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.

Improving Well-Being By Having Attainable Goals

Human happiness generally is among the most important of initiatives, and this new research on achievements contributes to that cause.

Those who set realistic goals can hope for a higher level of well-being. The key for later satisfaction is whether the life goals are seen as attainable and what they mean to the person, as psychologists from the University of Basel report in a study with over 970 participants.

Wealth, community, health, meaningful work: life goals express a person’s character, as they determine behavior and the compass by which people are guided. It can therefore be assumed that goals can contribute substantially to how satisfied people are in life — or how dissatisfied if important goals are blocked and cannot be achieved.

A team of psychologists from the University of Basel conducted a detailed examination on how life goals are embedded in people’s lives across adult; the results are now published in the European Journal of Personality. The researchers used data from 973 people between 18 and 92 years old living in German-speaking parts of Switzerland; more than half of the participants were surveyed again after two and four years.

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Life goals with predictive power

The findings of the study revealed that perceiving one’s personal goals as attainable is an indicator for later cognitive and affective well-being. This implies that people are most satisfied if they have a feeling of control and attainability. Interestingly, the importance of the goal was less relevant for later well-being than expected.

Life goals also hold predictive power for specific domains: Participants who set social-relation goals or health goals were more satisfied with their social relationships or their own health. The link between life goals and subsequent well-being appeared to be relatively independent of the age of the participants.

Younger people want status, older people want social engagement

What are the goals that people value the most in a respective age period? The goals that people value in a particular life stage depend on the development tasks that are present at this stage: the younger the participants were, the more they rated personal-growth, status, work and social-relation goals as important. The older the participants were, the more they rated social engagement and health as important.

“Many of our results confirmed theoretical assumptions from developmental psychology,” says lead author and PhD student Janina Bühler from the University of Basel’s Faculty of Psychology. Life goals were strongly determined by age: “If we examine, however, whether these goals contribute to well-being, age appears less relevant.” Hence, adults, whether old or young, are able to balance the importance and attainability of their goals.

Past Successes of Teams in Sports Increases Their Chances of Future Victories

A study showing the power of teamwork, with implications for cooperative efforts outside of sports, such as in business or communities.

What makes a team successful? This is not only a crucial question for football coaches, it plays a role in almost all areas of life, from corporate management to politics. It goes without saying that a team can only win if the team members have the necessary skills. But there is another important element: joint successes in the past increase the chances of winning. This effect shows up in a similar way in completely different team sports.

A research team from TU Wien (Vienna), Northwestern University (Evanston, USA), and the Indian Institute of Management (Udaipur) were able to statistically prove this phenomenon by analyzing large amounts of data in physical sports (football, baseball, cricket and basketball), and also in e-sports (namely the multiplayer online game “Dota 2”). The results have now been published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

Skills are not everything

The research team collected extensive data on numerous teams from several sports. The strength of individual players was quantified using different parameters — for example in basketball, the number of points scored and the number of assists was taken into account. The strength of the team can then be calculated as the average strength of the players.

“This gives us a value that can predict the outcome of a game reasonably well,” says Julia Neidhardt of the E-Commerce research unit (Institute for Information Systems Engineering, TU Wien, Vienna). She conducts research in the areas of team performance, user modeling and recommender systems. She does not only consider individuals, but also models their relationships, for example with the help of social network analysis. “Teams with better individual players have of course a higher chance of winning — but that’s not the end of the story,” says Neidhardt.

The team effect

In all the sports studied, the actual results of the games can be predicted even better by not only considering the average strength of the team members, but also taking into account how often they have been victorious together in the past. It is therefore not only important to bring the best possible stars to the field, they also have to gain experience together as a team by celebrating joint victories.

Especially in elite sports, where the skills of all involved professionals are extremely high, individual differences do not necessarily play the key role. As the differences in the skill levels decrease, common experience becomes more important.

It is particularly interesting that the effect was to be seen in very different sports: In football or in the e-sport “Dota 2,” the team members permanently depend on each other. Most actions are performed by several players at the same time. In baseball, on the other hand, throwing and hitting the ball are individual actions that have nothing to do with the rest of the team. Nevertheless, the team effect can be seen in all these sports.

Robust result

There are different possible explanations for this: By training and playing together for a long time, the players become better at coordinating their actions and predicting their teammates’ reactions, but there may also be strong psychological effects, when there is a strong emotional bond between the team players. The statistical data cannot conclusively answer the question which effect is more important. “We can see clearly that in the case of similar skill levels, prior shared success is a good predictor of which team is going to win,” says Julia Neidhardt. “This effect is very robust, in a variety of sports. This leads us to suspect that similar effects also occur in other areas.”