The art of empathy

ASIJ has been working with the NoTosh team this year on gaining and understanding of the design thinking process and trying it out in aspects of our teaching practice. I have been really interested in learning about how to develop in students a mindset of a ‘problem finder’ and how empathy fits into that.

In the Graphic design course I’m teaching for GOA I’ve tried to intentionally focus student on using a few phase of the design cycle with some success. So I thought I’d share my learning from a recent unit on ergonomics.

I usually frame a new unit with learning intentions and success criteria. In this case it was:

Learning Intention
we are learning about identifying and defining problems

Criteria for Success
we can say what we observe a situation and describe gaps
we can say what people in a situation are experiencing (developed empathy)
we can write a need statement

The Hook I gave them a scenario for conducting independent research into the situation I called Learn Safe: Ergonomics

“…investigate a growing concern about habits relating to posture. Many more schools now have 1-1 programs, and students spend long hours in front of screens, hunched over text books and may sit for long periods of time at desks. Your job is to research and investigate this situation, identify gaps, define a need and come up with possible solutions.”

I shared articles to stimulate thought and discussion before sending them off to observe and interview people in their own local environments. We talked about who to interview: an expert is very different from a ‘user’ or subject (I modeled this in a video); and suggested how to combine observation with interviewing to develop empathy for ‘users’. e.g Actively intervene during an observation & use open ended questions: ‘Show me…’Why did you choose…? What do you like…? What don’t you like…? What suggestions…? What issues do you consider when xxx…?

Activities–Students observed and recorded their local context with a partner and then compared and synthesize their observations. Artifacts they generated included video interviews with experts (doctors, coaches), friends, siblings, photos of people sitting, wearing backpacks, slouching on buses, leaning over computers. Their notes and sketches fill in the details and made the situation ‘visible’ to the whole class. It was great!

From all these observations partners then had to find and define a problem worth tackling. They crafted a needs statement that identified the user, their need and the underlying problem. I introduced them to the hybrid brainstorming model and pairs practiced that as part of generating 100 ideas to tackle the problem they defined. Every pair made the target number! Some were sure wild and crazy ideas but they were mixed in with some insightful ways to impact the situation.

100 ideas 1

It’s a design class so students presented their work as a graphic representation for peer review. We stopped at that point but students can choose this work as the basis for their major project which starts in about a weeks time.

Slouch_1 Learn Safe 1

Did they develop empathy for others in this assignment and see how observation and interviewing can lead to greater understand of a situation? I’m not sure, but I am trying to intentionally build these things–practice and applying things in different contexts help me ‘work stuff out’ so my hunch is that will be true for some students too.

How much time did we spend on this? Remember that this was an online course. We did this assignment over two weeks while another individual practical project was going at the same time. I was really impressed with what students achieved in that time.


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