Thursday / April 25

No Time For Empathy

No Time for Empathy

“I used to have time for that,” teachers explain to me.  “I used to have time to build relationships with students, really get to know them, and build a positive culture within my classroom. But for years now I’ve just been swamped.  There is so much to cover.  The pacing guides and assessment schedules tell me I have to race through content to get it all covered.  There is just no time for teaching empathy.”

In schools across the nation, educators are engaged in frenetic activity preparing to adapt curricula and find strategies for getting good scores on the newly designed high-stakes testing systems.  The emphases on academic testing outcomes have never been greater.  Academic outcomes are important, but somehow the importance of developing the whole child is being neglected.  We are forgetting the significance of music, art, movement skills, social skills, self-regulation and empathy.  The typical US school curriculum has become a race-through-content, based on the incredible notion that “covering” more leads to better outcomes on tests.

The old factory model of schooling includes delivering material or instruction on a schedule, sorting out the good students from the poor, whittling down the successful learners into a small elite who go on to become managers of the next generation of factories. But we don’t have the old factory model anymore; we’ve adapted it and put it on steroids. We cover more, faster and at a younger age than ever before. It is hurting our teachers, driving away talented men and women who might want to teach, dulling the minds of advantaged students, and murdering the hopes for success of underprivileged children across America.

In the most recent remodeling of the factory school model, forty-six states have committed to “covering” a new set of instructional guidelines and using one of two newly devised testing systems, the Smarter Balance or PARCC. The new Common Core State Standards are better than those much longer lists of grade level content expectations which were developed uniquely by each state. There are fewer standards, and they ask students to understand some content on a deeper level.This can be viewed as a move in the right direction. But already, even before most districts have aligned curriculum to the new guidelines, and even before we have even seen the new computer-based tests (starting in third grade), there are serious problems. Teachers are afraid.

Along with the use of CCSS and the new tests came the commitment to evaluate teachers (and schools) based on student progress, as measured by the new and untried tests, based on the new and untried instructional standards. Implementation of the tests will be time consuming and challenging. Implementation of the new CCSS aligned curriculum requires teachers to learn to deliver content differently than in past practice. Districts are gearing up to keep teachers on-track with curriculum pacing guides and district-wide assessments of student progress meant to precede the administration of the national tests. We have set a series of changes in motion without carefully preparing the teachers or administrators. Levels of anxiety are high.

Somehow throughout this process of revising learning guidelines and testing procedures, we have once again focused on “coverage”. What will we cover in a given school year?  Nowhere in this process has there been serious consideration given to clarifying what students need to learn and demonstrate to a deep level of understanding and application. The system is still defined as cover/grade/and move on to the next lesson.

Essential learning outcomes for long-term success have not been defined in our newest iteration of the factory school. In most schools, a system for understanding precisely what students know and are ready to learn has not been developed. Systematic measurement of progress toward essential language, social, motor, behavioral, literacy and numeracy skills is not built into the system. Time for adjusting instruction until each student achieves competency in every essential skill has not been built into the plan. Instead, with whatever skill students have at the beginning of the year (in most schools no one really knows), teachers are told to cover the new curriculum, grade the students and move along to the next lesson.

It is still factory school version 3.0. Some of the most important aspects of being human are completely ignored within the structure of CCSS, PARCC, Smarter Balance, and in the chaotic efforts in schools across the nation to get ready for our new system of grading teachers and schools. Self-regulation, empathy, resilience, social skills and the development of character are not part of the new Common Core State Standards. Emotional self-regulation is a person’s capacity to calm him or herself, focus, persist, and delay gratification. It is crucial that children learn to self-regulate during the early childhood years, birth through age 8. The foundation for these skills should ideally be established by age 4. Self-regulated students can match mood, effort and movement to a given situation.

You may remember the marshmallow experiments, conducted at Stanford by Walter Mischel. In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one small reward (sometimes a marshmallow) immediately or two small rewards if he or she waited until the tester returned (after an absence of approximately 15 minutes).  Mischel’s long-term follow up showed remarkable differences between those who chose to wait and those who did not. Children who waited 15 minutes for the extra marshmallow at age four had SAT scores on average 210 points higher than those who wanted the marshmallow right away. But self-regulation is not part of the CCSS or the new testing systems.

Children who are self-regulated are better able to calm themselves on the inside and learn to look at the world through the eyes of others. This marks the beginnings of empathy, which Daniel Goleman describes as the foundation of all emotional intelligence. Empathy is the capacity to notice how other people feel, to put yourself in their shoes, and understand the perspective of others. Without empathy we cannot understand others, read their signals, share their feelings, build connections, and develop social skills. Most employers and psychologists agree that emotional intelligence is as important for life success as intellectual intelligence. But empathy is not part of the CCSS or the new testing systems.

Written by

Bob Sornson is an award-winning author and presenter, calling for programs and practices which support competency based learning and early learning success. He works internationally with school districts, universities, and parent organizations. His many books include Over-Tested and Under-Prepared: Using Competency-Based Learning to Transform Our Schools (Routledge), Fanatically Formative (Corwin Press), and Stand in My Shoes: Kids Learning about Empathy (Love and Logic Press). Contact

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