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Empathy and Global Stewardship: The Other 21st Century Skills

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Due to the interest of my post The Other 21st Skills, I decided to individually discuss each of the skills or dispositions I proposed that are in addition to the seven survival skills as identified by Tony Wagner.  This post focuses on empathy and global stewardship.

2013-05-22_1535Empathy has always been valued as an important skill to possess as a human being, so what makes it a 21st century skill?  I was recently asked by Steve Hargadon during a short video interview, “Is global education important?  If so, why?”  My response was, “Given that we are now living in a hyper-connected world, we can no longer plead that we don’t what is going on in other parts of the world.  Look at the recent incidents of the uprising in Egypt and Syria.  Global events are being streamed and tweeted in real time.  Global empathy and stewardship need to be part of the education of children.”  This is also why I have chosen to group empathy and global stewardship together.

The general hope is that teaching empathy might lead to greater social harmony, altruistic action, social justice, and interpersonal and intercultural understanding. If we’re to reverse the increasing disregard for human suffering in this country and around the world, with the growing gap between rich and poor, empathy education — if it could be successful and massive — could make a major difference.  The problem is never too much empathy. The problem is not enough. Empathy education needs to move beyond volunteerism and toward social transformation. One has to have the kind of empathy that really understands you don’t just give people handouts; what you do is transform the system so the people themselves can be transformed. While empathy is not itself sufficient, it is necessary for greater social justice to come about (Teaching Empathy to the ‘Me’ Generation).

Some of the characteristics or dispositions related to empathy include:

  • Curiosity about others
  • Observing verbal and nonverbal behavior in others
  • Active listening
  • Finding similarities between oneself and others
  • Seeing the world from another’s perspective
  • Identifying the emotions of another


I always think of empathy as this kind of sacred space. When someone’s in a deep hole, and they shout out from the bottom and say “hey, I’m stuck, it’s dark, I’m overwhelmed” we look and climb down, and say,  “I know what it’s like down here, and you’re not alone.”

This quote is taken from the following animated video, The Power of Empathy.  It provides a good introduction to bringing empathy into the learning environment.

Teaching perspectives is the best way to learn about a people and only when you teach perspectives can you teach creativity because creativity comes from exposure.  Only when you are creative can you imagine yourself in the shoes of someone different from you. Perspectives and creativity engender empathy – much needed in this world.  Raghava KK from Coloring Outside the Lines-A National Geographic Video

2013-07-28_1115The following RSA video, The Six Habits of Highly Empathic People, discusses the importance of empathy for creating social change and a revolution of social relationships, which, in turn, leads to increased desire to engage in global stewardship.

Bringing Empathy into the Schools

The Start Empathy initiative shares research, case studies and inspirational stories, and is building a network of schools committed to building empathic, encouraging environments in school settings. They’ve developed a road map for navigating a course to empathy:


Empathy and Global Stewardship

As stated in the beginning of this post, empathy plus hyper-connectivity should naturally lead global stewardship.  “True and faithful stewardship resides not with the few, but with the whole community. It calls for the redistribution of power in ways appropriate to the gifts, talents, and passions of the people” (Review of Peter Block’s Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest).

The state of Washington engaged in a think tank for education for sustainable communities.  One of results was the creation of a list of characteristics that define folks who are equipped for sustainable futures:

  • As life-long, life-wide and life-deep learners, they:
    • Welcome new ideas
    • Seek new knowledge
    • Makes informed decisions
  • As community contributors, they:
    • Lead a healthy, responsible lifestyle
    • Support well-being and diversity of others
    • Contribute time and resources
  • As global citizens, they:
    • Understand how natural and human systems interact
    • Respect interdependence of life on earth
    • Solve problems collaboratively
  • As co-creators of tomorrow, they:
    • Embrace diversity, change, and communication
    • Choose life-affirming values
    • Pursue innovative productivity


These characteristics are in line with skills and characteristics of those related to empathy and global stewardship.

Integrating stewardship into learning contexts is important because it affirms that:

  • Stewardship is a fundamental part of everyone’s learning,
  • Stewardship is a form of civic responsibility and of comparable value to other primary learning such as the acquisition of content knowledge.
  • Stewardship contributes to sustainable development in real life contexts. (How Can Teachers Foster Stewardship Behavior in their Students?)

A Connection Between Empathy and Design Thinking

Design thinking and doing is entering into many educational settings.

Classrooms and schools across the world are facing design challenges every single day, from teacher feedback systems to daily schedules. Wherever they fall on the spectrum of scale—the challenges educators are confronted with are real, complex, and varied. And as such, they require new perspectives, new tools, and new approaches. Design Thinking is one of them. (

David Kelley, founder of IDEO and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (otherwise known as the, believes that empathy is at the core of design thinking and being an effective designer.

Being an incredible designer isn’t necessarily about having a great aesthetic sensibility or coming up with out-of-the-box ideas. The basic premise of design thinking revolves around empathy, being understanding of what other people want, and how the world is put together from a social and emotional point of view. (

A Connection Between Empathy and Grit as 21st Century Skills

Grit as a 21st century skill was discussed in a previous post.  Criticism has been leveraged against skills such as grit and resilience stating they are hegemonic concepts.  See Katie Osgood’s post  Paul Tough Is Way Off-Base. And Stop Saying “Grit”.

Osgood stated:

They need to be taught empathy, justice, and solidarity in order to go out and refuse to participate in a social system which concentrates all the wealth in the hands of an elite few.  They should be taught of privilege, oppression, and the legacy of racism. They need to fight against a system which allows racism and segregation to continue uncontested.  They should be inspired to humbly join the communities in their fight for social justice.

But it my belief that these skills become a type of synergy where the whole is greater than the individual parts.  Grit and resilience become the foundations from which empathy can arise and be more fully actualized.  Grit and resilience are important to be able to develop the empathy skills to fight against a system that covertly (and sometimes overtly) supports hegemonic principles.

Resources for Educators

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

July 28, 2013 at 11:35 pm

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