cwj banner



Developing Empathy through Service-Learning


Nadine Dolby is Professor of Education at Purdue University. Her most recent book is Rethinking Multicultural Education for the Next Generation: The New Empathy and Social Justice (Routledge, 2012). She has published widely in the fields of international and multicultural education. Her current research focuses on empathy in undergraduate education, animal welfare, and the human-animal bond.

It was starting to snow lightly as we gathered in the school entrance on a cold Saturday morning last January. There were about ten of us: myself—a professor at Purdue-- a graduate teaching assistant for the class, five undergraduates, and three committed volunteers from the local neighborhood association. Despite the snow, ice, wind, and cold, we were all determined to venture out for our first look at the neighborhood around the school: it was the beginning step in our service-learning/community development project, and we all knew it was an important one.

The previous spring (when it was considerably warmer!), I had written a small grant proposal to pilot a service learning project in a new, small high school in my town. For seven years, I had been responsible for a large undergraduate pre-service teacher education class in multicultural education. Every semester, 150-300 students who want to become teachers enroll in the class, which is taught in small sections by graduate students. Officially, there is a field experience component to the class, during which students spend fourteen hours over the course of a semester in a classroom. But in too many cases, I found, our students did little more than sit in a back row and observe, make a bulletin board, grade tests, or stand in front of a photocopier. No Child Left Behind, and the increased obsession with standardized test results, had gradually made the classroom experience less and less meaningful for our undergraduates. Teachers, whose compensation in many states (including Indiana) is based in part on test scores, are reluctant to turn over any instructional time to preservice teachers. Because of this reality, my students, who are freshmen and sophomores enrolled in their very first education class, had little chance of interacting in personal, rich ways with K-12 students. This project was a step towards changing that.

The pilot project was designed to bring together a small number of Purdue undergraduates from my class, with an equal number of high school students from Washington High School to work with the community on a project that would be of mutual benefit to both the school and the immediate surrounding community. Washington is a new, small high school. Established in 2011 in a former elementary school, it enrolls about 80 students, and provides a personal, individualized education for students who felt alienated and lost in the large (2000 plus students) city high school just down the road. Most Washington students rarely crossed the river that divides our two towns (West Lafayette, where Purdue is located, and Lafayette), and most Purdue students think that Lafayette is uniformly poor and dangerous. I hoped that this project could help to challenge some of the stereotypes that existed on both sides, and bring us closer as a community.

That morning in January was the first of two all-day, Saturday work sessions that we spent at Washington. The cold and snow that morning provided my undergraduates with their first lesson of the day: not everyone can afford winter coats, gloves, hats, and boots. As we waited in the lobby, the Washington social studies teacher, who was a partner in the project, was upstairs with the five Washington students, rummaging through bins of donated clothes to try to find the students warm clothes for our tours of the neighborhood.

As we stood in the lobby waiting for the Washington students, I was wondering what my undergraduates were thinking. Based on my previous research, my best guess was that they felt sympathy for the Washington students: they felt badly that all of them did not have the money for proper winter clothing, and they felt pity. As important as sympathy is as an emotion, I also knew that in preservice teachers, sympathy alone can be dangerous. When teachers feel sympathy, they might try to "help" someone else, but often that "help" comes without complete understanding of the others' situation. Even more sadly, when teachers feel only sympathy for poor children, they often lower their academic expectations, thinking that poor children cannot achieve to the same level as middle class children. In contrast, I was hoping that through this experience at Washington, my students would develop something more critical to their future, and the future of the children in their classrooms: empathy. To develop empathy, however, my students would need to learn to listen carefully and with respect to the experiences of people who are different from them. I knew that developing empathy would be much more challenging than simple sympathy.

That afternoon, after we returned from our neighborhood tours and had lunch, I began to realize just how difficult that task would be: that my undergraduates had never truly learned to listen to the voices of others. After lunch, our task was to work together as a group to reflect on what we learned and to brainstorm potential projects that would benefit both the school and the community. The premise of the project, and that afternoon's conversation, was that we all would come together as equal participants: that all voices and perspectives needed to be heard. But as we started to talk, it was clear that true listening, which is a significant component of empathy, would be challenging for my Purdue students. Within minutes of beginning our conversation, they had diagnosed what they saw as a major challenge in the neighborhood (lack of bus shelters for protection from the elements), and had moved on to busily making plans to fundraise and build a shelter. They were confident that this would be appreciated by the community and could easily be accomplished in a couple of months. When we broke down into small groups for conversation, as a strategy for trying to involve the voices of Washington student, the Purdue students avoided the small groups and conversation with the Washington students and community members, instead crowding around myself and the graduate assistant, excitedly sharing their ideas, and asking for permission to move forward.

What followed in the next few weeks was a slow and often painful process of working with my students to uncover why their initial plan may not be as helpful as they thought originally. With assistance from the neighborhood representatives and a director from the local bus company, my students discovered that the issues were more complicated than they appeared. First, they learned that not all community residents supported the construction of more bus shelters: shelters are notorious for attracting noise, litter, large groups of young people at night, and sometimes illegal activity. While uncovered benches offered no protection from rain, sun, snow, or wind, they were largely preferred by the community. Second, they learned that bus shelters cost almost $10,000 to build, that they must be built to code, follow local building and construction standards, and the job must be put out for bid, according to regular procedures for city contracts. Finally, they learned that the local bus company is reluctant to construct many shelters because of the high maintenance costs. The representative explained that shelter vandalism is common and that each time a window panel is broken it costs hundreds of dollars to fix.

After the session with the community and bus company representatives, my students were quiet and thoughtful. During the break they did not swarm me with their ideas; instead, they sat thinking about what they had heard. Most importantly, they began to talk with, and listen to, the Washington students, and the neighborhood representatives. Over the next few weeks, the project blossomed. Purdue students and Washington students began to form friendships, to talk, and to hang out during our breaks (which were strategically built into our schedule for that very purpose). As students began to know each other as people, empathy grew, and stereotypes of the "poor Washington students" began to fade. My students began to see and understand, at least a little, the lives of Washington students in their full complexity. The 16 year old Washington student with a baby was no longer just a teen mother and potential drop-out, but was Michelle: a talented writer and artist, who happened to have a baby. The 14 year old who struggled to read had a large, warm, supportive family helping him to achieve, which shattered stereotypes that poor families do not value education. During one of breaks, I glanced over at the students--lounging on the couches, hanging out, talking, and enjoying each other. They had learned to appreciate each others' strengths, and to value people whose backgrounds were significantly different from their own. Sympathy had largely disappeared, and was replaced by a deeper, more important understanding: one grounded in empathy.

Eventually the group decided to focus on the broad issue of transportation in the neighborhood surrounding Washington, and we spent a morning traveling the area on foot and by bus, using video cameras to do interviews with residents about their views. The project concluded with two final presentations: the Purdue students traveled to Washington for an evening with Washington students, teachers, parents, and community members, and then the, Washington students visited our classroom at Purdue, to present there. The students greeted each other with hugs and laughter, excitedly catching up after not seeing each other. It was more than I had hoped for. My students had experienced--and found--something far more meaningful than grading tests and observing from the back row: they had found friends, community, and hope.

Nadine Dolby is Professor of Education at Purdue University. Her most recent book is Rethinking Multicultural Education for the Next Generation: The New Empathy and Social Justice (Routledge, 2012).

MORE from the Journal! Essays l Articles l Reflections l Reviews l Literacy Corner l Events

© copyright 1995-2017, Community Works Institute (CWI)
All rights reserved. CWI a non-profit educational organization

CONTENT USE POLICY No material contained within this web site may be reproduced in print, by electronic or other means, without permission. All materials contained in this web site remain the sole and exclusive property of CWI, or the author if designated by arrangement.

donate now