Empathy and creativity are two distinct cognitive functions that have been shown to be interconnected. Empathy refers to the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, while creativity is the ability to generate novel and valuable ideas.
According to new research, teaching children in a way that encourages them to empathize with others improves their creativity and may lead to a variety of other beneficial learning outcomes.
The findings are the result of a year-long University of Cambridge study with year 9 Design and Technology (D&T) students (ages 13 to 14) from two inner London schools. Pupils at one school spent the year following curriculum-required lessons, whereas students at the other school used a set of engineering design thinking tools to foster students’ ability to think creatively and empathically while solving real-world problems.
The Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, a well-established psychometric test, was used to assess creativity in both groups of students at the beginning and end of the school year.
Teaching for empathy has been problematic despite being part of the D&T National Curriculum for over two decades. This evidence suggests that it is a missing link in the creative process, and vital if we want education to encourage the designers and engineers of tomorrow.Bill Nicholl
The findings revealed a statistically significant increase in creativity among students at the intervention school that used the thinking tools. At the start of the year, students in the control school, which followed the standard curriculum, had 11% higher creativity scores than those in the intervention school. However, by the end, the situation had completely changed: the intervention group’s creativity scores were 78% higher than the control group’s.
The researchers also examined specific categories within the Torrance Test that are indicative of emotional or cognitive empathy: such as ’emotional expressiveness’ and ‘open-mindedness’. Pupils from the intervention school performed significantly better in these categories, indicating that a significant improvement in empathy was driving overall creativity scores.
According to the study’s authors, encouraging empathy not only improves creativity but can also deepen students’ overall engagement with learning. Notably, they discovered evidence that both boys and girls in the intervention school responded to the D&T course in ways that defied gender stereotypes. Boys improved significantly in emotional expression, scoring 64% higher at the end of the year than at the beginning, while girls improved more in cognitive empathy, showing 62% more perspective-taking.
The research is part of a long-term collaboration between the Faculty of Education and the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge called ‘Designing Our Tomorrow’ (DOT), led by Bill Nicholl and Ian Hosking. It challenges pupils to solve real-world problems by thinking about the perspectives and feelings of others.
The study’s specific challenge asked students at the intervention school to create an asthma-treatment ‘pack’ for children aged six and under. Pupils were given a variety of creative and empathetic ‘tools’ to help them do so, such as data on the number of childhood asthma fatalities in the UK and a video depicting a young child having an attack. They also investigated the issue and tested their design concepts by acting as patients, family members, and medical personnel.
Nicholl, Senior Lecturer in Design and Technology Education, who trains teachers studying on the University’s D&T PGCE course, said: “Teaching for empathy has been problematic despite being part of the D&T National Curriculum for over two decades. This evidence suggests that it is a missing link in the creative process, and vital if we want education to encourage the designers and engineers of tomorrow.”
Dr Helen Demetriou, an affiliated lecturer in psychology and education at the Faculty of Education with a special interest in empathy and the study’s other researcher, stated: “We clearly awoke something in these students when we encouraged them to consider the thoughts and feelings of others. The research shows that not only is it possible to teach empathy, but that doing so promotes the development of children’s creativity as well as their overall learning.”
The gender differences charted in the study indicate that the intervention enabled students to overcome some of the learning barriers that assumed gender roles frequently create. For example, boys are frequently discouraged from expressing emotion at school, despite the fact that this was one of the main areas where they made significant creative gains, according to the tests.
In addition to the Torrance Tests, the researchers conducted in-depth interviews with students at both the intervention school and a third (girls-only) school that also participated in the asthma challenge. This feedback suggested that students empathized deeply with the challenges faced by young asthma sufferers, and that this had influenced their creative decisions in the classroom.
When discussing patients and their families, many used phrases like “stepping into their shoes” or “seeing things from another perspective.” “I think by the end of the project, I could feel for the people with asthma… if I was a child taking inhalers, I would be scared too,” one boy told the researchers.
Another person responded: “Assume you have a sister or brother in that position. I’d like to do something similar so that we can assist them.”
Overall, the authors argue that these findings point to the need to cultivate ’emotionally intelligent learners’ not only in D&T classes, but across subjects, especially in light of emerging, broader scientific evidence that our capacity for empathy declines with age.