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Learning Library Blog You can't teach empathy — but project-based learning can!
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You can't teach empathy — but project-based learning can!

By Nicole Krueger
December 28, 2019
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Listening to teen journalists pitch story ideas for their daily school newscast, journalism adviser Michael Hernandez noticed a frustrating trend. Students were coming up with unoriginal ideas that missed the real story, often overlooking the perspectives of people less fortunate than themselves.

So he took them to Cambodia.

During their 10-day trip, students visited Buddhist temples, bargained in the local bazaar and visited a mass gravesite. They made documentaries about the Southeast Asian sex trade and how landmines affect civilians. And when they returned home, they started telling news stories through the lens of a broader and more empathetic worldview.

Since then, the award-winning cinema and journalism teacher has taken his high school students to Cuba and Vietnam, helping them “recalibrate their mindset” while practicing their technical skills and exercising their journalistic muscles. He has also become an advocate for social justice projects as a way to get more mileage out of project-based learning.

“One of the best ways to develop cultural literacy and help our students understand these goals is through social justice processes and projects, activities that develop a mindset of concern for our society's inequity in wealth, education and privilege,” he says. “These projects empower our students to effect change through awareness, advocacy, activism and aid.”

The student-fueled “Never Again” movement, formed in the wake of the Parkland school shooting, proves that today’s students are ready and eager to leverage the technology in their palms to tell their stories and effect change. When students get fired up, their energy is palpable — and it doesn’t have to take a tragedy to unleash it. Sometimes all it takes is a well-designed classroom project.

Project-based learning offers the distinct advantage of allowing students to learn far more than just the content at hand. This learning can extend even beyond the ever-important “soft” skills, such as collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving. The interdisciplinary nature of social justice projects, for example, helps students forge connections between culture, history, science and economics, Hernandez says.

They can even help develop more ephemeral qualities such as empathy, perspective and vision.

“Empathy, perspective and true understanding aren’t qualities you can teach,” he says. “They must come from experience.”

While not every teacher can take their students on a visit to another continent, there are plenty of ways to engage students in eye-opening learning experiences close to home.

Hernandez will share his ideas for classroom projects with real-world impact in a free webinar March 1. A collaboration between ISTE and SXSW EDU, the 30-minute webinar is open to everyone and aims to help educators take project-based learning to the next level.

“We owe it to our students to challenge their misconceptions through experiences they don’t have every day,” he says.

Explore the possibilities of the digital age with ISTE's book Digital Citizenship in Action