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Issue 14, November 2000  

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Empathic intelligence in pedagogy
Roslyn Arnold, Faculty of Education

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 in distress.

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 aspiration.

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.


Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in Society. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

A/Prof Roslyn Arnold is the Pro Dean, University Relations in the Faculty of Education with a long time interest in the professional development of teachers. Her book "Empathic Intelligence" will be published by Kluwer Academic in the new year.

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