Solutions and re-solutions for education

Empathy and Education Research

Posted by Dr. Ann P. McMahon on March 6, 2011

Did you know that our brains are wired to connect with others? When an infant notices another baby crying, mirror neurons fire in the observing baby, causing her to cry too. Scientists believe these mirror neurons are the biological basis of empathy. Empathy is vital in establishing a sense of belonging in play, love, work and learning. Scientists have studied mirror neurons and empathy in many contexts, from neuroscience to social science. Vittorio Gallese documents his discovery of mirror neurons and his subsequent work here. Bruce Perry explores how and why empathy is essential and endangered in his book Born for Love. Jeremy Rivkin talks about the evolution of empathy in his RSA Animated presentation called The Empathic Civilisation here. I’m going to talk about what I’m learning about empathy as a researcher and as a participant in the research of others.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m conducting my Ph.D. research on elementary teachers’ mental models of what engineers do. When I’m not working on my dissertation research, I’m working with the staff of an educational organization to create a system dynamics model to help them better understand, nurture and replicate what they do very well. The best way I have found to understand and represent a person’s mental model or an organization’s process from the inside out is to join them as a compassionate witness in their experience – to empathize with them. Both projects involve systematically paying attention to what people say and do – their outside actions – then finding the connections to what happens on the inside of those people and the organization in a way that represents the authenticity of their inner and outer experiences to someone outside. Researchers and participants must trust one another if they are to learn from and with each other in this way. I know what it feels like to be willingly vulnerable in order to help someone else learn. I have experienced this kind of empathic connection with researchers as a participant in several studies, and I bring that awareness to my role as a researcher.

In my teens, I needed a specific dental procedure that was part of the state’s licensing examination for prospective dentists. I was invited by a dental school to be a dental student’s patient on his licensing examination day. I had a positive experience that day, and the results have held up over time. When I had my babies, I chose to deliver them at the teaching hospital where my doctor was on the faculty. Over the years, I have volunteered to be a participant in research studies on healthy living strategies and in studies of teaching and learning. The researchers in these studies made sure I knew how much they respected me, valued my participation, and safeguarded the data I provided them. I felt so good about helping them create new knowledge to help others that I intend to donate my body to science when I die. My friends in the medical professions who have learned this way tell me how profoundly that learning affected them. I consider that act my final opportunity to connect with another in order to teach.

I volunteered for each study because I was genuinely curious about the topic, so I asked lots of questions throughout. The researchers were eager to talk to me about their work to the extent that the study allowed. In entering their system as a study participant, I learned a great deal about their areas of interest, which were different from my own. What surprised me most were the insights I gained about myself by participating in the interactions they designed and reporting how I experienced them. In most interviews, I felt deeply heard as the researcher listened to what I had to say, then asked me to elaborate about specific comments I made. Their probing questions helped me discover meanings and interpretations I might not have become aware of otherwise. In some cases, researchers sent me their write-up of our conversations and asked me to make sure it conveyed what I meant (researchers call this process member-checking). It was clear to me that both of us were changed by our connection with each other within our co-created system that included me, my experiences within the study, and the researcher.

Now that I’m the researcher, I feel deeply honored by my participants’ willingness to open their practices to me and allow me to join them in their experiences of it. As I take apart our conversations in order to put the pieces together again into each person’s mental model of what engineers do, I am changed. I look forward to being changed again during the member-checking stage of my dissertation work. I hope my participants are also changed by our work together in ways that please them.

In my work with the educational organization’s members, we use a more interactive model-building process designed to stimulate meaningful conversations within the organization about what makes them unique and effective. The system dynamics model we are constructing together captures their collective and developing mental model of what they do and how they do it. It provides a shared, evolving representation they can build upon internally and use to communicate with those outside the organization. All of us are changing through working together in this way.

I find that the most satisfying thing about being a researcher and participating in another’s research is the empathic connection that changes everyone involved while creating new knowledge upon which others can build.


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