back to empathy:

  • What does it look like to love your fellow or neighbor? What are ways that you’ve seen people do that?
  • What’s the difference between ourselves and our neighbors? How can we love our neighbors as ourselves rather than as Others?
  • Why is it important or helpful to do that?
  • Is loving here more of a feeling or an action/behavior? What would the difference be?
  • What’s the connection between loving our neighbors and treating them with empathy?

Design Thinking Connections

Instead we paused our text exploration to dig into Design Thinking. Here are the steps for that cycle:

  • Notice a problem or ask a question
  • Immerse for empathy– what are the needs of specific individuals? Bright spots? Pain points? Pleasant surprises?
  • Iterate– brainstorm all the things that could be
  • Prototype– choose one to try
  • Assess– How did it go?
  • Iterate– Try one more time
  • Notice a problem or ask a question (begin again)

We started with the problem “My classroom just isn’t as exciting as I’d like it to be!” for a case study we heard lots about at our Summer 2021 conference. We began by immersing for empathy. Participants brought up specific students in their classes who particularly struggle to connect or express dissatisfaction with their learning. Afterwards we reflected on the process of Design Thinking as a whole as it connects back to our text.

How does this process set us up to love both our neighbors and ourselves? 

  • We don’t have to be perfect (in meeting socio-emotional needs).
  • We’re trying to meet our students where they are.
  • We get to be real about where we are too.
  • It’s empowering if we can notice the things our students don’t have the tools to tell us themselves, especially if they don’t have access to those things at home either.
  • Give ourselves grace if class doesn’t go the way we expect because we’re being responsive.
  • Being clear and remembering what we tried, how it worked, and why it did or didn’t work this time. Doesn’t mean it will or won’t work next time! Something working or not working once is not an indication of permanent performance

Bringing it Home

What did you notice about this whole seminar process?

  • Lots of learning for application.
  • Social emotional intelligence: talking about empathy; being aware of our feelings as teachers and students; paying attention to the students’ feelings throughout.
  • Gaby and Beverly acknowledge all the participants and how they participated both verbally and in chat. Helps folks feel seen.
  • Feels very similar to being in person despite the zoom environment.

How might today’s learning go home to your congregation?

  • Definitely going to use this as we build on the brit foundation I already did with my class today.
  • I’m trying to figure out how to make more things applicable and relevant to students (ex: why is it important to know what TaNaKh stands for or the names of the 5 books beyond “it’s for your BMitzvah”)
  • I want to make my classroom into a safe space for students to express themselves – space for them to express dissatisfaction or boredom or lack of connection so we can work together to make it better for them
    • Establish trust and caring
    • Kids have space to fully be themselves
    • Find the bright spots for them (in Judaism)
    • Empathy interviews with each other that gets shared back with the teacher anonymously
  • I’m also thinking about adult learning applications.

YES. So much good stuff to continue growing and unpacking together. We can’t wait for more coaching and seminar conversions with this fabulous cohort.

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