Empathy. Listening Sessions. Imagining Learning.


In studying design-thinking in education, I have been seriously educated in the incredible importance of empathy. In embracing PBL, I have been humbled by the essential nature of empathy. Through such endeavors as “student for a day,” I have been reminded to practice empathy as a teacher. As an aspiring change agent for educational leadership and school transformation, I have been taught many lessons about empathy.


I’m embarrassed how little empathy I have shown to current students about possible changes and enhancements in schooling and education. Why haven’t I asked them more about what they think, feel, want, and desire? Am I too busy? Do I think I already know? Do I think “father knows best?” Why haven’t I asked…and listened?

On too many occasions to recall, I have read from Dan and Chip Heath’s book, Switch. The passage I gravitate to most is the chapter about Dr. Jerry Sternin, who was charged years ago to improve the nutrition issue in Vietnam. Does he swoop in and save the day with expert solutions? No, he asks the people of the villages what they do to care for their children – especially if the children are above average in health criteria. He trains a small army of ethnographers and interviewers to go into the villages and seek the wisdom and knowhow of the communal inhabitants. And, then, Dr. Sternin “merely” amplifies what the healthy-child mothers do to enhance the nutrition and wellness of their children.

I’ve read these pages, maybe, over 100 times to audiences, classes, faculties.

I can count on one hand (doesn’t even take me all the fingers of one hand) the number of times that I have emulated Dr. Sternin and asked a collective of students, “How would you design education to fulfill the needs of learners who are growing up in today’s world?”

That’s embarrassing.

I strive to be better than that.

Thanks to a former student of mine (from whom I learn more than she has probably learned from me), I have found Imagining Learning by way of a Cooperative Catalyst post by Charles Kouns.

Imagining Learning is an invitation to participate in a heart-centered exploration of the question, “How do we educate young people to thrive in a world of possibility?”

Our purpose is to work with individuals and communities to co-create a new education system for all children – a new seed if you will – that sees the healthy, internal world of a child as vital to the future of humanity and the planet. Our anchoring question also recognizes that our children’s ability to thrive is directly related to accessing possibility.  Possibility here means every child having access to opportunities for learning that are as diverse and dynamic as the world around them, and having access to inner capacities that enable them to activate these opportunities.

As the primary step, we have invited young people’s voices into the co-creating process.   We have designed a creative process we name Listening Sessions that give young people the opportunity to share, in a safe and nurturing environment, their aspirations and insights on education.  Listening Sessions are designed to tap into the inner wisdom that young people (ages 13 – 19) implicitly hold through a series of appreciative questions, sharing stories and collaborative painting.  The Listening Sessions are short (3 hours) and  allow us to repeat the process easily. We are currently conducting Listening Sessions with groups across America. The Listening Sessions are welcomed whole-heartedly by young people, who consistently express their gratitude for the opportunity to be heard.

– from http://www.imagininglearning.us/#!about/c2308, accessed 8-23-12

I hope you’ll find 5-10 minutes to explore the site. It’s beautiful in design and content, purpose and character. I hope you’ll spread the word and even consider hosting a Listening Session. I hope you’ll ask more students for their thoughts and ideas about schooling and education.

I know I need to. I plan to. Imagine what I could learn! It’s about learning.

I owe a huge debt to TS. Thanks for being my teacher and for reflecting back to me how to be a Dr. Sternin…how to listen…how to practice empathy.

10 thoughts on “Empathy. Listening Sessions. Imagining Learning.

  1. Pingback: Tara Subramaniam Inside a Listening Session | Student Voice

  2. Reblogged this on EduCoup and commented:
    I have a lot of respect for Bo Adams here as a teacher admitting to not having listened to his students as much as he could have. But he’s made up for it with this blog post for one, which shares some valuable insights and useful links.

  3. Kudos to you Bo. It takes guts to hold your hand up and say you could do better. As a student I’ve been guilty of not standing up for what I believe in enough, and I would’ve loved to have had a teacher who asked us what we thought. I’d love if you’d check out my blog at http://www.educoup.com and tell me what you think. Its focused on a grassroots revolution in education.

  4. Pingback: Inside a Listening Session « Life's about the Journey

  5. Pingback: What Students Actually Want in Their School « Cooperative Catalyst

  6. Pingback: “How do we educate young people to thrive in a world of possibility?” #ImaginingLearning #ListeningSession @Unboundary | it's about learning

  7. I had just finished highlighting my notes on Margaret Wheatley Leadership and New Science when this popped up. Of course she also sees the relationship, that we share, between the nature of empathy and the natural systems, which, by definition, fail if the residents of the system are not empathetic, even if they are competing for resources. I have had the same experience: it is so easy for me to emulate Sternin when I go to the Philippines and work with the villagers there, but difficult to feel that I am a good empath when on my own ground. Hmmm,

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