Back to School: Using Empathy as a Pathway to Learning

“Since digital culture became part of our intimate lives, Sherry Turkle has helped us understand our complex, evolving dance with technology, using the power of data and analysis. Now, with raw and refreshing authenticity, she shares her personal journey, which serves as a powerful and poignant reminder that it is in our relationships with one another — not technology — that we find our most important source of meaning and healing.” — Vivek H. Murthy, MD, MBA, surgeon general of the United States

“Over the decades, Sherry Turkle has provided the most penetrating analyses of the relations between the human and the computational worlds. In a remarkably revealing memoir Turkle explores the personal as well as scholarly sources of her understandings and, in the process, provides a brilliant panorama of our time.” — Howard Gardner, renowned cognitive psychologist and author of “A Synthesizing Mind”

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Before computers became part of the classroom experience, teachers and students engaged face-to-face. Such a setting made it easier to interpret how someone was feeling, to empathize.

While technology has its place in education, renowned MIT sociologist and psychologist Sherry Turkle’s decades of research shows that communicating through devices inhibits a person’s ability to develop empathy. And without empathy, she adds, everything suffers, above all our learning experiences.

“Today’s learners have immediate and always-on access to answers and research. Yet, it’s changing the way they approach work, their capacity to reflect, reason and draw conclusions, how they feel emotionally, and how they interact with the world around them,” says Turkle. “When we hide behind screens during conversations, we feel less vulnerable. That can feel like a plus, but we are paying a high price.”

Sherry Turkle has spent more than thirty years of her professional career helping people understand the need to cultivate and leverage empathy to enhance learning. She describes her critically hailed new book, “The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir” (March 2021), as an “intimate ethnography” in which she observes and interviews people with the skills of a trained clinical psychologist. It’s the third in a trilogy that defines the emotional experience of life in a digital culture: In “Alone Together” (2011), she identified the problem of technology inhibiting empathy; in her New York Times bestseller “Reclaiming Conversation” (2015), she offered solutions; and in “The Empathy Diaries” she showed how these solutions could be activated in her own life.

 

Turkle’s insights for fostering constructive communication offer educators a unique opportunity to enrich the classroom experience. From there, students develop skills that will enable them to live fuller and more engaged lives both within and outside the digital realm.

Conversation has a tremendous role to play in education. But we’re enabling students to turn conversations into transactions, to take the easy way out,” warns Turkle. “It’s time to put an end to that cycle and reclaim conversation in education. But the goal isn’t to just encourage more and better conversations. It’s about teaching children and young adults how to self-reflect and build relationships, online and off.

What the Press Has to Say About Sherry Turkle and “The Empathy Diaries”

Marianne Kelly: