EmpathyLab is a nonprofit with a mission to raise an empathy-educated generation.
Founded in 2015, The organization focuses on supporting those living and working with children so that they can harness the power of stories to develop empathy.
Since its launch, its test-and-learn strategy has been to turn scientific research into action based on two key understandings. The first is that empathy is learnable. And the second one is that reading is a powerful empathy-building tool.
EmpathyLab is trying to solve a big problem. They see an increasing number of young people growing with an “empathy deficit.” It’s a problem with many faces. Underscoring the scope of the problem, EmpathyLab points to the U.K. government’s annual report on hate crimes. Hate crimes have risen over 300% in the 8 years they have recorded statistics.
But EmpathyLab believes they have a solution. Their work is grounded in scientific research that shows that children can learn practical, real-life empathy skills through the power of reading. I talked with Miranda McKearney, one of EmapthyLab’s cofounders, to learn more.
Thank you for taking some time to sit down and talk. I understand that you’re very busy right now.
Yes, it’s true. This is a very busy time because tomorrow (June 10th), we launch the family pack for Empathy Day. So we’re busy getting that ready.
What you’re doing is fascinating. I was just reading about Empathy Day. I understand that it’s a day of online and offline events and activities that help children read, connect and act with empathy. You describe how your approach is backed up by a lot of research that says that all of us can use stories to train our brains and learn how to become more empathetic. The more we empathize with the characters in a story, the more we can understand other people’s feelings. Am I getting this right?
Yes. The science of empathy and our understanding of empathy is constantly changing. So it’s a fascinating field and very fast-moving. And the way that empathy works with humans is also a bit complex. Over the years, we’ve talked with many experts – scientists, authors, illustrators, schools, libraries, and families across the U.K. The idea is to design interventions that make the best possible use of books, authors, and illustrators. Empathy Day allows us to showcase our ability to use books to step into someone else’s shoes.
How did EmpathyLab get started? I know you’re one of the founders. Tell me more about EmpathyLab’s story.
Well, we need to go back to 2014. Back then, I thought I was retiring from a charity I previously founded called The Reading Agency. My idea at the time was that I would stop working so hard and start trekking.
But at the same time, I was interested in the growing scientific research showing that reading can help build empathy. So, along with some of my fellow founders, I began to wonder whether society and the education system were doing enough to link the research to the classroom. We started thinking and looking for a way to build empathy skills by using the fact that books are ubiquitous in the education system, society and libraries. We thought it would be an extraordinary thing to do. So we organized a big “think-in” at Royal Festival Hall and brought together people from different disciplines. We had people from the worlds of child development, psychology and neuroscience along with the worlds that I’m most familiar with, which are the world of books, authors and charities. We asked everyone whether they felt there was enough understanding of empathy research and its social implications. The basic answer, in a nutshell, was a resounding “no”! We all went off, determined to try different things to address the problem, and we’ve been experimenting since then.
Miranda, that’s so inspiring. This idea of a small group of people deciding to get together to use emerging research for a positive impact. And that you then go on to develop approaches that reach hundreds of thousands of people. How do you organize what you are doing?
EmpathyLab is now a bit more formally established. We’re a not-for-profit Community Interest Company with directors, founders, expert advisors, and volunteers, though five of us still work pro bono. And we’re still quite small, and there’s a scruffy, startup feel to what we do.
We work closely with three academics at Sussex, Cambridge, and the Open University. Our activity has now settled into four key areas.
Firstly, we launch a collection of empathy-rich books for school children every January. Our 2022 Read for Empathy collection features 60 books for 4-16 year-olds. Each book was chosen with the idea of empowering an empathy-educated generation.
Then, we have an in-depth “schools programme” based mainly in Wales, since the subject of empathy expressly appears 35 times in the new Welsh curriculum.
Next is Empathy Day, which, as we talked about, takes place every June.
And lastly, we have a com innovation programme with authors and publishers because they’re the people behind the creation of empathy-building books.
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That’s an impressive mobilization of people and energy for such a small organization. And I’m also impressed that empathy is so anchored in Welsh schools – I had no idea. That’s very exciting; empathy was definitely not on the curriculum where I went to school. Tell me more about the schools programme and what you are doing to develop empathy-building skills in schools in Wales.
This is a key time to be working in Wales. That’s because the National Curriculum does include a health and well-being strand that’s now being rolled out across the country. We tend to work with clusters of schools – a secondary school and its feeder primaries. We start with empathy audits, work with the senior leadership teams, and ask questions like “What does an empathetic school look like? How far along do you think you are on the path to becoming an empathetic school?” And because listening is such a crucial part of empathy, we also try to understand the leadership team’s evaluation of the listening skills of the staff.
Then, we do a masters of ongoing training, covering the psychology of empathy and the research into how reading builds empathy. It’s an in-depth program that takes a school and its cluster through the process of thinking about building a more empathetic school culture and empathy-based pedagogy. We also do lots of practical work about choosing books. We want to select books that would be especially appropriate and the kinds of classroom practices, exercises and discussions that really make the most of the reading material.
Can you tell me about the results you’ve had? How do you measure your impact?
Well, there’s a huge area of work around evaluating this kind of work, and we focus on three key areas of impact. The first area of impact revolves around understanding and improving empathy and building teachers’ skills and confidence to teach empathy in the classroom. Secondly, we look at literacy and reading for pleasure. And thirdly, we look at social activism. We have a whole range of evaluation tools, and we’re experimenting all the time to refine how we measure the impact of our actions.
One large element in evaluating the impact is “teacher self-report”. We ask teachers to report back to us across a range of dimensions, including some specific empathy skills and areas like reading for pleasure. We ask them to evaluate how they feel they have done before and after implementing the programme.
We also do interviews where we hear from teachers. They are the ones having empathy conversations with children and collecting the children’s views on what they’ve been doing and the difference it made.
Lastly, we have been experimenting with a tool developed by the University of Leiden called EmQue (Empathy Questionnaire). It’s a self-evaluation questionnaire that children can fill in. The EmQue results have shown measurable increases in empathy skills, even during the lockdowns. This is crucial because the schools were repeatedly interrupted by lockdowns and COVID problems. So although we’ve never actually done the full program in-person without being interrupted in some way or other, the evaluations show measurable, positive impacts.
If people are interested in more detail on this, we’ve posted reports on our work in Wales on our website.
I participated in one of your Empathy webinars a couple of weeks ago. I remember you talking about the importance of developing empathy skills and some of the challenges you face in your work. The challenges are an essential part of your journey. Could you tell me more about this part of your work?
The challenges come in different ways. To begin with, there are some significant intellectual challenges. It’s an emerging field, and that creates certain challenges. We constantly have to get our heads around fundamental questions like “What exactly is empathy, and what sorts of elements make it up?” It turns out that it is quite technical, so we take a lot of time to understand the subject.
Then, there’s the startup sort of challenge around funding our activities. We are always looking at how to get the funding that allows us to move forward and have a paid establishment.
And COVID and its aftermath have been a huge, ongoing challenge, particularly in terms of developing our work with schools. Right now, one really difficult thing is the massive shortages in staff and all the problems that this creates in terms of coverage, now that children are back fully in school. That means that even when schools want to do the program, and there is a massive need for it, they often just can’t get covers for the staff to come on and do the training.
Before our call, I looked at the books chosen for Empathy Day and saw so many intriguing subjects. And I must admit to you that I’ve added many of the books you recommend to my personal reading list. So, I have a question that I think you are not going to like because I know that you love books and know so many authors and illustrators. But my question is, if you had to choose one book to recommend now, which one would it be?
Oh… You’re right. That is an almost impossible question. There are so many amazing ones, each in a different way. But, if I had to choose right now, one that’s really stayed with me is a non-fiction graphic novel called “When stars are scattered” by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed. It’s the story of two brothers in a Kenyan refugee camp. They are really stuck – the younger brother has a learning disability and his older brother looks after him. It’s a beautiful book. And then, in the book’s end pages, there’s a part with the real Omar who is now living in America, thriving, having been able to graduate school. It’s absolutely wonderful and gives a very accessible way of understanding the refugee experience, which feels hugely topical right now. It’s a really great empathy text.
It also sounds like a very inspiring story. Thinking about it, it seems like inspiration and empathy probably have several things in common. There’s something very relatable about inspiring stories. Hearing a story about an inspiring person often inspires others to action. I’d be interested in you, Miranda. Is there anyone in particular who inspires you?
Yes, of course, but I actually have two answers to that.
The first would probably be Roman Krznaric, a writer and sociologist. His work on the Empathy Revolution focuses on the power of ideas to change society. He was really important to us as we were thinking about creating EmpathyLab. And he writes so interestingly. He really sparked our thinking in a really inspiring way.
And then, the second part of my answer would be all the teachers that we work with. They are remarkable, creative, and so tough, doing such an extraordinary job, often unsung, particularly during the pandemic. So really, hats off to them.
If there was one thing that everyone should know about EmathyLab Miranda, what would it be?
Empathy is learnable!
I think many people don’t realize this, but empathy is a skill that can be developed. I meet many people who mistakenly believe that you’re either born emphatic or not. In reality, only 10% of our empathic ability is genetic.
This is important because it means we can develop our ability to be empathic at any point in our lives. It’s like learning to drive a car. To learn how to drive, you need to develop new neural pathways throughout your brain. And the more you practise, the better you get. It’s the same with empathy. That’s the theme of Empathy Day this year – “Empathy is our human superpower”, and there are very practical, creative, fun ways of developing our empathy.
Tell us where people can find out more and support the work that you’re doing at EmptahyLab Miranda.
People can find us at www.empathylab.co.uk. We are also active on Twitter in terms of social media @EmpathyLabUK. You can also subscribe to our newsletter.