Inspiration about the most controversial of concepts: Empathy

Thanks to Dan Nuttall, who teaches history at Holy Cross College in Bury, for this blogpost. Dan continues our series where colleagues share how past Teaching History articles have made them think and encourage us to revisit them for ourselves. 

Recently, I noticed that a decades-old debate between history educators had resurfaced on Twitter. The debate concerned whether it was appropriate or not to ask students to write their own accounts of the life of a slave (either on an American plantation and/or on the Middle Passage). I should add that the majority opinion, with which I would strongly agree, was against the idea, for ethical as well as historical reasons. However, the debate raised the controversial issue of empathy. The very mention of the term, ‘empathy’ in relation to history sends shudders down some educators’ spines. The debate reminded me of an excellent article from Teaching History 143 written by Peter Lee and Denis Shemilt which addressed this controversial concept head-on.

Lee and Shemilt wrote a series of research-informed articles in Teaching History that focused on the progression in students’ understanding of a range of concepts (in TH 113 they address progression models in general; in TH 117 they focus on understanding of historical accounts; and in TH 137 they model progression in understanding of cause and consequence). In Teaching History 143, in an article entitled, ‘The concept that dares not speak its name: should empathy come out of the closet?’, Lee and Shemilt turned their attention to historical empathy.

In the article, the authors explicitly state what they believe historical empathy is not. According to Lee and Shemilt, empathy is not ‘unfettered imagination’, it is not ‘sympathy’, it is not ‘a mysterious way of getting into past people’s heads’, it is not ‘sharing people’s feelings’, nor is it ‘a “skill” that can be practised’ (if we apply these criteria to the ‘slave diary’ activity, then we can see why many educators felt it was not appropriate). Instead, historical empathy can be seen as developing an understanding of people’s actions in the past through an understanding of the ‘collective mentalitiés’ (belief systems, societal structures, cultural conventions and such-like) into which people were embedded.

Lee and Shemilt identify three challenges students’ face when considering empathy: ‘a) making sense of human behaviour; b) understanding why practices that seem irrational and unreasonable today were common in the past; and c) grasping what does and does not count as an empathetic explanation.’ The progression model in the article focuses on the latter two of these challenges. However, it is worth highlighting that also in Teaching History 143 is an article by Arthur Chapman where he explores a powerful device that he designed deploying a ‘dart-board scaffold’ to support students in analysing human behaviour (a device I have used many times with a range of ages, with very positive results).

Lee and Shemilt’s progression model for empathy (which the authors go to pains to highlight is not intended to be a mark scheme) was constructed based upon analysis of student assessment data and interview responses. It maps students’ progression beginning at Level 1, whereby students explained practices through description: people in the past acted in ways differently to us because they were ‘weird’, ‘stupid’ or ‘gross’. At the crucial threshold level, Level 5, students explained practices ‘by means of historical empathy’, recognising that people in the past had the same capacity for thoughts and feelings as we do, and so their actions and behaviours can only be understood through reference to ‘collective mentalitiés’.

How this article has influenced my practice?

Lee and Shemilt’s articles (not only the one discussed here, but also those listed above) do not provide quick ‘take-away’ lesson activity ideas, and nor is that their intention. For me, they provide something much more important: an understanding of the assumptions and misconceptions that that exist in many students’ minds, and an awareness of the barriers that they must overcome in order to develop their conceptual understanding. This understanding is crucial for any history educator and should underpin all aspects of our practice, from planning our curriculum, to the questions we ask of, and the response we give to students within lessons.

It is for this reason that Lee and Shemilt’s articles on progression (along with Frances Blow’s article in Teaching History 145 which models progression in students’ understanding of change, continuity and development) are amongst the first articles that I recommend to any ITE trainee teachers that I mentor. Yet I myself also often refer back to them. Whenever planning or re-developing a unit of work, I look back at these progression models and consider: What will my students assume? What barriers might they face? How can I plan my lessons and my questioning in a manner which might encourage students to overcome these barriers and thereby develop greater conceptual understanding?

Have you been inspired by a Teaching History article from a previous edition? Do you return to an article that continues to make you think? If you would like to write a blogpost in a similar style, we would love to hear from you. Meanwhile, do follow the HA on Facebook and @histassoc. 

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