Empathy as a way of knowing

In one of my teaching classes, we learned about the Understanding by Design educational model and multiple modes of understanding. The mode of empathy has stuck with me because on the surface it seems more affective than cognitive. However, as I have been in the classroom I am coming to appreciate how empathy requires a great deal of mental work, especially when one has to think about why another person has an opinion different from their own.

In my work in middle school, a lack of empathy seems to inhibit learning. When students say, “I don’t care what the author thinks” or “That does not affect me” I know they are struggling to engage material that does not directly affect them. Theoretically I am supposed to be able to tie a lesson to real life application. Today’s lesson on factoring, though, is not an end itself. It is a skill we use to simplify other math operations, as one does when solving an algebra problem. The response, though, from my SPED students is that they are never going to take algebra, thus bringing us back full circle to the initial question of how this topic matters to them.

So, what I am looking for now are ways of getting kids to care about things that may not directly affect them. How do I get students to begin to wonder why a topic matters to another person?

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