I was recently listening to George Couros talk about Ryan Gosling in his presentation. I had seen the presentation before and loved the video he shared where a man battling cancer created these Gosling videos while in the hospital.

The story struck a chord the first time I heard it, but this time it was different because of another story I heard about Ryan Gosling from author Shane Snow. Here’s what Shane shared:

Ryan Gosling grew up in Canada. His dad was a traveling salesman, so they moved a lot. The family fell apart when Ryan was young, and he ended up being raised by a working mom and his sister.

The family trouble affected him. He didn’t learn to read until far later than most kids.

He brought knives to primary school and threw them at other kids, because for some reason his mom let him watch Rambo, and it was one of his favorite movies.

(Imagine a skinny six-year-old sitting cross-legged in front of a 15-inch TV day after day, watching Sly shoot explosive arrows at helicopters, while Mom works late.)

He had ADHD. He loved Marlon Brando. Kids picked on him; he had no friends.

At age 12, Ryan decided to go to a Mickey Mouse Club audition in Montreal. He was a cute kid, and they let him in.

He then moved to Orlando, where he was taken in by none other than Justin Timberlake’s mom! (She became his legal guardian, so pseudo-adopted.) He learned to perform.

He learned to read. He learned to focus.

He grew up.

…and then he became Ryan Gosling.

And now, I watch every one of his movies when they come out in the theater.

Ten minutes on Wikipedia turned me from apathetic to advocate. I’m on Team Gosling, and I’m on it simply because I learned his story.

You’ve probably experienced this phenomenon yourself at some point in time.

It always happens in the same way:

Step 1: You don’t care about someone, something, or you have a preconceived notion of how you should feel about someone or something.

Step 2: You hear, read, or watch a story about that someone or something.

Step 3: You have a newfound respect, understanding, and empathy for that someone or something.

This is not some magical trick that happens to all of us. It is the science of stories, and how they impact our learning and empathy for others.

The short version of the science is this: Our brains pay special attention to stories, engaging more areas of the mind then when we hear or see facts. And when we learn a good story, our brains synthesize the neurochemical oxytocin. This helps us feel others’ emotions and empathize with them.

Scientists have shown that high oxytocin levels lead us to donate more to charity, be more interested in people’s well-being, and have more respect for “others” who aren’t like us.

Whether it is Ryan Gosling, or a co-worker, or a student, or an enemy. When we know each other’s stories, we find empathy in places we did not expect to find it.

The Science Behind Storytelling

Every night before my boys go to bed I tell them a story. Sometimes it is based on the day’s events, and other times it is a story about when I was a child, but usually, it is completely made up, and they love it. They also vividly remembers the stories later on.

If I hit on a similar theme or topic in my bedtime story the next day, or next week, or even next month, they call me on it. They let me know that I talked about that before, or that this sounds like the other story I told them. They’ll also relate our bedtime stories to real events that happen, and many of the same themes and topics that come up in our stories, come up in our lives.

This is not unique to my kids, instead, it is based in science and research. “A 2010 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed an intimate connection between the brain activity of speakers and listeners in conversation, demonstrating how the brain of an engaged listener “syncs up” with a speaker. By engaging students with compelling stories that impart important material, teachers reach students both emotionally and biochemically, increasing the potential for rich learning experiences.”

Sherrelle Walker – a teacher, administrator, and professor of 30 years – wrote about the science behind stories:

Scientists have long known that human beings are storytelling creatures. For centuries, we have told stories to transmit information, share histories, and teach important lessons. While stories often have a profound effect on us due to emotional content, recent research also shows that our brains are actually hard-wired to seek out a coherent narrative structure in the stories we hear and tell. This structure helps us absorb the information in a story, and connect it with our own experiences in the world.

So, if you are like me, maybe this is all starting to make sense. I know that I learn best through experience and stories. If I think back on some of my best learning experiences they were often either having to do with hearing a great story or creating a new story. When I look at what articles I enjoy, they almost always teach me something through a story. That is the initial hook of many great learning experiences.

But yet, so often in our techno-focused world, we fail to take the time to actually teach through stories. I’m guilty of this, you might be too. Technology is a great tool for learning, but guess what, storytelling might be a better tool, and it builds empathy.

Leo Widrich, the co-founder of Buffer, wrote a fantastic article on the science behind storytelling. He explains that our brains can’t help but function differently when we are being told a story:

When we are being told a story, things in our brain change dramatically. Not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are too. And yet, it gets better.

When we tell stories to others that have really helped us shape our thinking and way of life, we can have the same effect on them too. The brains of the person telling a story and listening to it can synchronize, says Uri Hasson from Princeton:

“When the woman spoke English, the volunteers understood her story, and their brains synchronized. When she had activity in her insula, an emotional brain region, the listeners did too. When her frontal cortex lit up, so did theirs. By simply telling a story, the woman could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains.”

Anything you’ve experienced, you can get others to experience the same. Or at least, get their brain areas that you’ve activated that way, active too.

Stories provide a window and a mirror into our lives and the lives of others. And, isn’t that what empathy is all about. Putting yourself in another person’s position and perspective.

Empathy: The Most Important 21st Century Skill

It’s 2019.

Communication is changing fast (my 10-yr old daughter and I just exchanged Snaps while I am in Minnesota and she is outside of Philadelphia in different time zones, with real-time interaction).

Collaboration has evolved to a point of instantaneous feedback loops (my colleague and I are on a shared Google Slide presentation changing and adding to slides for this week’s presentation in real-time, able to modify and go back to old versions if need be. We also shared this with someone who is going to be in the presentation to get their feedback on a teacher perspective.)

Critical Thinking has become a necessity in order to not only solve big problems, but everyday issues (we know teachers learn best from other teachers, but it is increasingly harder to get teachers into each other’s room due to sub shortages and other factors. We bought a 360 camera and are going to film to elementary teacher’s lessons this week in order to share with other staff while they watch using VR headsets to see the entire room as if they were in the classroom on a visit.)

Creativity is a part of our everyday lives. No longer reserved for the few, we must all be creative and innovative in order to do our daily work (with all of the great work currently happening in our school districts, I’m working with a small team to create an innovative and simple way to share out the stories of teaching and learning with our community!)

Yes, those bolded terms are what we commonly refer to as “21st Century Skills”, yet I’m fairly certain that these were always NEEDED skills.

Socrates was talking about these 21st century skills over 20 centuries ago.

The Socratic Method is a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presumptions.

We still use this method today, and it is still effective.

Regardless of what we call them, the 21st century skills represent a type of skill that is not traditionally connected to standards and skills our students are evaluated on. Even though we know these types of skills are imperative to success in the workplace, in relationships, and in life–they are still seen often as “nice to have” instead of “need to have” for our students.

21st Century Skills in 2017

Yet, I believe one big skill is missing from this list (and maybe many more). Seth Godin recently wrote an article, “Let’s Stop Calling Them Soft Skills“, in which he describes five categories of skills that we all look for in colleagues, employees, and students–yet, don’t seem to value over other content and standardized skills.

One of the skills he lists that I agree with is empathy.

Many confuse empathy (feeling with someone) with sympathy (feeling sorry for someone), and even researchers who study it have muddied the waters with many definitions. But the author of The Empathy Effect, Dr. Helen Riess does a good job of untangling that and explaining the many dimensions of empathy.

Empathy, she writes, involves an ability to perceive others’ feelings (and to recognize our own emotions), to imagine why someone might be feeling a certain way, and to have concern for their welfare. Once empathy is activated, compassionate action is the most logical response.

The question is, can we teach empathy?

Riess (who is an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, director of the Empathy and Relational Science Program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston) has done the research to show it can be taught: Our neural networks are set up to interact with the neural networks of others in order to both perceive and understand their emotions and to differentiate them from our own, which makes it possible for humans to live with one another without constantly fighting or feeling taken over by someone else.

Research has shown that empathy is not simply inborn, but can actually be taught. For example, it appears that medical training can actually diminish empathy, but on the other hand, physicians can be taught to be more empathic to their patients. Interestingly, their increased empathy also increases patient satisfaction and compliance with treatment recommendations. 

It seems the two most common ways to teach empathy are through modeling (being empathetic yourself and reflecting on what this looks like) and through stories (literature that mirrors our world).

Stories are often told in History and Language Arts classes, but are they used effectively? And are we ever thinking about teaching with stories in the STEM subjects? For example, John Spencer’s book, Wendell the World’s Worst Wizard, teaches “making” and “STEM” concepts through the story of a young wizard with no magical powers.

Think of all the ways our learners can grasp on to these concepts when they are tied together with a story.

I’d argue that one of the most innovative ways to teach may be to slow down and tell a story. Figuring out what story to tell, and how it connects, is the job of any great teacher.

If we want our students to impact the world around them, they’ll need some inspiration from the stories of those that have already changed the world.

Somehow I was never told to “teach with stories” when I was starting out as a teacher, even though that is one of the best ways in which I learn. However, “story-driven learning” may be one of the most underused and oldest methods of teaching and the most effective ways to teach empathy.

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  • T CS says:

    Great post. The impact of stories in developing empathy in students is something I tried to work on in the following project. We hold a Bullying Awareness Week in our school. I reached out to a professional writer of ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ games and hired her to collaborate with me on the project. The end result was a bespoke text-based adventure game in which the player experiences life at school as a robot in the distant future. Students playing the game get to choose how to interact with various characters in the school, which gives them some agency and affects the outcome of the story. The idea was to build empathy by putting the student in the position of an outsider or bystander to the bullying behaviour going on in the school. The player is also able to talk to characters in order to learn about their background stories (that may explain some of their behaviour) and develop empathy that way. If anyone is interested in checking out the game it is publicly available here: https://learning.netlify.com/mygame/index.html
    Bear in mind that the setting is specific to my school – an international school in South Korea.

  • […] is as I sat down to write I came across a professor’s blog, A.J. Juliani, entitled “Empathy: The Most Important 21st Century Skill”. In it, he talks about storytelling as the key to empathy. Hearing a story helps us to look at others […]

  • milstenw says:

    “Scientists have shown that high oxytocin levels lead us to donate more to charity, be more interested in people’s well-being, and have more respect for “others” who aren’t like us.”

    I’m looking for the original source of this quote. It appears all over the internet under a variety of altruism articles, but I can’t find the source nor the study. I’m interested in reading more about the “scientists” who “have shown” us that oxytocin levels leads to higher donations in charity. More information could lead to more donations. Couldn’t we manipulate oxytocin levels in givers?

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