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Student voices: Teaching history through empathy

15193682_1146680992035386_9720135855591234_nThis is part of a series in which we share reports from Harvard students who have traveled to South Asia with support from a SAI grant.

By Asad Liaqat, Doctoral candidate, Public Policy PhD program, Harvard Kennedy School; SAI Graduate Associate

This summer I worked with “The History Project” (THP) in Lahore, Pakistan to develop an evaluation strategy for an exciting set of workshops they are doing with school children. These workshops are aimed at improving critical thinking and increasing empathy in schoolchildren in Pakistan and India. As a researcher, my role in these workshops is to design an evaluation strategy to ascertain the impact of these workshops on critical thinking and empathy in children.

The workshops in themselves are borne out of THP’s previous work in schools in India and Pakistan, introducing children to the idea that there is multiplicity in historical narratives. They decided to place versions of the same incidents from Indian and Pakistani textbooks right next to each other and simply show that to students, taking in their reactions and learning how the rigid notions of right and wrong formed due to particular forms of socialization in formative years could be broken. Having gone through that development phase, THP was ready to start piloting its workshops this summer, and I formed a partnership with them to evaluate the impact of their interventions.

In designing such an evaluation, there are a host of theoretical and practical issues that differ from a standard evaluation of a development program – a setting I am more used to. Firstly, the outcomes that we are trying to impact are by definition vaguely defined and hard to grasp even conceptually. I spent a lot time grappling with the concept of critical thinking and empathy, as understood by psychologists, educationalists and behavioral economists – and trying to square these theoretical constructs with how these ideas were being applied by THP in their pilot workshops.

Our current working definition of critical thinking is very close to what Robert Ennis describes as “reasonable reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do.”[1] The three core features of this definition we hope to teach students in our intervention are (1) identifying conclusions, reasons and assumptions; (2) judging the quality of an argument, including the acceptability of its reasons, assumptions and evidence; (3)  defining terms in a way appropriate for the context. The predominant examination system in Pakistan is based on rote learning, where passing the exam is more considered more important than learning the content. Moreover, students are discouraged to question their curriculum. This produces intolerant adults later on who were never brought up in an education system that fosters a multiple perceptive approach of forming beliefs. Our intervention does not push any particular interpretation of historical and societal narratives onto the children. Instead, it gives students the methodologies to question and approach them in a more critical manner without calling either side wrong. It also takes students on a journey to showcase their own histories and social identities that are made up of various narratives without asking them to believe in a certain side of the story. This approach, which does not take ownership of the truth or tries to push any particular ideology onto the children has been welcomed by schools.

In conceptualizing empathy, we consider two levels at which empathy operates: cognitive empathy and affective empathy. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand what the other feels; to see a situation from another’s perspective. Cognitive empathy, however, does not imply any degree of concern about the other. The notion of affective empathy involves actually caring about the other side; the person who has affective empathy for another is moved to help the other. In the language of economics, cognitive empathy enters into a theoretical model in the form of an individual’s beliefs about the other’s beliefs whereas affective empathy directly enters the individual’s utility function.

These abstract concepts translate into THP’s workshop through a series of interactive activities that are very different from the usual lecture-based classroom setting the children are used to. One activity I particularly like is an ‘attribute linking’ activity. Each student is given a pencil and post-it notes. They are asked a series of questions of the form “Who in this classroom comes to school in the same kind of vehicle as you?” or “Who is this classroom is the smartest?”. After each question is asked, they are asked to identify someone who matches the description given in the question, write the adjective i.e. the subject of the question on a post-it and stick it to the back of the student that they thought fit the criteria. For instance, if the class is looking for the shortest student in the room, each student posts a note saying ‘shortest’ on the back of the student that they think is the shortest. This activity helps student focus on the subconscious choices about familiarity and ‘other’ that they make on a daily basis. The activity begins with helping them focus on similarities and differences and then thinking through their process of making friends or ‘othering’ their peers. In our experience, it gets students to think about the meaning of discrimination and how it is at play even when we think that it is not.

Another activity that gets at the inconsistencies in which majorities and minorities are treated in both Pakistan and India is a short cricket game that is held as part of the workshop. If a session has twenty students, two teams are made, one of which consists of only 4 players and the other of 16 students. They are asked to play the game with normal rules, and the trainer does commentary. When, as would be expected, the team with 4 players start performing badly, the trainer ignores the numbers in their commentary and instead speaks about how wonderfully the winning team is playing and vice-versa. At the end of this game, students are asked to talk about how they felt during the game. Inevitably, the unfairness of the setup comes up in discussion and the trainer then links that to real world situations in which either minority status or other social barriers prevent certain groups from performing at par with those with advantages, but there is no acknowledgement of these disadvantages. The hope is that this activity translates into cognitive empathy towards minorities and those from a lower socioeconomic background.

The task of measuring changes in empathy and cognitive thinking remains challenging. I have developed an evaluation strategy using a mix of stated measures from established reliable psychology scales, some established behavioral measures used previously such as the dictator and some original behavioral measures that have not been tried before and are designed by me particularly for this context. The process of piloting these behavioral measures remains challenging, and the hope is to fine tune both these measures and the intervention itself with time. We are currently in the process of obtaining funding for pilots and a scale-up, and another practical difficulty we face in this process is the escalating tension between India and Pakistan. Donors seem reluctant to fund activities explicitly talking about relations between India and Pakistan. Unfortunate as that is, we believe our framing goes beyond the particularities of the history of India and Pakistan, and so we are currently in the process of developing case studies from the history of apartheid in South Africa to illustrate many of the same points.

[1] Ennis, Robert H. Critical Thinking Assessment, Theory into Practice, The Ohio State University, Vol 32, No. 3, 1993.

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