Ann Chinnery re-thinks empathy in the classroom

April 04, 2017

By Ian Bryce

A common refrain when trying to be considerate of others is to “put yourself in their shoes.” But education professor Ann Chinnery says there’s a flaw in that line of thinking.

Chinnery says that when we do that, we’re actually projecting our own thoughts and feelings onto someone else and may not truly understand what that person may be feeling.

This Wednesday, April 5, Chinnery will speak on our ethical responsibility to each other—and how to re-think prevailing practices—as part of the SFU President’s Faculty Lecture Series.

SFU News took a moment to ask Chinnery some questions leading up to her lecture:

You criticize the use of empathy in the classroom. What worries you about using empathy as a basis for caring for others?

Empathy is currently popular in schools and society in general. The belief is that if you can see another person as basically just like yourself, you will be motivated to do for them what you would want others to do for you in that situation.

The problem with this is that it puts too much of a burden on the other person to make their life intelligible to me so that I can see the similarity between us.

Educators may say ‘I don’t see my students as brown or black or white, or Jewish or Muslim—I just see them all as children.’ But if a student’s identity is fundamentally tied to their race or religion, there’s an unintentional erasing of how that child sees themself in the world.

How do you see teaching and education developing over the next five to 10 years?

There’s a trend towards distance education and online learning. But I want to push back and say we need to spend more time being together in shared physical space.

By hanging out and spending time together we can learn to experience and appreciate our similarities and differences. We can come to appreciate each other in a way that doesn’t require someone else to be ‘like me’.

As difficult as it is, I think we need to have what philosopher Judith Butler calls experiences of ‘up-againstness’ in order to encounter the other’s strengths, and their fragility and weakness—regardless of whether we have anything in common.

We risk losing something important about what it means to be human when we lose that physical contact.

What do you think are some of the most pressing issues that new teachers will face in their careers today or in the future?

One of the biggest challenges teachers face is to truly be the kind of caring teacher they want to be when there are so many students with different needs in one classroom.

There’s a feeling of being overwhelmed with so many responsibilities being downloaded on to schools, in addition to students’ diverse needs.

It’s not that teachers lack the will—they don’t have sufficient resources. Because of this, we inevitably end up reducing kids to categories in order to get by, which is not what teachers have been educated to do, nor what they want to do.

The SFU President’s Faculty Lecture is free to attend but requires registration.

For more information, visit the SFU President’s Faculty Lecture Series website.

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