Imagination and Empathy

At a recent conference, I was asked to identify the dispositions that I valued most in a learner.   A list of words was supplied to help advance our thoughts on the question.  It included words like: resilient, innovative, persistent, disciplined and imaginative.  I selected and defended the imaginative disposition for many of the typical reasons.  I spoke about how imagination inspires innovation and how it creates a movie in the mind of readers that is necessary for reading comprehension but I never talked about one of the more important reasons that I have learned since then. Namely, the importance of imagination for developing empathy for others. J.K. Rowling’s Harvard commencement speech called, Very Good Lives, recently helped me connect the two.  In this post, I reflect on the relationship between imagination and empathy and suggest a few strategies for developing both in ourselves and others.  

What is imagination?

During the course of her commencement speech, Rowling acknowledges the role of the imagination in innovation and invention but emphasizes its transformative power.  The transformation Rowling envisions isn’t just a changed mind but also a changed heart.  In other words, she understands the imagination to help us feel what other people feel, without ever experiencing their circumstances.  

“Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation; in its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

J.K. Rowling

How does imagination produce empathy?

According to Rowling, imagination creates empathy by allowing us to think ourselves into other peoples places.  She illustrates this from her own life telling how an early day job at Amnesty International’s headquarters required her to read horrific stories of tortured victims, executions, kidnappings and rapes.  These stories changed her life forever because she was able to think herself into the place of the victims she read about.

“Unlike any other creatures on this planet, human beings can learn and understand without having experienced.  They can think themselves into other peoples places.”  

J. K. Rowling

The evidence of this transformative impact in Rowling’s life is everywhere in her writings.  The Dursley’s treatment of Harry Potter in one small example of how Rowling invites us to feel her own compassion for those victimized and oppressed.  In her famed Harry Potter series, the Dursleys are a family of three, composed of Harry’s aunt, uncle and cousin. Harry is an orphan who is forced to live with the Dursley’s after his parents are murdered by the power-hungry Lord Voldemort.  The Dursley’s keep Harry safe but treat him harshly, including confining him to a cupboard, locking him in his bedroom without meals and treating as their servant.  As the reader, thinks themselves into Harry’s place, they are provided with an opportunity to feel the loneliness, rejection and powerlessness of anyone in his position.     

Those who refuse to imagine

Of course, imagination is not automatic and sometimes it is even suppressed.  Rowling’s speech contrasts the imaginative person with the unimaginative.  Those who refuse to know about suffering and intentionally plug their ears to the voice of its victims.   

And many chose not to use their imagination at all….they refuse to hear screams or peer inside cages; they close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.

J.K. Rowling

Rowling extends this logic to show that those who don’t choose empathy actually participate in acts of evil through their apathy.  

What is more, those who choose not to empathize enable real monsters.  For without committing an outright act of evil ourselves, we collude with it through our own apathy. 

J. K. Rowling

Cultivating Imagination and Empathy

Reading Rowling address challenged me to think about how I am intentionally taking time to read and listen to those who are less advantaged or suffering.  It also made me think about how I’m providing opportunities to empathize and take action on behalf of the vulnerable groups in my classroom.  I thought of two units that I have used in the past to create these spaces for empathy.  The first required my Grade Seven students, to complete a personalized novel study using a historical fiction novel where the hero/heroine is from a different culture, class and race than their own and suffers physically or emotionally in some way.  

Another opportunity I have given students to practice empathy for others is an oral storytelling unit.  To prepare for the final project in this unit, students are asked to read part of a biography on the hero of their choice who has overcome some type of adversity.  In the end, the story is told from the first person perspective–as if they were the hero.  Last year, I can remember listening to one girl in my class telling the story of how Rosa Parks refused to move bus seats in the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955.  At points in the story, she embodied the voice of Parks so well that it felt as though Parks was there telling us the story in person.  The class rose and gave her a standing ovation when she finished.  This was just one opportunity to identify with a person who did not have the same privileges that many of us enjoy.    

Taking Action

In the last part of her speech to the Harvard graduates, J.K. Rowling sounds a call to action that challenges the class to identify not only with the powerful but the powerless—to really enter into their story.  I hope you were challenged, as I was, to do the same.  

If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful but the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existance but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped change.

J.K. Rowling

 I would love to hear more examples of how you are giving students opportunities to raise their voice on behalf of the those who have none in the comments below.  I’ve attached the video to J.K. Rowling’s Harvard Commencement Speech below. 

Creating More Than We Consume

We want to create more than we consume. So we fill the centre of the home with things that reward skill and active engagement.  Andy Crouch

A few days ago, I was struck by the quote above while reading Andy Crouch’s book called, The Tech-Wise Family.  Creating more than I consume sounds simple but it’s difficult to put into practice.  As I watch my son practice the piano, I’m reminded of how much harder it is to make music than listening to it.  Creating music takes time, effort and skill, but it’s much more fulfilling than pushing a button to upload a song.  I also love to make pizza for my family but it takes work.  Shopping for fresh ingredients, making the dough in advance and preparing the toppings takes time, but the final product brings people together–and tastes delicious.

The reverse is true of the time I spend consuming information.  Scrolling through updates on my phone doesn’t require any skill (our three-year-old can do it) and it’s a relatively passive process that doesn’t engage my imagination.  It’s not that I always want an overly engaging activity that requires effort. Watching a movie at the end of the day can help me relax.  On the other hand, I think over-exposure to unengaged, uses of technology keep me from experiencing some of the best things in life.

In the second chapter of his book, Crouch makes a similar contrast.  He asks the reader to think about the things on the main floor of their house that promote active engagement.  He gives musical instruments, books, board games, and wall paintings, as examples of things that require kids to engage, develop skill and potentially take a risk.  He contrasts these things with other electronic devices in our homes that almost work by themselves.  He describes these items as, “…those toys that work on their own–that buzz and beep and light up without developing any skill.”  Crouch’s commitment to shaping his space with engaging things means these devices must be put in their proper place–on the outer margins of the space.

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Photo by Academy of Art Design

As a teacher, I couldn’t help reflecting on how the educational space I create in my classroom can either shape my students into passive consumers of content or engaged makers and creators.  I learned this the hard way in my first couple of years of teaching.  In my second year of teaching grade one, I decided to do a pilot project involving digital learning centres.  The plan was to attach two or three smart TVs to my classroom wall and create interactive centres using iPads that were wirelessly connected.  The idea seemed good in theory but when the TVs were actually installed, they overwhelmed the space.  When the parents in my class saw the barrage of screens hanging on the walls of my room, they were horrified.  Not completely understanding their response, I asked one parent why she was disturbed by them.  She said, “It just looks bad having so many TVs as the focal point of your room.”  Looking back on it, TVs completely dominated my classroom. It wasn’t like I could close the curtains on the TVs for story time. They were constantly inviting the kids to passive consumption of information.  Even though I didn’t intend on using these devices simply for entertainment, my classroom space was sending the wrong message.

On the other hand, last year, the computer lab at our school was converted into a Maker Space.  The rows of desktop computers were taken out and replaced with shelves full of tools, construction materials, robotics kits, breadboards, snap circuits and Keva blocks.  The space itself was inviting kids to create.  It was providing a learning environment that invited students to design or try to make something for the first time.  It invited students to activities that required skill and active engagement.

One engaging feature of my own classroom that rewards skill is a large shelf full of books beside the door.  The commercial fluorescent lights don’t invite reading but I was recently inspired by one of our grade six teachers who opted to use three or four lamps to light her room instead of the tube lights.  As a result, her room has an ambient Starbucky feel that makes you want to curl up with a coffee and a book.

Living in a culture so focused on consuming, it’s easy for me to forget how important it is to fill the spaces in my life with things that reward engagement, skill development and problem-solving.  As an educator who embraces an inquiry-driven approach to teaching, I’m endeavouring to shape the space of my classroom in ways that invite engagement creativity and imagination.

Reflection

  • Does your classroom space reward skill and active engagement?
  • Are there a few things you could add or subtract to make it more engaging for students?

I would love to hear any of your thoughts, reflections or feedback in the comments.