Teaching Young Students Empathy Improves Their Creativity, University of Cambridge Finds

Having students become more skilled at looking at things from different perspectives may be what drove the increase in their creativity. The power of enhanced creativity can obviously be leveraged in many fields to boost levels of success.

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Teaching children in a way that encourages them to empathise with others measurably improves their creativity, and could potentially lead to several other beneficial learning outcomes, new research suggests.

The findings are from a year-long University of Cambridge study with Design and Technology (D&T) year 9 pupils (ages 13 to 14) at two inner London schools. Pupils at one school spent the year following curriculum-prescribed lessons, while the other group’s D&T lessons used a set of engineering design thinking tools which aim to foster students’ ability to think creatively and to engender empathy, while solving real-world problems.

Both sets of pupils were assessed for creativity at both the start and end of the school year using the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking: a well-established psychometric test.

The results showed a statistically significant increase in creativity among pupils at the intervention school, where the thinking tools were used. At the start of the year, the creativity scores of pupils in the control school, which followed the standard curriculum, were 11% higher than those at the intervention school. By the end, however, the situation had completely changed: creativity scores among the intervention group were 78% higher than the control group.

The researchers also examined specific categories within the Torrance Test that are indicative of emotional or cognitive empathy: such as ’emotional expressiveness’ and ‘open-mindedness’. Pupils from the intervention school again scored much higher in these categories, indicating that a marked improvement in empathy was driving the overall creativity scores.

The study’s authors suggest that encouraging empathy not only improves creativity, but can deepen pupils’ general engagement with learning. Notably, they found evidence that boys and girls in the intervention school responded to the D&T course in ways that defied traditional gender stereotypes. Boys showed a marked improvement in emotional expression, scoring 64% higher in that category at the end of the year than at the start, while girls improved more in terms of cognitive empathy, showing 62% more perspective-taking.

The research is part of a long-term collaboration between the Faculty of Education and the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge called ‘Designing Our Tomorrow’ (DOT), led by Bill Nicholl and Ian Hosking. It challenges pupils to solve real-world problems by thinking about the perspectives and feelings of others.

The particular challenge used in the study asked pupils at the intervention school to design an asthma-treatment ‘pack’ for children aged six and under. Pupils were given various creative and empathetic ‘tools’ in order to do so: for example, they were shown data about the number of childhood asthma fatalities in the UK, and a video which depicts a young child having an attack. They also explored the problem and tested their design ideas by role-playing various stakeholders, for example, patients, family-members, and medical staff.

Nicholl, Senior Lecturer in Design and Technology Education, who trains teachers studying on the University’s D&T PGCE course, said: “Teaching for empathy has been problematic despite being part of the D&T National Curriculum for over two decades. This evidence suggests that it is a missing link in the creative process, and vital if we want education to encourage the designers and engineers of tomorrow.”

Dr Helen Demetriou, an affiliated lecturer in psychology and education at the Faculty of Education with a particular interest in empathy, and the other researcher involved in the study, said: “We clearly awakened something in these pupils by encouraging them to think about the thoughts and feelings of others. The research shows not only that it is possible to teach empathy, but that by doing so we support the development of children’s creativity, and their wider learning.”

The gender differences charted in the study indicate that the intervention enabled students to overcome some of the barriers to learning that assumed gender roles often create. For example, boys often feel discouraged from expressing emotion at school, yet this was one of the main areas where they made significant creative gains according to the tests.

In addition to the Torrance Tests, the researchers conducted in-depth interviews with pupils at both the intervention school and a third (girls-only) school who also undertook the asthma challenge. This feedback again suggested that pupils had empathised deeply with the challenges faced by young asthma-sufferers, and that this had influenced their creative decisions in the classroom.

Many, for example, used phrases such as ‘stepping into their shoes’ or ‘seeing things from another point of view’ when discussing patients and their families. One boy told the researchers: “I think by the end of the project I could feel for the people with asthma… if I was a child taking inhalers, I would be scared too.”

Another responded: “Let’s say you had a sister or brother in that position. I would like to do something like this so we can help them.”

Overall, the authors suggest that these findings point to a need to nurture ’emotionally intelligent learners’ not only in D&T classes, but across subjects, particularly in the context of emerging, wider scientific evidence that our capacity for empathy declines as we get older.

“This is something that we must think about as curricula in general become increasingly exam-based,” Demetriou said. “Good grades matter, but for society to thrive, creative, communicative and empathic individuals matter too.”

Nicholl added: “When I taught Design and Technology, I didn’t see children as potential engineers who would one day contribute to the economy; they were people who needed to be ready to go into the world at 18. Teaching children to empathise is about building a society where we appreciate each other’s perspectives. Surely that is something we want education to do.”

The study is published in the journal, Improving Schools.

Letting Students in Germany Start High School an Hour Later Showed Benefits

The teenage German students who took part in this were better rested and more alert for their academics. Teenagers generally need more sleep than adults and many find it difficult to go to sleep at earlier hours — there is clearly a significant benefit to having high schools start at later hours.

Society is in the midst of an epic sleep deprivation crisis, and some of the most affected people are teenagers, a broad body of sleep research shows.

Because of this, in recent decades researchers in the US and around the world have been investigating the potential benefits of starting the school day later. While initial results are promising, it’s still only early days for this field of research overall, given the limited number (and nature) of experiments conducted so far.

To date, most studies in this area have looked at the effects of making a static change in school start time (starting all classes for a group of students an hour later, for example). But what happens if you give kids a say in the matter, letting them choose what time they begin classes in the morning?

That’s what one high school in Germany did. Alsdorf high school (Gymnasium Alsdorf) in western Germany won an award for innovative teaching methods in 2013, and practises an educational system called the Dalton Plan, originally developed in the US.

The Dalton Plan calls for flexible teaching methods, tailored to students at a personal level, and helping children to learn at their own pace. Schools across the world use these principles, and for chronobiology researchers at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Alsdorf high school provided a unique chance to study how the system might be able to benefit sleep-deprived teenagers.

“We had the opportunity to study the effects of later school starting times when a high school in Germany decided to introduce flexible start times for their senior students,” the team, led by chronobiologist Till Roenneberg, explains in their paper.

“Instead of fixed starts at mostly 8 am, in this new flexible system, the senior students could decide whether to start at 8:00 am or at 8:50 am (referred to as ‘9 am’ herein for convenience) on a daily basis by attending or skipping the first period (a self-study period).”

For nine weeks in total in 2016, the researchers attempted to measure the effects of the system change on students in the 10th, 11th, and 12th grades.

While students in earlier grades still had to turn up for school at the standard time of 8 am, the older students were given the option of starting the day approximately one hour later for classes, in which case they had to make up the missed period (a self-study period) later in the week.

For the nine weeks (three prior to the system being introduced, and six weeks after the change), the researchers collected daily sleep diaries from the senior students taking part in the experiment, as well as collecting movement data from wrist-worn sleep monitor devices used by some of the students.

What the researchers found is that giving the students the ability to postpone their starting time even by only one hour gave them beneficial extra sleep time.

“In our study, virtually all participating students (97 percent) benefited from later start times, sleeping longer on schooldays with a ≥9 am-start – on average students gained one hour of sleep on those days,” the authors write.

“Importantly, not only was the overall benefit universal but also the magnitude of the benefit was similar across the important factors chronotype, gender, grade, and frequency of later starts.”

That’s an important finding, because even though it may seem obvious that students electing to attend school one hour later would get one hour more sleep, it’s also thought that later school times can encourage students to stay up later at night before school, negating the benefits of the sleep-in.

That didn’t happen here, though, with students on average sleeping 1.1 hours longer than they normally did on mornings where they attended classes later, increasing from 6.9 hours of sleep on average to 8 hours of sleep.

“One of the greatest concerns regarding later school starts is that teenagers might be tempted to stay up even later in the evening either consciously or via delayed circadian rhythms from later exposure to advancing morning light,” the authors explain.

“In our study, however, there was no evidence that sleep onset times differed between ≥9 am-days and 8 am-days.”

What did surprise the researchers was how little the students opted to take advantage of the late start. Overall, the students only chose to start late 39 percent of the time, roughly two days out of five in terms of a regular school week.

Nonetheless, when students did start later, they rated themselves as enjoying higher-quality sleep, and survey responses at the end of the experiment suggested they felt less tired, could concentrate better during class, and felt an improved ability to study at home after school as well.

Of course, all of those outcomes are self-reported, as were other data in the study, such as things like naps, which may have been non-declared or under-reported – limitations that the researchers acknowledge.

At the same time, there are obviously some hugely important takeaways from the experiment, which suggest students like being given the choice of when they start school in the morning (in addition to simply getting more shut-eye).

“On days with a later start, students have the opportunity to sleep longer. This should reduce the accumulation of sleep debt during the week,” the authors conclude.

“In addition, especially important for practical applications, students prefer the flexible system and their subjective parameters are improved.”

The findings are reported in Sleep.

Report Finds Significant Benefits to Canceling All Student Loan Debt

Canceling student debt is a proposal worth supporting, and it isn’t even radical when it’s considered that the student debt shouldn’t have been allowed to accrue anywhere near the depraved level of $1.4 trillion. It’s also not radical when it’s considered that there is enormous U.S. welfare granted to the rich and to major corporations, much more welfare than the amount that goes to poor and middle-income people.

report from a group of economists at the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College finds that there would be huge benefits if the federal government were to forgive all existing student debt. This would ripple out from young people struggling to pay off massive college loans to the economy as a whole, according to the report.

“The idea of canceling student debt is not just some crazy idea out of left field, but is actually something that could be done, and done in a way that has a moderately positive economic impact,” Marshall Steinbaum, a fellow and research director at the Roosevelt Institute and a coauthor of the report said in an interview.

“The way this and similar polices are often discussed is in a mode of ‘well can we really afford this?’ and the answer is definitely yes,” he added.

The report finds that canceling all student debt would likely lead to an increase in U.S. GDP between $861 billion and $1,083 billion over the course of 10 years. It would also lead to an increase of 1.18 to 1.55 million additional new jobs over the same period — that’s about 50% to 70% more jobs per year compared to an average of recent years.

This new analysis comes at a time when more than 44 million American have a collective $1.3 trillion in student debt — higher than both auto U.S. debt and credit card debt.

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The report also finds that total loan forgiveness would cost the U.S. government approximately $1.4 trillion over the course of 10 years — a number that is almost exactly the same as what the CBO recently projected the Republican’s new tax bill would cost.

But researchers said that the positive impacts of canceling student debt would likely be more broadly felt than those of the tax bill.

“[The GOP tax bill] is going to add 1.5 trillion to deficits over the next 10 years,” Stephanie Kelton, Stony Brook University professor of public policy and economics, said in an interview. Kelton is one of the authors of the report, and recently worked as the chief economists for the Democratic minority on the Senate budget committee.

“What else could we do? Canceling student loan debt was just about perfect because it comes in at about 1.4 trillion and it’s almost six of one, half a dozen of the other in terms of the price tag,” she said.

Kelton emphasized that U.S. government shouldn’t be thinking of how it can spend money to help Americans as a zero sum game. But at the same time, if lawmakers can spend money to provide massive tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, it can also afford to spend nearly the same amount to cancel student debt and grow the economy simultaneously.