An investigation into the use of empathy in the teaching of English literature at Key Stage Three.
The Open University.
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Empathy can be seen as a crucial factor in developing understanding of the world around us. The “ability to see something from a different point of view” has been associated with increased ability to understand literature, the moral development of children, and the development of positive personality traits both in adults and children. Investigating empathy, however, is difficult, not least because it is likely to develop over a considerable length of time, and may well involve private or even confidential conversations with a sympathetic audience or counsellor. The following research began with an analysis of existing literature on empathy, ranging from that presented by practising psychologists to those engaged in classroom practice with children. The fieldwork began with an investigation into the meaning of empathy when it is used in the classroom with children in the formative years of their early teens. The Initial Study examined teacher perceptions of empathy and sought to find commonality between teachers’ ideas and the literature available on empathy. It looked particularly at how teachers utilise empathy in the presentation of literary texts, and whether it helped the pupils to develop their knowledge of set literary texts. Qualitative research methods were used, allowing the focus to be the learning process in the classroom, rather than any end results. The research increasingly came to focus on the pupil experience of empathy in the classroom, and an action research programme was used to allow spirals of activity and reflection to develop. Action research provided the opportunity to observe and become engaged in the processes which children use in order to construct their own knowledge about particular literary texts which they are required to “study” during Key Stage Three of the National Curriculum. Pupils were observed in their normal surroundings and classrooms, and the work progressed with the help of another teacher, committed to the improvement of her own practice through collaborative action research. The findings indicated that empathy is difficult to sustain, and not always clearly understood by practitioners in the classroom. It can be viewed as a useful tool, which if carefully used can help learners to construct their own knowledge about a particular text. The study suggested that there is a need for teachers to review assessment strategies for work carried out using empathy as a tool.
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