Empathy: A New Proposition for ‘What Works’

Authors: Dr Priya Goel, Assistant Professor, The University of Hong Kong
Rubén Antonio Sánchez Hernández, Doctoral Candidate, The University of Hong Kong
Professor Charlene Tan, Professor, The University of Hong Kong

The confluence of multiple COVID-19, racism, economic, and climate pandemics (Ladson-Billings, 2021) have further deepened educational inequality. In Hong Kong, this is most evident among South and Southeast Asian students. With the poorest educational outcomes in compulsory and postsecondary education and in society, these students are typically segregated into Hong Kong’s lowest “banding” (i.e., lowest performing and least resourced) schools with less experienced teachers, poorer curricular quality, and less rigor (Bhowmik et al., 2018; Chee, 2013). These groups hold most of Hong Kong’s low-skilled jobs, which typically do not require professional or associate degrees.

Scholars and practitioners who seek to transform the educational opportunities and outcomes of Hong Kong’s most disadvantaged students can turn to the strong foundation of literature for guidance. Studies of school reform (Elmore & Burney, 1997), school effectiveness (Scheerens, 2005), and community schools (Oakes et al., 2017) offer empirical knowledge on ‘what works’ in school improvement. However, in the post-COVID climate, scholars need to support policy actors and school leaders with school improvement approaches that are squarely aimed at transforming culture, climate, and relationships. Recent education leadership scholarship has generated valuable tools toward this aim. Anti-racist (Diem & Welton, 2021), culturally responsive (Khalifa, 2020), and sympathetic leadership (Liou & Liang, 2021) frameworks offer principles and techniques to support the transformation of school cultures and communities. We propose that empathy is central to and can provide a pathway upon which policy actors and leaders enact these techniques.

What is Confucian Empathy, and How May it Work?

Confucian shu, or empathy, is composed of affective, cognitive, and moral dimensions. Empathy is defined by the phrase “what you do not wish yourself do not do unto others” (Analects 4.15). From a Confucian view of empathy, one demonstrates genuine concern by practicing the “ability to draw analogies from what is near at hand” (Analects 6:30). In other words, one must take one’s thoughts, emotions, and actions as reference to understand and caring for others. Confucina empathy is also fundamentally related to other Confucian principles. Well established, authentic empathy is expressed through li, which translates literally to “take a stand” (Ivanhoe, 1990), and it grows from one’s adherence to ren or “true goodness.” Overall, shu generates altruistic behavior through shared feelings that seeks to alleviate others’ suffering.

Confucian empathy can help create better school environments for disadvantaged students in Hong Kong. It can be the principle through which culturally responsive leadership and teaching are cultivated. Empathy can help teachers and leaders develop mindsets that all the students and families they serve possess ren, or true goodness. This would lead educators to see diversity as an asset and to prioritize respect and care of the students, families, and communities whom they serve (Johnson, 2014; Finlay & Stephan, 2000; Khalifa, 2013). A foundation of empathy would help achieve several goals that are empirically founded in culturally responsive leadership. For example, empathetic concern are likely to generate, over time, a collective consciousness about disadvantaged students’ communities. And over time, this is likely to lead to improvements in policy and practice. Furthermore, empathy would ensure educators “take a stand” toward including minoritized students in school life, celebrating students’ cultures and identities.

Educators must create the conditions to demonstrate moral empathy students and families who have been historically disengaged from Hong Kong schools (Loper, 2004). If leaders are to show true empathetic concern, then they must be willing to challenge their own bias and those of others’ as well as engaging in meaningful relationships with students and their families from diverse backgrounds (Khalifa et al., 2020). The establishment of meaningful relationships has the potential to empower communities and their well-being in the long term (Johnson, 2014).

Empathy – A Crucial Piece in School Transformation

Our view of Confucian empathy is meant to support a comprehensive, research-guided reimagination of school culture and school-student-family-community relations. Thus, rather than a silver bullet, we urge scholars to integrate a Confucian view of empathy into a broader school transformation approach that is relevant and responsive to the local context. Upholding empathy as a virtue is important in educational contexts with long-term equity goals (Tan & La Londe, 2023). As we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, education scholars have the responsibility and opportunity to build on longstanding empirical evidence of ‘what works’ with approaches that focus squarely on community, culture, and identity. Doing so will equip policy actors and practitioners with the philosophies and practical tools to support equity and excellence, particularly for our most vulnerable students and communities.

References and Resources

Bhowmik, M. K., Kennedy, K. J., & Hue, M.-T. (2018). Education for all–but not Hong Kong’s ethnic minority students. Race Ethnicity and Education, 21(5), 661–679.

Chee, W. (2013). The making and unmaking of “ideal immigrant students”: Working-class South Asian teenagers in Hong Kong. In Refugees, Immigrants, and Education in the Global South (pp. 223–237). Routledge.

Diem, S., & Welton, A. D. (2020). Anti-Racist educational leadership and policy: Addressing racism in public education. Routledge.

Elmore, R., & Burney, D. (1997). School variation and systemic instructional improvement in Community School District #2, New York City. Pittsburgh, PA: High Performance Learning Communities Project, Learning Research and Development Center, University of Pittsburgh.

Finlay, K. A., & Stephan, W. G. (2000). Improving intergroup relations: The effects of empathy on racial attitudes. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 30(8), 1720-1737.

Goel, Tan, Sánchez Hernández. Under review.

Ivanhoe, P. J. (1990). Ethics in the Confucian tradition, Hackett Publishing.

Johnson, L. (2014). Culturally responsive leadership for community empowerment. Multicultural Education Review, 6(2), 145–170. doi:  10.1080/2005615X.2014.11102915.

Khalifa, M. (2020). Culturally Responsive School Leadership. Harvard Education Press.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2021). I’m here for the hard re-set: Post pandemic pedagogy to preserve our culture. Equity & Excellence in Education, 54(1), 68–78. https://doi.org/10.1080/10665684.2020.1863883
Lau, D. C. (1997). Confucius: The Analects. Chinese University Press.

Liou, D. D., & Liang, J. (2021). Toward a theory of sympathetic leadership: Asian American school administrators’ expectations for justice and excellence. Educational Administration Quarterly, 57(3), 403-436. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013161X20941915

Scheerens, J. (2005). The school effectiveness knowledge base as a guide for school improvement. In The Practice and Theory of School Improvement: International Handbook of Educational Change (pp. 62-81). Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.

Oakes, J., Maier, A., & Daniel, J. (2017). Community Schools: An Evidence-Based Strategy for Equitable School Improvement. National Education Policy Center. http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/equitable-community-schools

Tan, C., & La Londe, P. G. (2023). Empathy as a virtue: a Confucian interpretation and a tool to address anti-Asian hate crime. Critical Studies in Education, 1-19.

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