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Learning Empathy in the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Is Empathy a virtue, or a critical thinking skill?
Anu Bhatia, 22nd August 2018
Empathy and Art Observation:
Last week in the National Gallery of Art, an institution that allows individuals to make sense of art objects through their own subjective experiences, beliefs, and inclinations, I participated in a workshop that was focused on using the gallery experience to inculcate empathy among viewers. Given the times we’re living in, turbulent with fuzzy, conflicting definitions of identities and culture, & with our evolving understandings of human rights and the need to preserve the dignity of all, the overwhelmingly relevant topic (Teaching Empathy) was sure to spark thought and lead to a captivating discussion. And so it did. Now to begin with, what do we mean by Empathy?
1. The Oxford dictionary defines Empathy as ‘an ability to understand and share the feelings of others.’
2. In his book A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink defines empathy as the ability to imagine yourself in some else’s position and to intuit how that person is feeling. It’s the ability to stand in others’ shoes, to see with their eyes, and to feel with their hearts.’
3. According to studies conducted by Paul Ekman (2003), Empathy is an innate sense in most people, transcending culture. For most part, empathy emerges more as a feeling in the definitions above.
4. Howard Gardner (Frames of Mind) identifies Empathy as a fundamental part of an intelligence that, like other forms of intelligence, is strong in some individuals while weak in others, can be taught, practiced and developed. He builds on the definition by stating that skills like listening, noticing, and interpreting verbal and nonverbal cues are all key components of building relationships, and necessary skills in dealing empathically with those around us. Furthermore, Gardner incorporates ‘noticing and interpreting verbal and nonverbal cues,’ taking in its fold the role of museums and art learning activities. Because when people observe art, they use the nonverbal cues to make meaning and reach conclusions to satiate curiosity- the innate tendency in all humans that led to so many discoveries.
A Dialogue on Empathy Ensued:
As the workshop commenced, school docents along with the museum educator cobbled together some thoughts/ideas to highlight how docents model emphatic behaviors while engaging individuals in Art observation. ‘Being open minded in considering others’ (opposing) points of view’, ‘being flexible in adapting to new situations,’ ‘developing or shifting strategies to suit a diverse audience’, ‘being understanding or able to put oneself in another’s shoes’, and so forth were some of the fundamental skills that were uncovered to elucidate how empathic behaviors are encouraged during art learning experiences in museums.
But how exactly do these thoughts/ideas around developing empathy come into play in a museum session? In the following paragraph, I will provide a peep into a museum session, where a group of animated 3rd graders engage in art observation and critique, to illustrate how subtle yet fascinating is the outcome of guided art observation on children’s thinking behavior involving empathy.
Looking at Manet’s ‘Old Musician’:
To explore Manet’s The Old Musician, a 6 by 8-foot canvas painted with short, quick brush strokes depicting the heroism of “modern life,” a group of 3rd graders stood in a semi-circle around the painting, engaged in an exercise called guided looking. Emphasizing the importance of looking, the docent urged them in a softened tone to ‘slow down,’ ‘look carefully and closely,’ and ‘let your eyes travel through the entire canvas.’
“I see that children are wearing oversized clothes,” chimed a blue-eyed boy. “The girl on the left has no slippers,” “their clothes look dirty & worn,” “they look kind of sad,” “the background looks uninteresting…doesn’t look like it’s Paris,” “the painting is so big that we have to look up,” “the people look so real,” “If this is Paris, why aren’t there beautiful buildings shown?” flummoxed by the scene, a kid leaped forward to read the date on the painting.
Picking up on the tiny details that shape an artwork, the kids quipped and shared their observations (and inferences proceeding from those observations) without blenching; in doing so, they harnessed several aspects of cognition, like questioning/wondering, seeking evidence or fact finding, and so forth. These observations morphed into understandings through kids’ seeking answers to emerging questions while they looked and wondered, connecting to what they saw through their own curiosity. In the following paragraph, I will further reveal how looking at art helps kids connect to knowledge and develop empathy.
Looking to Connect in a Meaningful way:
“Hmm…’uninteresting background,’ what makes you say that?” the docent questioned to push their thinking further. Igniting their imaginations, she questioned, “What makes you say the children look sad,” or “why do you say the people look real,” cleverly nudging at their intellect as they grappled with the slew of thoughts and tried to look for a shred of evidence to justify their claim.
Puzzling over their initial observations, the kids wondered about contextual aspects to reach understandings to appease the curiosity generated. This kind of proactive query somewhat sustained their restlessness (and kept them engaged) to eventually culminate into new understandings, establishing a meaningful connection with what they witnessed, e.g., thinking about the time and place the art work was created, what conditions prevailed, and so forth. (They reached a point where it became imperative for the docent to share the historical background of the scene, thereby allaying their curiosity by providing contextual details like Paris being remodeled under Haussmann whose grand plans for the city had no room for these gypsies who were consequently rendered homeless and were real people that Manet used to see often around his studio).
Encouraging Curiosity and Reinforcing Responses:
“I have no special talents.” “I’m just passionately curious,” Einstein once wrote to a friend. Leonardo Da Vinci’s distinguishing and most inspiring trait was his curiosity. He wanted to know why people yawn, methods of squaring a circle, how light is processed in the eye and what that means for the perspective in a painting, and the list went on…
Triggering their curiosity, the docent prodded the kids to think of a question they might want to ask if any of the characters in the picture were to come alive. "I would like to ask if the boy on the right hand corner has a mom," replied Ron, the quietest child in the group, his voice softening into a whisper. "What makes you wonder whether he has a mom," intrigued by his response, the docent inquired. Wrinkling his brow and squinting to notice the details that might make his inference cogent, Ron replied, "because...umm...he looks like no one cares for him....he wears oversized clothes...and looks at no one." Ron and others in the group were becoming aware of opportunities to engage in patterns of intellectual behavior like being self-reflective, ask questions, and feel empathy. And that's no small a feat!
Repeating children’s responses (e.g., “hmm…‘uninteresting background,’ what makes you say that?”) sends a clear message that their thinking is valued and facilitates their re-visiting, reflecting, and reinforcing the ideas generated in the discussion. Because the questions are open-ended, there’s no looming threat of answers being shot down; so, children freely share their responses and become flexible to revisit their stand in the absence of evidence to make their inference plausible.
In a nutshell, through inquiry and engagement in this ‘guided looking’ exercise, children became aware of their thinking and an undertow of feelings, their own curiosity scaffolding them to dig deeper and explore the contextual aspects to make sense of their feelings and inference about the scene. The observations and subsequent inferences started morphing into some contextual questions they were getting at, i.e., What was happening in France at the time the painting was made?
Developing Empathy through Curiosity/inquiry
‘Leonardo’s greatest skill was his acute ability to observe things. This talent empowered his curiosity.’
The characters in the Old Musician were no longer distant, but were as if becoming alive in children’s mind through the curiosity generated and feelings involved during the guided looking exercise. In addition to having agreed upon that it appeared to be a sad scene, the kids fearlessly went on to further probe because the activity allowed that flexibility where answers weren’t shot down and multiple perspectives encouraged, their goal extending beyond receiving a consensus to satisfying their own curiosity.
Hands-on learning experiences like art observation engage individuals’ deeper faculties and emotions through a self-generated inquiry arising out of an involvement with the subject as they begin to discover their own feelings while responding to questions, thereby establishing a connection with knowledge in a meaningful way. By incorporating their emotions and inner faculties, e.g., self-generated reasoning and meaning making, seeking evidence, hypothesizing, and so forth, museum education generates empathy by sparking imagination when individuals observe, inquire and infer, thereby establishing a personal connection with what they see. The looking was engaging children in a way such that their feelings were coming into play, valued, and reflected upon.
Contrary to the ‘slowing down’ in art observation, schools are too frenzied with syllabus and exams, where students are knocked over from one class to another in a rush that zaps their creativity, and thinking stifled with haste. For instance, when they “learn” historical facts, they merely use their memory to store those facts without having any meaningful connection to what they learn. Now they cannot go back into that past and live it, nor can they experiment in labs like they do for the physical sciences, however, through observation, inquiry, and intellectual reasoning during museum sessions, they make meaningful connections to what they learn. Will this kind of learning lead to students’ application of historical facts in the present world they live in? If yes, how will it promote deeper insight into the present-day challenges?
Power of the Arts to Transform:
Empathy is a feeling that is generated when individuals step into others’ shoes, envision or visualize their condition, and understand multiple perspectives instead of feeling challenged by opposing viewpoints. Empathy may appear to be a virtue but delving into the layers reveals it as more of a critical thinking skill through its’ involving thinking behaviors like being curious, envisioning, understanding multiple perspectives, and so forth. More importantly, it needs to be developed and nurtured if we intend to better address issues of the modern world. Gardner, H. in his blog quips about the education system refraining from taking on the role of public welfare and limiting itself to personal welfare.
If we don’t meld or prioritize in Education’s agenda these most basic thinking skills, we will ruefully witness the world to continue to divide despite the shrinking physical barriers. These shrinking barriers underscore the pressing need to develop empathy and recognize Multiple Perspectives as we are more likely to be interacting with people of varying cultures on a daily basis- in museums while taking visitors around to have them experience works of art if you’re an educator, in classrooms if you’re a teacher, in offices, and through myriad other ways including social media.
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