Royal Society of Arts Blog (November 23, 2015) “Can we really teach empathy and compassion?”

Royal Society of Arts Blog posted on 23rd of November 2015

Can we really teach empathy and compassion? Can we measure empathy and compassion? And if we can, will it make a difference that matters to the individual and the collective in our communities?

Martin Luther King (MLK) once said:

“In a real sense, all life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever effects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I’m what I ought to be.”

We see through our eyes the horrific pictures of refugee children dying in the water, then hear through our ears the words of our leaders saying “not in our countries”, and then feel in our souls the terrible angst and horror of knowing that other human beings are suffering. We recognize that hundreds of thousands of people long for a space of freedom, safety and security on this earth. How do we experience our own forms of compassion and empathy? And how do we live these two values for others in the 21st century in Europe, North America and other parts of our shared planet?

Or do we simply turn off, disengage and remove ourselves from this reality and live our lives and other (potentially limiting) values by channeling our senses into our thoughts without any consciousness of our interrelatedness to others on this earth? Where and how (if we did at all) did we learn to think and act compassionately?

I have this deep longing to understand our own minds, consciousness and thoughts related to our values and deep beliefs about “others”. How did we form our models of our worlds? What do we need to do to socially innovate in educating and helping people to learn about the whys and the hows of compassion and empathy?

In reading Towards the Compassionate School[1] I am even more interested to know if the 10 declared “truths” about compassion are actually true for all of us. If so, how do we actually live these “truths”?

In his RSA video, Roman Krznaric (Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution) confirms the focus of the future must be outrospection – who are we in relation to the “other”. He sees this focus as the foundation of radical social change.  Click Here:

Even though we have a central theme in all religions and faith communities about treating others as you wish to be treated yourself, do we actually have the insight and consciousness to pay attention to the following:

  • Are we wired for compassion and empathy?
  • Does the “Golden Rule” still have value as an approach to treating people as you wish to be treated?
  • Are compassion and empathy essential for good mental and physical health?
  • To be successful, do our NGOs, private and public sector organizations need to be compassionate, hold a space for empathy and live by a moral code?
  • Will technology become the next conduit to share and grow individual and collective compassion in society?
  • Do we value our world cities as places of hyper-diversity where compassion is our currency to live and develop harmoniously?
  • Do human-made and natural disasters (evils of this world) undermine all the forces of compassion and empathy?
  • Do our current economic systems fail to encourage all forms of compassion in our communities and the private sector?
  • Can compassion and empathy be taught by focusing on how to support the development of a compassionate and empathic mind?
  • Are compassion and empathy central to education and learning? (Are they unifying meta-values as central organizing principles?)

I am one of the international associates (Canadian) of the CoED Foundation, a non-profit charity based in England, dedicated to bringing compassion into education and learning. We are designing an initiative to understand how compassionate schools in six countries are advancing compassion in their students and developing them as future community leaders.

We are building this innovative approach to understand compassionate education, and to learn how to measure values in action.

It is with this in mind, that we wish to answer a few important questions, going forward:

  • How does compassion value’s education impact the students, the schools, their families and their communities? (What is the evidence of change?)
  • How will we understand the similarities and or differences cross-culturally when compassionate education is implemented by country, and by school?
  • What are the compassionate behaviours/actions demonstrated once the students complete their education.
  • How do these compassionate values and their behaviours/actions impact community both positively and potentially limiting in the long-term?

As this ambitious initiative is at the very beginning of the design cycle, our team has identified its desire to have numerous partners in the 6 countries, including:

  • National education networks and their local schools; (Faith and Non-Faith-based)
  • Community engagement consultants contributing their time and energy;
  • International values consultants to measure compassion (i.e. Barrett Value Centre- survey instruments); and
  • Individuals with expertise in many disciplines who wish to participate in an international, national or locally engaged action teams.

We are influenced by a number of compassion educators, authors, schools and foundations such as the Tara Redwood School in California with Pamela Cayton, Marshall Rosenberg (Non-Violent Communication and “The Compassionate Classroom”, The Foundation for Developing Compassion and Wisdom, “MindUP” with the Hawn Foundation, and Roots of Empathy Foundation.

There are so many more examples of people, organizations and thought leaders in this emerging field focusing on compassion in education, with which we wish to co-create our initiative.

We encourage RSA Fellows and other international partners to engage with us in this design stage to play important roles in countries where our initiative will take root over the next three years. We are looking at implementing this initiative in England, Canada, the United States, Pakistan, Jordan and Nigeria as countries where we know compassionate education programs have been developed.

In the next three to five years, we believe that we will see, hear and feel that there will be more contributors to this conversation in more schools and community organizations positively impacting community.

Perhaps we will play a small role in energizing others to place themselves centrally on the world compassion map and make a difference that matters to them. Perhaps individually and collectively, we can live the values of compassion and empathy.

[1] Towards the Compassionate School will be presented at the RSA in London in December by Maurice Irfan Coles, CEO of the CoED Foundation. (