Walk a mile in my boots —The importance of learning the habit of empathy

As a languages teacher, it never ceases to astound me to think that the rasping, whistling and vibrating sounds emanating from our mouths and noses when we talk can be effortlessly decoded by others as meaningful language. This allows us to communicate with one another in astonishing levels of complexity. Language is a defining feature of people. If you think about it, language allows us to insert ideas in other people’s brains without the need for surgery.

In many western societies we might be tempted to assume that being able to speak and understand more than one language is the exception. However, it is estimated that between half and three quarters of the world’s population is bilingual to some degree. I am bilingual. Trilingual even, on a good day. And I am not alone. There are more than four billion people around the globe who understand that with different languages come different ways to interpret the world.

The real voyage of discovery

Marcel Proust observed that “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new lands but in seeing with new eyes”. Proust realised that by working with other people we learn about their cultures and become able to explore new ideas and prospects. Options that would not have occurred to us before stand out as obvious if we understand how other people experience the world. This is why it is so important for students – as it is for us– to experience and develop deeper empathy and understanding of others, to be able to experience the world from other people’s perspectives, to put ourselves in other people’s shoes.

In my own experience, leaving my small town in southern Spain to explore Italy for two weeks during my sixth form – the first time I ever travelled abroad – opened up a whole new world. As I found myself immersed in Italy’s culture, it struck me that Italians, who I had previously perceived as peculiar beings, were in fact the norm in their context and that I was the stranger.

Students nowadays are much more likely to have travelled abroad by the time they are sixteen and have easy access to a world of information through the internet. However, they still need to be guided expertly through the process of discovery so that a deeper understanding of their own place in the word can be developed.

Empathy as a learning habit

empathyThis is why fostering empathy as a learning habit in our classrooms is so beneficial. At Surbiton High School, we understand this and have traditionally encouraged the need to put learning into context. The Classics trip to Italy, the expedition to Iceland, the French exchange, the cultural visit to Andalucía and foreign language assistants who bring a little bit of abroad into our classrooms are just a few of the many examples of contextualised learning that we provide our students with.

The moment in which a cohort of year 10 pupils land in Málaga and realise that Spanish has a life beyond the textbook; the students visiting Germany and noticing that people behave and react in familiar ways but the small differences are what really matters; the awkward dinner conversations between foreign exchange students and their French host families, the sudden realisation that Tanzania is such a long way away on so many different levels. These are character building experiences that bring out the best and worst in all of us, and from which we learn so much.

What is it like to teach a lesson? What challenges does a teacher face? Where does my teacher want me to go, ? A greater sense of empathy and its development as a learning habit result in students becoming more rounded and knowledgeable individuals, encouraging them to see things from different perspectives and helping them to make better informed decisions, and to acquire knowledge and skills that will be useful to them and will remain with them for life.


Based on a school assembly I delivered on the topic of Empathy, drawing heavily from a piece I wrote originally for The Guardian.

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  1. Many excellent points made here. Would love to use some of your ideas in our forthcoming International Day Assembly in Primary School, adapting it for our local context as an international school, where the children come from over 60 different nationalities yet all learn together in English, giving them a unique perspective of the different-ness of cultures yet the same-ness of humanity – may I?

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