Working together to help children learn and grow in a complex world
May. 7, 2019
Simulations build empathy in middle schoolers
By Phil Spears, Head of School
Independent schools can be criticized – fairly or not – for sheltering their students from the realities of the outside world.
Earlier this spring, our 7th and 8th graders embarked upon a Canterbury School tradition designed to burst that bubble.
While 8th graders undertook “In My Neighbors’ Shoes,” a simulation designed to help students understand the challenges of our neighbors living at the poverty line, 7th graders learned about and proposed solutions to problems of developing countries in the “UN Challenge.”
The 8th graders began their exercise with a poverty simulation led by Dr. Buffie Longmire-Avital from Elon University in which, over the course of an hour, they modeled a month in the life of a family in poverty trying to make ends meet. The next day, they tried it out in the real world, navigating public transit as they visited the Employment Security Commission, grocery shopping on a budget, and more.
Meanwhile, 7th graders were learning about the UN’s sustainable development goals and the countries to which they had been assigned. They built villages in the woods to simulate their countries and then tried to implement solutions such as water filtration systems and community gardens. Along the way, they learned about income inequality, taxation issues, unfair trade practices, and other struggles that people experience as they are trying to make better lives. This project was formerly named MDG after the UN’s millennium development goals.
In addition to being a Canterbury tradition, exercises like these and the greater understanding and compassion they bring our students are part of Canterbury’s Episcopal identity and a stated pillar of our national association of more than 1,000 member schools.
These instances of hands-on, experiential learning often generate lasting impact and growth for our students, giving our kids exposure to realities and ideas far beyond their neighborhoods.
The simulations teach skills and topics including empathy, collaboration, global engagement, financial awareness, and local and global economic systems. They generate exactly the kind of complex thinking we need our kids to have so they can be leaders in their local and global communities when they are older.
I asked a student what she thought the most impactful part of these two simulations was, and she said that was easy – it was a profound sense of gratitude for what she has and for her family and friends and the support systems she has.
Another student told me they thought it was really cool to think hard for the first time about life in another country in the world.
At any good independent school, the kids hear messages about kindness and inclusion throughout their days and week, but exercises like this help them go beyond their normal daily friends and class groups and truly walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. That’s an eye-opening experience for anyone.