Opinion: How technology is teaching kids to care about the world and each other

The other day I was doing bedtime routine with my 4-year-old, and she said, “Mommy, we have to not just think about ourselves. We have to think about other people, too.”

Of course, I felt like I had won the parenting award of the year. She had said this without any prompt from a conversation. She simply said it from the bottom of her heart.

My husband and I have had conversations about what it means to care for others with our children but not directly about empathy — that is, a feeling that you understand someone else’s emotions and are even willing to walk in their shoes in order to better understand them.

My daughter’s words and similar utterances from my students reminded me how aware and prepared young people are for lessons on empathy.

Studies have shown the positive impact of teaching empathy in the classroom and fostering social and emotional learning. We also know that modeling behavior from parents and teachers can help us to promote empathy and inclusion. This is especially important since studies have found our brains are wired to empathize with people who look like us. We have to consciously work to change this cognitive behavior in ourselves and our students.

And to be a better teacher of empathy, I’ve found more and more that it helps to use the same tools of technology that young people are already using.

Educational technology, or “ed tech,” provides teachers with a way to enhance student learning through tech-based tools like apps, software and videos that instill and foster critical thinking and creativity. It might include students playing a computer game to learn how a bill becomes a law or a lesson on how to write a persuasive letter to their legislator.

One of the most impactful ways ed tech has changed classroom teaching is by introducing lessons in empathy and focusing on social impact in a new and engaging way. As an educator and a parent, I now scrutinize and assess classroom ed tech in different ways than I ever did in the past.

On one hand, it’s important for teachers not to feel bombarded by ed tech and remain smart to the fact that many of these companies are in business to make a profit. They have a good-sized market, too: 56.6 million K-12 students started the 2018 school year. On the other hand, it’s important for teachers to know what’s new and how they can leverage technology in the classroom and it’s hard not to be excited by the potential that ed tech holds.

At a recent International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference, the most positive aspect for me of the exhibition area involved the chance for teachers to connect with other teachers, and learn more about how they’re using specific tech in the classroom.

I met Edgar Ochoa, a seventh grade social studies teacher from Phoenix, Arizona, who uses Cisco’s Global Problem Solvers (GPS), part of the tech giant’s Corporate and Social Responsibility initiative. It consists of an animated series made up of characters and an activity that challenges students to create their own solutions to real-world problems.

Ochoa said one of the groups doing a GPS project came up with the problem of massive plastic garbage patches in the ocean, which pose a big threat to wildlife. “So, they created a device that goes out with the sensors on it, and that the government monitors at all times.”

Ochoa said his students eventually decided to create a robot-like sea turtle in disguise, which goes out and does a clean up every time it senses a mess. The students created this idea out of construction paper, modeling dough and other creative classroom tools. If they could create this solution with modeling dough and construction paper, then think about what they could do using ed tech. Build a prototype? Patent their idea? Enter a student invention competition? Social impact projects are also a great opportunity for cross-grade level collaboration, so the older students work together to mentor the younger students.

As a parent and educator, Lego Education’s preschool sets on emotions and empathy drew me in. Though I teach writing to teenagers, I had to see if Lego’s “Emotions” were as promising as they sounded. Soon, my 4-year-old daughter started talking about why the robot was feeling sad, happy or surprised and started creating stories around their emotions and feelings.

In addition to the “Emotions” sets, Lego Education offers accompanying lesson plans that focus on being supportive of anxious peers and the important role extended family members play. The role of “play” can have a tremendous impact on the emotional and social development of young children, but I wanted to find more opportunities using ed tech to build empathy in middle and high school students.

For teenagers, the PBS NewsHour offers lessons on invention education, which involves stories of inventions that not only have a social impact on issues like climate change and endangered species, but can also lead to new industries and economic opportunities. (The second part of the series requires students to come up with their own invention that solves a problem facing their own community.) On PBS Learning Media’s new interactive platform, a lesson called Design Apps that Help Others and Build Empathy teaches students how to turn an idea into reality through the steps of the invention process, how to pitch their invention to key stakeholders, gives instructions on how to apply for a U.S. patent and how to enter contests, like the Congressional App Challenge.

As educators and parents, many of us are eager to find out about new technologies that will help our children learn. Developing empathy can be a powerful skill set for students — and yes, adults, too. It’s important that we sit down with ed tech, and ask, how is it making a difference in our world?