It is not so surprising how accurately
students can pick a good teacher when you consider that twelve years of
schooling exposes a school student to a range of teachers and many different
styles of pedagogy. Commonly students remember favourably those educators
who were enthusiastic, engaging, demonstrated expertise and could empathise
or understand the student's point of view. For most of my professional
life, I have been curious to know what makes the difference for students
between mediocre teaching and inspirational teaching. In recent years, arising
from my own research, teaching and postgraduate supervision, I have been
developing a concept called 'empathic intelligence'. There are
many qualities and attributes embedded in those terms but let's just
consider what 'empathy' means in pedagogy. In a teaching situation
is means that an educator is able to hypothesise how students might be thinking
and feeling and adapt the pedagogy accordingly. To do this, the educator
has to be emotionally aware, knowledgeable about how learning can happen
and attuned to the dynamics of the context. Ideally, the educator will be
able to create a dynamic or energy between students' thoughts and emotions
so that the learning is deep and lasting.
What is empathy?
Naturally, a capacity to be empathic underpins empathic intelligence.
People commonly think sympathy and empathy are the same thing. Empathy,
although is shares some characteristics with sympathy, is a more sophisticated
and complex concept than sympathy. The latter is an ability to feel something
akin to what you might imagine another person is feeling, usually when
you witness some distress in them. You might feel sorry for their plight
and spontaneously express your sorrow in a comforting way. Such expressions
of sympathy acknowledge a human kinship which may be soothing to the person
Conversely, I define empathy as an act of heartfelt, thoughtful imagination.
By calling it an 'act' I wish to indicate that it is more than
just emotional contagion, or sympathy and I want to indicate that it involves
both affect and cognition, or both feeling and thought. It requires emotional
intelligence to begin to be empathic because you need to understand you
own emotions before you can imagine what another might be feeling. You
also need a measure of critical thinking to know that how you think may
not be the way others think. That capacity for disinterested engagement,
or attunement, is an important part of an empathic approach. It means
you have to be alert to the shifting dynamics within yourself, the students
and the context. All this concomitant with managing the subject matter
of the class or seminar!
How does an empathic predisposition become empathic intelligence?
One characteristic which distinguishes empathic intelligence from other
kinds of intelligence, is the commitment of the educator involved in applying
empathy, along with enthusiasm, capacity to engage and expertise, to the
development and welfare of others. That sustained, professional involvement
in activities which help, sustain, develop and teach others through the
application of empathic intelligence, defines work which goes beyond education,
of course. An important outcome for education is that in the process of
experiencing empathic intelligence in action, students experience models
of effective learning which actually empower them to become effective
learners, and perhaps empathically intelligent, themselves.
Empathic intelligence is more sophisticated and habituated than an intuition,
albeit intuition or a predisposition to empathy plays a part in its development.
It calls for an attuned way of both seeing the world of experience and
relationships, and acting in that world. To do so requires sustained observation,
reflection and introspection, at least. Introspection also tells me that
no theory lives up to its promise in every case. In critical moments in
pedagogy, disaffected students can thwart our best intentions and our
resolve to be empathic just fails. But a good theory has sufficient explanatory
power to contain and compose complex realities. It will also be sufficiently
fluid to incorporate new insights.
The qualities of an empathically intelligent educator
Let me give you some examples of one aspect of empathetic intelligence,
mirroring. The concept of mirroring features large in early childhood
studies and self-psychology. I use the term here to refer, at its most
precise and powerful, to the strong eye gaze behaviour of mothers and
infants; that mutual bonding behaviour which is so vitally important in
infant self- and affective/cognitive development. But mirroring can take
other forms, less intense than the mother-infant exchange, but often important
to both participants and observers in conveying tacit or overt messages.
Mirroring can function socially and psychologically to convey attunement
between individuals. Attunement creates a sense of preparedness for exploration,
for risk taking, for concentration, for rapport. It can reactivate the
pleasurable experiences of learning self-awareness in the maternal ambience.
It can reassure one of the presence of the other. The need for affirmation
of self is evident whenever we reveal or display ourselves.
The role of mirroring is understood by those with empathic intelligence
and such knowledge is used for ethical purposes. To use mirroring for
purposes other than validating or appropriately modifying behaviour would
be Machiavellian. Mirroring an other can be mutually beneficial. The other
is recognised and validated, but the self too is validated in the role
of educator, mother, father, friend, audience or observer. In some situations
the power relationship will be unequal, but the empathic person, by definition
has a wish to empower the other. As teachers know all too well, if disenchanted
students choose to ignore us, we become disempowered. Mutuality is an
important characteristic of an empathic engagement. Mutuality, in some
circumstances becomes intimacy.
Mirroring can take many forms. It can be unconscious or quite deliberate
as when people choose to dress alike. In pedagogy, mirroring can be verbal,
as in echoing words another might have used in an exchange or elaborating
them, or even seeking elaboration of them as often happens in classroom
dialogue. A teacher who selects students' words and assists their
learning by either seeking or offering some elaboration of the words or
concept, is demonstrating both mirroring and scaffolding.
Scaffolding is Vygotsky's term (1978) for the process of empathically
structuring learning tasks so they fall within the student's 'zone
of proximal development' (ZPD). Knowing how to judge students'
emotional and cognitive 'zone of proximal development' is a
challenge for educators but those who do it well are probably empathically
sensitive, if not empathically intelligent. Naturally, judgement has to
be both evidence-based and sensitive. Educators need to be attuned to
the kinds of evidence which count towards astute judgements.
Research completed or currently being conducted by postgraduate and doctoral
candidates attests to the value of living professionally a theoretical
position which sharpens observation, composes dynamic data and supports
both professional expertise and student learning. When theory arises from
practice and is enacted and elaborated through practice, it can mirror
and scaffold too. Dynamism, in the sense of a commitment to change and
an ability to mobilise change inter-subjectively and intrasubjectively,
has to be inherent in both the theory and the practice. The best this
theory can do is capture and explain fleeting, moment by moment shifts
in intrasubjective and inter-subjective experiences, or what happens inside
people and between them.
Why does Empathic Intelligence matter?
Empathic intelligence with its underpinnings of imagination and logic,
is fundamentally hopeful and realistic, generative, dynamic and analytical.
It is inspired by intuition and grounded in critical structure. It can
function in situations where intelligent, reflective people are engaged
in relationships, creative and performative enterprises, client-centred
work, leadership, education and spheres of influence. At its best, empathic
intelligence enhances the performance of its practitioners, and benefits
those responsive to its ambience. The more it is observed in practice,
discussed and researched, the better structured it becomes. Like its practitioners,
it grows through recognition. It functions well where excellence is the
The words and concepts related to its structure tend to be complex and
relevant to a deeply felt, meaningful existence. That should be a challenge
rather than a deterrent to those who enjoy engaging with ideas and reflecting
upon experience. Empathic intelligence is theorised and elaborated here
to explain a particular phenomenon, namely how some people can influence
others in ways not yet accounted for systematically. Readers might discover
possible connections with their own stories of life and work at the beginning
of a new millennium. In discovering such connections, it is intrinsic
to empathic intelligence that it both heartens its adherents and encourages
them to be rigorously sceptical. That scepticism and rigour can enhance
the logic and intuition informing the concept, honouring its robustness
and its significance.