Monthly Archives: April 2018


Source: Michel Bednarek,

Before the excitement starts to settle and give way to culminating task immersion, marking and reporting, I am taking a moment to distill the mess of ideas buzzing around my mind after my year as a Cohort 21 participant.  These conversations began at the final F2F last Friday, but as I have discovered about myself this year; I am a slow thinker, I like to mull.  On my bike into and home from school this week (which is where most of my good mulling occurs),  I had so many more thoughts about the experience; in an effort to invest more time in documenting & acting on my professional growth I'm going to share them here:

  • Finding your voice.  We often talked about the value of 'finding your voice'; both students' and teachers'.  The skill of story telling emerges in design thinking, PBL (project based learning) and effective instruction.  In talking to my own children's teachers this year, I had the good fortune to have insight into how this evolves from an elementary teacher's perspective.  As I reflect on my own journey, I feel that somewhere along the path I have lost a bit of my own voice; and I see it happening to my students in their ability to confidently express their own opinions in a big-data world.  I would like to work on this both personally and professionally as a way of enhancing 'creative confidence'.  From what has become a much-used reference guide; Tom & David Kelley's 'Creative Confidence':

"If the scribbling, singing, dancing kindergartner symbolizes unfettered creative expression, the  awkward teenager represents the opposite: someone who cares—deeply—about what other people think. It takes only a few years to develop that fear of judgment, but it stays with us throughout our adult lives, often constraining our careers."

Two steps I intend to take are to register for IDEO U's online course in Storytelling for Influence  and also to register with a local neighbourhood technology & design school 'The Cube'  for a workshop on how to improve my WordPress blog.   Blogging may also become something I work into my students process. The idea of a '20%' project that continues throughout the year in my MYP Geography class and ends as the culminating task is something that @mbrims and I talked about at the final F2F and I think blogging could be a great way of enhancing student voice.

  • The power of active listening.  I learned so much about this from watching my incredibly talented facilitator @ddoucet as he listened actively to each member of our team as we shared ideas, successes and failures; he always picked up on the positive and then reflected that back with encouragement and ideas for building on and pushing our learning. This served as excellent modelling of the value of PLCs (Professional Learning Communities).  In the final F2F, Cohort alumni @MrsGanley emphasized the value of connection in PLCs like Cohort21 with this quote from Brene Brown:

“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship."

  • Leading from the middle.  I had never heard this phrase before Cohort21; @adamcaplan brilliantly facilitated a conversation at the final F2F highlighting the importance of shifting teachers' mindset from "my" students to "our" students. From this perspective, teachers are multifaceted leaders taking intentional steps to bring everyone forward together.  This article summarized this mindset beautifully:


  • Diversity of Thought & the Innovation Agenda.  In the final weeks of Cohort21 Season 6, the 'next steps' on my learning journey have become more clear.  Prior to starting Cohort, I was unsure if it was aimed at a humanities educator like me.  I felt somewhat ill-equipped to be part of such an 'innovative' conversation.  What I now recognize, is that the future of education requires diversity of thought.  Two talented students at my school just organized a panel discussion last night focussing on 'AI: The future or now?"  I was encouraged to hear from a panel that was both gender diverse and discipline diverse; the recognition that the humanities have a vital role to play in the evolution of education from an ethical, moral, thinking and questioning perspective gives me a fresh take on my purpose in the classroom.  Going forward, my professional goals for the 2018-2019 school year will include participating in conversations around our school's innovation agenda; I would like to determine and work on areas of intersection with the humanities.


The phrase 'the end of the beginning' resonates as I sit down to gather my 'placemats', notes, piles of reading, and thoughts on this incredible Cohort experience.  It is hard to know where to begin because of this nagging feeling …"but I'm not DONE yet !!!!!" I understand of course, that I will never be done.  In an article that @gnichols shared with me, George Couros, in discussing the shift in education from product to process laments (paraphrased) "when the pace of change is so fast, the only way to retain a lifelong working capacity is to engage in lifelong learning. "   I am still in that 'Spaghetti Junction' that I spoke about in my first post back in the fall… I have pursued a few 'noodles', but ultimately, exploring my original idea led to new ideas, and the conversations with Cohort members and strategy leaders at our school led me in new directions.

 For me, this has been a year of process work.  I do not have a final product, and because there has been no pressure to do so, I was able to think  more deeply about where I will go with what I have learned.

The Cohort approach to personalized learning through deep design process work and connection with others has also highlighted for me the type of learner I am;  I am not comfortable jumping into action without an enormous amount of knowledge and understanding behind me. In a quick skim of 'Empower' by AJ Juliani and John Spencer (2017) I strongly identified with their visual of the necessity of critical consumption that leads to inspiration and creative/innovative work.

Juliani & Spencer, 2017

Thus, developing a culture of empathy became a deeper dive than I anticipated at the outset.  This realization started from the beginning when I set out to determine a suitable definition of empathy.  In the social sciences (my background discipline), it is often referred to as 'compassionate empathy', which moves a person to respond to another's emotional state with some kind of action, as compared with 'cognitive empathy', also known as perspective taking, which is simply understanding another person's mental state." (Ugolik, 2017)


For my initial question,  'How might we integrate empathy into the curriculum to encourage action? ' I incorporated the former definition as it  was the most relevant to what I was trying to accomplish.  Our school strategy incorporates innovation as a key component and as I am trying to become more proficient with the use of technology in the classroom, I decided to investigate the use of Virtual Reality (VR)  in integrating empathy into the curriculum.

My students viewing Clouds Over Sidra with Google Cardboard

At the outset, I had a couple of ideas for what I hoped would be positive outcomes.  As a parent and a teacher, I had been reading about the concerns around youth and excessive use of technology correlating with the decline in social connections.  I felt that perhaps we could take these same tools that are responsible for students looking inward, and flip the outcome to use them so that students might look more outward.  Part of the core of the IB diploma program, CAS (Creativity, Action, Service) is woven into the curriculum.  I took this opportunity to pose the following question:  How can VR build empathy and encourage action?  

After showing the documentary, many of the girls quickly identified their prior perceptions of refugees as stereotypes; many of the people living in Za’atari fled white collar jobs, middle/upper class homes and their country, Syria was once stable and considered to be a middle income country.  My students were mesmerized by the power of the VR experience to draw them into the scene – the middle of the world’s largest refugee camp, Za’atari in Jordan.  The film tours the camp through the eyes of a 12 year old girl. One student commented:

"At times it’s as if people are pointing at you, talking to you, looking at you straight in the eye – expecting you to engage, to say or do something … but you can’t. "  

Chris Milk, an American entrepreneur, innovator and presenter of the widely viewed TED Talk where he characterizes the use of VR as an  'empathy machine' describes the power of using VR  this way: "What we care about are the people who are local to us, and virtual reality can take anyone in any place and make them feel local to you." (Milk, 2015)

In terms of outcomes, the experience was able to build ‘cognitive empathy’ rather than ‘compassionate empathy’ as I had hoped.  The students saw many of the quiet aspects of their day to day lives reflected in the youth of the film.  The children go to school, have aspirations to join a profession, worry about fitting in, struggle to understand the opposite gender, play sports & prioritize a family meal at the end of the day. They were surprised to see that community could exist in such dire circumstances.  They were able to make the connection that really, anyone could become a refugee, that the designation is indiscriminate.  Through seeing the commonalities in their shared experiences with the youth in the film they were able to empathize - to an extent, with the youth. In this way, I felt I had had some success. After reading @gnichols response to my blog post where he articulated the evolution of ‘technology-integration’ to ‘innovative teaching and learning’ I recognized why. The notion that innovative teaching and learning should keep the focus on the type of learning you want to happen (in this case I wanted my students to identify with the students in the video) and apply the relevant technology later rather than focussing on the tool you want to use. “Learning should always lead the conversation.”  

The piece that did not emerge, as I had anticipated, was the opportunity to develop a CAS project (action) as a result of seeing the film. Though we discussed opportunities for action within our local community, the bit that is missing for me as an educator is 'what comes after the VR experience'?  Unicef and other organizations have had positive results from the use of VR for fundraising, but they comment that it can be improved as a tool for action as the technology improves and incorporates artificial intelligence in order to leverage collaboration among diverse stakeholders. One Unicef representative puts it this way: "Then we can design activities that are really out there to ask people to use their brains and use their hands and their capacity to help us solve certain problems.  That's a very different thing than just saying, 'Hey, give money, this thing is really sad.'" (Watercutter, 2016)

Using VR as an 'empathy machine' has its detractors too.  For one, empathy is inherently biased; we must imagine that if empathy is employed through VR as a tool for pursuasion, then the emotion could be exploited for all sides of an argument.  In addition, if VR films are made to appeal to certain audiences by others like the audience members then the experiences run the risk of using a new medium to reinforce old forms of bigotry. Ethan Shaftel, creator of the Tribeca VR film Extravaganza believes that “VR is an immersion machine.  It can and does transport you. But in many ways, you bring your ‘you-ness’ with you.”  (Robertson, 2017)

Again, this idea put forth by 'The Innovators Mindset' author George Couros, that content knowledge is crucial in a time of innovation.  I would add that in addition to knowledge and context, training in SEL (social emotional learning) competencies would add value in achieving ‘compassionate empathy’.


 After a productive Google hangout with @Ddoucet and @lmustard, I started to realize that I didn't want to limit my investigation of empathy only to how we might leverage tech to integrate empathy into the curriculum.  The design thinking process was something investigated as a professional goal last year and wanted to learn more about this year. My action plan morphed a little here to encompass curriculum design structures / teaching strategies as a way of integrating empathy into the curriculum.

 There are two assessments I am creating / revising this year which incorporate the design thinking process into a summative design challenge. My Geography Diploma 1 (Grade 11) teaching partner and I are thrilled to be partnering with Maximum City not-for-profit working with schools, governments and communities to learn and live in better cities.  Our design challenge will involve students working in design teams to create their vision of a sustainable urban future for Toronto in 2050.   The challenge question for students will be  - what information do you need to know about city dwellers in 2050?  What will their needs be?  This will require the application of foresight to empathy, which is another whole area of interest to me.  This process will begin with an empathy mapping exercise on May 9th of this year.  

Last year, I created a design challenge (in partnership with  Maximum City) for my Grade 10 Geography students around the question: How might we design a more accessible transit system in Toronto?  What I learned from the experience was that I hadn't tested my assumptions quite thoroughly enough! I assumed that all students would be familiar with the TTC as regular riders.  I recognized immediately that this was not the case. As such, I am adjusting the beginning phase of the project to include a more structured empathy mapping exercise following a 'day out on the TTC'.  I hope to have students identify areas of need around the city and then go and 'ride the rocket' in these areas so that they might more critically empathize with issues of accessibility facing TTC riders.

Grade 10 Students: How might we design a more accessible transit system in Toronto?


Next, I took part in a few conversations involving our school strategy in the areas of well-being, international mindedness and innovation.  I started to notice that empathy seemed to be a key point of intersection. At this point, my interest crossed the zone of being something that was relevant in the classroom context to something more relevant to whole school culture. These conversations have been even more interesting for me because in exploring the Strategic Plan links I had the chance to speak to our IT Director, Head of Talent Management & Strategy & the Director of our Chandaria Research Centre. I found a multiple perspective conversation on this topic to be an excellent lens through which to view the intersections of strategy with the development of a "culture of empathy".  

It seems to me that our core strategic directions of academics and research are informed by the direction we take on wellbeing, international mindedness and innovation.  These priorities cannot exist in silos and, from my initial conversations with colleagues, affirms that empathy is more than a simple connector, it is the subterranean roots that hold our strategy together.  It is the thread throughout these priorities that reinforces our mission:  "Each day, we challenge and inspire girls to love learning and to shape a better world."

My third pivot was directed at strategy; how might we harness the power of our strategic plan to integrate empathy into our school culture?  This is the point at which I changed the wording of my action plan (visible in my slide deck) to "How might we integrate empathy into school culture to encourage action?"


Whether we approach the integration of empathy through technology, curriculum design, teaching strategies or strategic plans, it is clear to me that as The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley notes  "as children master their own emotions and understand the perspectives of others, they will also be able to control, develop, connect and motivate themselves more effectively."  Establishing a culture of empathy then, is likely to achieve the nurturing and development of positive institutional relationships, without which project based learning and collaboration exercises that rely on students' ability to empathize  and care about their learning are less likely to succeed.  In terms of the development of 21st century skills, the importance of fostering this 'soft skill' cannot be overemphasized.


  • I plan to pursue involvement in strategic plan discussions in the areas of innovation and international mindedness
  • In preliminary discussions with my Instructional Leader I am planning to lead a discussion within my  department around how we might harness compassionate empathy and profile our curricular and co-curricular offerings as necessary complements to STEM education and the innovation agenda.
  • I am going to miss the F2F sessions so much that I propose to get the ball rolling on a bi-monthy Cohort Alumni Pub night to keep the conversations going, stay tuned!

This has been the best PD that I have ever engaged in.  I really want to thank all the leaders, coaches, mentors and my peers for your hard work, insight, positivity, support and most of all for creating a space to evolve my practice in a way that was unique and incredibly meaningful for me. My gratitude to you all.

“When you want to hurry something, that means you no longer care about it and want to get on to other things. I just want to get at it slowly, but carefully and thoroughly…”


Works Cited

Clouds Over Sidra.  Dir. Gabo Arora and Barry Pousman.  VRSE, 2015. YouTube. Web. 10                           September 2017.

“Educating for Empathy.” Greater Good Magazine. UC Berkeley, 18 July 2012.  Web. 10 January                2018.

Ugolik, Kaitlin.  “How virtual reality can make people more empathetic.” Narratively, 19                            November 2017. Web. 10 Jan. 2018.    

Juliani, A.J. & Spencer, John.  Empower. Canterbury: IMpress, 2017. Print

Milk, Chris. “How virtual reality can create the ultimate empathy machine.” TED. 22 April 2015.               Lecture.

Robertson, Adi. "VR was sold as an empathy machine - but some artists are getting sick of it."                The Verge, 03 May 2017. Web. 10 January 2018

Watercutter, Angela. “VR films work great for charity, what about changing minds?” WIRED, 03                  January 2016. Web. 10 January  2018