Habits for Creativity: Empathy

As we consider the social emotional strengths that will serve students well in building creativity—and in learning—one good place to start is with The Henry Ford Museum’s Model i, a model of design thinking for innovation. The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation is exactly what the name suggests, an extraordinary collection of artifacts showcasing American history and innovation. If you come to Michigan, it is a must-see attraction, but even from afar there is much for you to explore. It offers a variety of online exhibits through Google Cultural Institute and  Model i activities designed to support young people in learning to become innovators.

Unlike many models of design thinking, Model i includes both cognitive and affective skills needed for innovation. As I continue my thinking about social emotional learning and creativity, it seems logical to explore the “Habits” proposed in Model i as essential for innovation:

  • Be Empathetic
  • Challenge the Rules
  • Stay Curious
  • Collaborate
  • Take Risks
  • Learn From Failure

Today, I’ll start with “Be Empathetic.” Empathy puts the heart into flexible thinking. It suggests that is isn’t enough to be able to think from another’s perspective; we must also be able to envision how another might be feeling. More than that, we must care. Without empathy, we can never appreciate problems or issues outside our own experiences. Empathy helps us consider new issues to be addressed and gives us the drive to address them. Creative thinkers who care deeply about the problems they want to solve will have the drive to persist when things get tough because they know their efforts matter.

In teaching young people about empathy, one outstanding example suggested in the Model i materials is Jessica O. Matthews. Jessica Matthews is a Nigerian-American inventor and CEO of Uncharted Power, a company dedicated to providing low-cost clean power across the globe. The idea for her invention, the Soccket, came when she was a college student visiting extended family in Nigeria. She observed young people playing soccer joyfully and also observed the same children have difficulty doing school work at night because they did not have sustainable power for electric lights. The smoky kerosene lights used by family members affected their health. She both observed and cared. Here’s the result.

 

It can be interesting to talk to young people about becoming aware of others’ needs and emotions. Some needs are obvious. For example, years ago, one of my students created a head-controlled device to help his father turn pages after the father had lost the use of his hands. But other needs might only be discerned after careful talking and listening for both thoughts and feelings. What might solve a problem? What might bring someone joy?

For some young people, such questions might require learning to recognize and label emotions in ways they had not learned previously. There are several versions of the wheel of emotions available online that can, for example, help students distinguish feeling worried from feeling embarrassed, threatened, or hurt. Once they recognize their own emotions, they can begin to empathize with emotions in others. Navigating emotional understanding is complex and full of nuance. It is the work of a lifetime, but it has to begin early. We have important work to do here, to support both creativity and healthy young people. Here’s to the next Jessica Matthews!

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