Empathy, key component in moral studies

Helping hands: Two boys clean up a classroom with their teachers after floods hit their school. It is this trait - their willingness to help - that reinforces the importance of good values. - File Photo

While schools aim for academic excellence, there is also a need to inculcate in students the values of patience and compassion.

MORAL Education has come a long way in Malaysia. Since Malaysia attained independence, much has been said about the subject.

In fact, recently, Moral Education came under scrutiny where many ‘higher order thinking skills’ (HOTS) questions were posed to students when they sat for their PT3 Moral Education paper. Candidates were not fully prepared for the HOTS questions.

There have been discussions and debates about the purpose of having Moral Education in our curriculum.

Many educationists, have said that Moral Education cannot be taught solely for examination purposes.

Moral Education or otherwise known as Values Education, Character Education, Ethics Education or Civics and Citizenship Education in other developed and developing countries, can be taught in an interesting and thought-provoking manner to develop the mindset of the students. However, are we focusing on just this (mindset) all the time?

Moral Education should also touch on the affective side that the educators seldom focus on. We may not be aware that moral emotions are crucial for one’s development and empathy is one major component.

There are various definitions of empathy. Various theorists and psychologists have suggested different definitions for empathy like Feshbach, who asserted that empathy has both cognitive and affective components.

An expert in Emotion, Nancy Eisenberg viewed empathy “as an affective response that stress from the apprehension or comprehension of another’s emotional state or condition and is similar to what the other person is feeling or would be expected to feel in the given situation”.

Motivating factor

Empathy as a component plays an important role in moral development as well as being a motivator for prosocial behaviour. Researchers have stated that people who deeply care for others and experience their empotions, are motivated to help other people.

According to famous theorists and psychologists, it is Hoffman’s theory of empathy that has the most extensive coverage on the development of the topic and care in humans.

He defined empathy as “an affective response more appropriate to another’s situation than one’s own”.

Hoffman stressed that empathy is multi- dimensional and there are five distinctly different modes of empathy arousal.

He focused on emphatic distress because prosocial moral action usually involves helping someone in discomfort, pain or some other type of distress.

He showed evidence that empathic distress is associated with helping.

Now, how can we turn this theory into practice? Before focusing on how teachers can teach empathy in the classrooms, we need to see why the topic is so relevant and important.

Reports on issues relating to adolescents involved in bullying, vandalising, stealing, assaulting and abandoning babies have made the news in recent times.

Lickona, a prominent figure in Values Education has raised concerns that young people are increasingly lacking in virtues and not as bothered about human development and character building.

That was written more than five decades ago and now youngsters encounter various issues day by day.

With these current problems, there is concern of whether youngsters are able to grow up into mature and responsible adults.

The present situation in the education system is focusing on high-stakes testing where global competence among students is inevitable.

The emotional aspect of students will definitely be overlooked and taken for granted.

Nel Noddings, an expert in Moral Education has voiced her opinion that excellent citizens who are polite, forgiving, respectful toward elders, and are kind, loving and able to understand the difficulties of other people need to be “churned out” by the schools. With violence, anti-social behaviour, bullying and aggression among young people escalating at a frightening rate, it is clear that schools need to “nurture’’ empathy among students.

Youth who do not understand others, or are incapable of feelings, will definitely not be citizens who are well balanced in terms of affective and spiritual manner as stipulated in the National Philosophy Of Education in this country.

It states that the goal of education is to produce individuals who are not only knowledgeable but able to manage their emotions wisely.

Therefore, developing empathy in youngsters is paramount to nation development.

The conduct of bullying, killing, cheating, stealing and robbing can be prevented if our youths are empathetic. According to William Damon, an expert in adolescence and early adulthood, a child’s moral sense which includes empathy, requires nurturing if he or she were to develop into a mature, responsible and caring adult.

Noddings too believed that one needs to educate a child holistically.

However, moral reasoning is still highly stressed today despite the fact the child has to be educated holistically.

Other researchers have stated that care-based emotions such as empathy which enhances one’s moral sensitivity should be looked into because of physiological and physical maturation taking place in adolescents.

However, moral cognitive still take centre stage compared to moral emotions.

In fact, scholars have voiced out that emotions as a dimension in moral education remains something as a “taboo” subject and lack recognition.

The same goes to the teachings in our schools here.

The National Philosophy of Education aims to produce Malaysian citizens who are knowledgeable and competent and who possess high moral standards.

Subjects such as Moral Education are incorporated in the national curriculum and covers three domains namely moral cognitive, moral affective and moral behaviour.

In terms of implementation, there is an emphasis on the domain of moral reasoning development (cognitive) but less on the domain of moral affective or moral emotions.

Studies have shown that the Malaysian system focuses strongly on the cognitive, rather than the affective domain.

Children need the right and ethical values to face adversities in our demanding world.

Without proper guidance, children may turn into aggressive or bullying adults. Therefore, empathy is one of the key components of moral emotions.

As children develop empathy, communication increases in several ways.

They anticipate the actions and reactions more accurately. Children with empathy are more trusting and tolerant of others.

Empathy encompasses compassion, understanding and consideration and this will even reduce behavioural problems among children.

Instilling the right behaviour among students where emotions are involved is not easy. Educators are aware of that. However, little stepsin making students aware of another person’s situation does help.

One approach in teaching empathy is through role-playingwhere students are allowed to play a part based on someone else’s perspective which in turn will facilitate empathic reactions in students.

Teachers can also organise problem-solving games, storytelling, group discussions, acting out words, phrases and stories for students to fully understand “empathy’.

For schools with deliquency problems, I would strongly recommend teachers to organise a programme which aims at teaching students empathy, responsibility and tolerance so that they will be able to function effectively in a culturally diverse society.

In such programmes, students can be exposed to lessons that stress eye contact, facial expressions, body posture and feelings.

For example, in a classroom activity, a student can choose a “feeling word” and act out non-verbally so that the class can guess the word.

The approaches mentioned above would not be of help without the role of a responsible, proactive and caring teacher.

A teacher’s role is fundamental in any school as students learn to socialise and interact with others through his or her teacher.

In classrooms, teachers set the pathways to make teaching and learning meaningful to students.

As the nation progresses, teachers need to impart meaningful values to their students for them to be caring citizens although the emphasis on academic excellence is just as important.

* The writer teaches Moral Education at a secondary school in the Klang Valley, She is passionate about the subject and believes that students must be guided at all times by positive values.

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