Empatico by the numbers graph
Empatico Blog | April 19, 2019

Stories and studies: How Empatico is measuring the effects of virtual exchanges

By Noah Garcia-Hassell and Chelsea Donaldson

“People ask me all the time how I build empathy in the classroom. The answer is one day at a time, one experience at a time, with great intention, focus and practice.” – Wendy Turner, 2nd Grade Teacher

In July 2018, eight months after Empatico launched, we hit an important milestone: 1,000 educators in the Empatico community. In retrospect, the milestone seems small compared to the current community of 15,000+ educators (and growing rapidly), but this initial group of 1,000 educators symbolizes something much more inspiring than just a number. They represent a growing and passionate movement of educators who are committed to improving the lives of their young students through social-emotional learning and experiences that enable them to see and be a part of the world in new ways. Empatico was founded to foster more kindness, empathy, and humanity  in the world. This mission is brought to life by educators across the globe, and gaining momentum because of their unwavering vision and leadership.

“We must teach children that they are part of a collective humanity first. We must help them to see value in all people and appreciate differences as learning opportunities rather than for fear and division.” – Mike Soskil, 5th Grade Teacher

As Empatico’s community grows, so too has the opportunity to learn from the experiences of educators, students, and the hundreds of successful exchanges between classrooms. The goal of Empatico is to provide educators with a suite of resources that spark empathy among students and lead to measurable gains in social-emotional learning. Now, thanks to the work of so many Empatico educators, we are able to start capturing moments of empathy, and measuring the impact of those moments for students and teachers.

What do moments of empathy look and sound like among students and teachers?

Meet two Empatico educators: Wendy Turner and Oluwaseun Kayode. Wendy teaches 2nd grade students in Delaware, U.S. and Oluwaseun teaches 4th grade students in Ota, Nigeria. They have been connecting their classrooms on Empatico since September 2018. The bond between Wendy’s and Oluwaseun’s students is undeniable. Their connection has taken them and their students on a heartwarming journey of curiosity, discovery, mutual appreciation, and gratitude. Oluwaseun’s students have taught Wendy’s students traditional Nigerian dances. After reading an article from ReadWorks on breakfast around the world, Wendy’s students were inspired to learn more about akara, a West African dish made of beans that have been mashed and deep-fried. Together, she and her students looked up a recipe, and, that night, Wendy prepared the dish and brought it to her class the next day. Wendy’s students have taught Oluwaseun’s class new dances moves as well, and shared their pre-winter break traditions. They’ve also had discussions about everything from Nigerian elections and presidents, to plastic pollution in the U.S., which has allowed their students to develop a global perspective and cognitive understanding of what life is like in other places. These illuminating conversations — combined with the fun they have playing, laughing, and dancing together — fuel their curiosity to learn even more about each other and other parts of the world.

Experiencing these meaningful connections enables students to strengthen their cross-cultural empathy skills. By developing a personal, meaningful relationship with peers living across the globe, students are able to practice perspective taking and put themselves in each other’s shoes. They are able to foster a deeper appreciation for the differences in their peers, but also recognize that they are much more similar than they initially perceived. Wendy and Oluwaseun have forged an inspiring friendship as well. Their partnership shows the immense impact that intentional learning through virtual exchanges can have on both students and educators.

Our goal as an organization is to provide students with meaningful and measurable social-emotional learning opportunities that will have a positive impact on their relationships and on their lives in general, just as Wendy and Oluwaseun have done for their students. Check out Wendy Turner’s Teacher2Teacher blog post, 3 Creative Ways to Build Empathy in the Classroom, for a deeper look into Wendy’s and Oluwaseun’s story, and to learn more about their collaborative work to bring more social-emotional learning to their classrooms.

Are these moments of empathy having a real, meaningful impact?

Wendy’s and Oluwaseun’s connection is truly special, and we witness many similarly empowering connections between Empatico classrooms. But how do we know these moments are having a real, meaningful impact on students? Empatico is now trying to answer that question. In early 2018, we conducted our first pilot study involving 303 students across the U.S. to begin exploring how virtual exchanges might affect student empathy. Twenty primary school teachers from the National Network of Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY), as part of the NNSTOY/Empatico fellowship, connected their classrooms using Empatico. Each teacher administered pre- and post-test surveys to their students.

The survey questions consisted mostly of adapted and age-appropriate questions from various validated questionnaires that aimed to measure empathy, attitudes and perceptions of peers from other states and countries, and knowledge of different places.

Sample student pre- and post-test survey question

After completing at least two exchanges with their partner classroom, the results revealed an increase in measures of: student empathy and perspective taking, positive perceptions of peers from their partner class’s location, knowledge of their partner class’s location, interest in meeting new peers from other places, and stronger perceived similarities with peers from other places.

While the initial results are promising, we wanted to ensure that these findings realistically and reliably captured the true potential impact of virtual exchange on social-emotional learning. So, in July 2018, we teamed up with Stanford University researchers to conduct an even larger, more rigorous quasi-experimental evaluation study. So far,  more than 3,800 students around the world have participated. This new study will enable us to know whether or not connecting with others around the world can truly increase student empathy.

Though we are still in the early stages of collecting data, our preliminary analyses have found encouraging and statistically significant results. We are tremendously excited to share the full results with the broader educator community in mid 2019. Can Empatico exchanges measurably increase empathy and improve perceptions among students and educators from various backgrounds and cultures around the world? Stay tuned!