Monday, 30 July 2018

I Used Design Thinking to Transform my Learning Space - Part 1 - Empathy

Embarking upon my understanding of the Design Thinking process, I have come to learn more about the importance of Empathy. I had always considered myself an empathetic person but had I ever really taken this approach to solving problems? Maybe, subconsciously.

empathy is

Empathy can be best described as “feeling with people” (The RSA, 2013) and in the realm of Design Thinking, it plays an important role because it allows us to try and truly understand the people for whom we are trying to solve a problem. It is no good to try and make something better without truly understanding the end user.

One of the tasks I completed to deepen my understanding of this phase of the design process was an Empathy Map. An Empathy Map is a brainstorming tool and according to Bland (2016), helps you to “immerse yourself in a user’s environment”. The user’s in this instance being my students and the environment being my classroom.

To complete the Empathy Map, I removed myself from teaching for one session and spent the time being an observer. I chose a child to focus on and took notes on what I saw happening with them in relation to the learning environment. I paid particular attention to what the student was saying and doing and made inferred judgements on their thinking and feeling. This allowed me time to try and identify needs that may or may not be being met or that are difficult for my students to articulate (Fox, 2014). It was important for me to understand the learning environment better in order to find ways that I can improve it.

Empathy Map

Changing from being the teacher to an observer in my own classroom involved a change in mindset. Firstly, I had to release control to my team teacher and become ‘invisible’. This sounds easy but when you’re used to being at the front giving instructions it can be quite frustrating. Frustrating in the sense that you want to clarify things, help behaviour manage, assist with modelling the lesson, etc. I needed to be able to see the learning from the student’s perspective in order to understand any problems that I previously hadn’t perceived.

if you haven't found it yetI feel that my experience with this Empathy task has allowed me to understand at a deeper level, the fundamental importance of this stage in the Design Thinking process. To consider the end user of your product, environment or service, gives you greater chance at success.
One quote that has resonated with me in my search to understand Empathy is from (n.d.) who said, “it keeps the people you’re designing for squarely grounded in the centre of your work”.  As a teacher, my students are always the centre of what I do and in order for them to be successful in my classroom, I need to empathetically consider all their learning styles and habits. I wouldn’t be a good teacher if I didn’t do this.

Moving forward, potential applications for my new knowledge include:
  • better planning and development of learning tasks
  • improved design of my learning space and ways that changes in the design can be managed easily and efficiently (for example, flexibility of the furniture and resources depending on the tasks being completed)
  • thoughtful choices of different uses of technology in the classroom (including new purchases)
  • considering Empathy as a major factor in coaching sessions with other staff and in staff training opportunities that I facilitate
With all this potential, it’s important to consider any limitations to Empathy. My own research discovered a few articles listing things such as core vulnerability (Stosny, 2013) and bias and prejudice (Cameron, Inzlicht, & Cunningham, 2017) as possible limitations. However, the biggest thing that stood out to me as a serious limitation was what Waytes (2016) describes as ‘compassion fatigue’. Essentially, what the author describes is that when a person is constantly using their energy to be empathetic, it can become exhausting. To the point where they struggle to be empathetic any longer. ‘Compassion fatigue’ is very common in the medical profession and I can also see how it could be a problem in teaching. With students emotional wellbeing a major factor in any teachers planning, it is easy to see how exhaustion could possibly occur.
Learning more about this phase in the Design Thinking process has opened up new potential to create better learning experiences for my students. For me, I think the limitations are minimal or at the least, easily manageable. I can now move forward and spend more time unpacking my classroom in a way to better understand all of my student’s needs.


Bland, D. (21 Apr. 2016.). Agile Coaching Tip: What is an Empathy Map? Retrieved July 3, 2018, from
Cameron, C. D., Inzlicht, M., & Cunningham, W. A. (2 Mar. 2017.). Does Empathy Have Limits? Retrieved July 11, 2018, from The Conversation :
Design Kit. (n.d.). Mindset: Empathy. Retrieved June 11, 2018, from
Fox, N. (27 Jun. 2014.). How to Use Persona Empathy Mapping. Retrieved June 11, 2018, from
Stosny, S. (2 Feb. 2013.). Limitations of Empathy - Core Vulnerability. Retrieved July 11, 2018, from Psychology Today:
The RSA. (15 Aug. 2013.). The Power of Vulnerability - Brene Brown. Retrieved June 11, 2018, from YouTube:
Waytz, A. (Jan - Feb. 2016.). The Limits of Empathy. Retrieved July 11, 2018, from Harvard Business Review:

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