7 steps to differentiated learning through empathy: Walking in their shoes

shutterstock_63078856Being able to differentiate learning is considered important for enabling engaged and empowered learners. Approaches such as project-based, problem-based and enquiry-based learning are vehicles that can support differentiation, but there is greater benefit when the design of learning is overlaid with empathy, seeking to gain an understanding of student motivation and concerns. This post contains downloadable resources to get you started.

What is differentiation?

As an example, the NSW syllabus, states that differentiation involves the “use of teaching, learning and assessment strategies that are fair and flexible, provide an appropriate level of challenge, and engage students in meaningful ways” (NESA/NSW Syllabus).

Differentiation is complex  as you juggle challenge, engagement, assessment, flexibility and fairness.  When the process of differentiating student learning starts with empathy, rather than the delivery of curriculum content, the focus becomes knowing your student, their passions, challenges, interests and feelings. Once this is clear, then content can be refined to meet their needs. This also provides genuine opportunities for co-creation, as seeking student feedback may become part of the process of designing engaging and differentiated learning.

Why does empathy matter?

Empathy is described in Greater Good Magazine as “the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling”, it’s walking in their shoes. Empathy is the basis for positive relationships and key to successful learning.

I know what you’re thinking? How can we add one more layer of complexity to programming by individually differentiating for all of the 27 children in my primary/elementary class, or for the 120 students I teach in English in Grades 7, 9, 11 and 12?

Well, there is a way. Perhaps we can learn from business, adopt a user experience approach and develop a process of empathy mapping in order to consider how to differentiate at scale?

Empathy Mapping

The idea of empathy mapping forms part of a broader design thinking process. For example, customer experience expert, Alex Allwood, uses these ideas in her workshops as she teaches people how to “identify your customers’ unmet needs: their frustrations, service gaps and how to identify new opportunities to increase customer value and competitive advantage” (www.alexallwood.com.au). Successful businesses can’t create many thousands of maps for all their customers, but they apply a strategy that ensures they are responsive to a wide range of their customers, by creating personas and then mapping needs, wants and motivations.

In the process of differentiating learning for students, you can also identify unmet needs and frustrations of  students and look at how to provide a learning experience that both challenges and engages students, toward their success.

What is an empathy map?

It is a collaborative strategy that creates a shared understanding of the needs of the learner which then aids in designing engaging learning. It is a particularly helpful process for teaching teams, as it helps each member of the team to establish a shared understanding and appreciation about the students they teach.

“An empathy map is a quick, digestible way to illustrate user attitudes and behaviours. . . it should act as a source of truth throughout a project and protect it from bias or unfounded assumptions” (www.nngroup.com).

Once developed, the empathy maps for student personas can provide a checkpoint to more effectively design learning that engages and empowers students.

Where to start

  1. Create a range of fictitious student identities representing students who, in your experience, have been outliers. Downloadable resource: Fictitious Student Identity
  2. Aggregate identities through a collaborative process into a workable range of personas to represent students who may have unique learning engagement challenges
  3. Empathy map these personas. Downloadable resource: EMPATHY MAP adapted*

Next steps:

  1. Once these personas have been mapped, use them as reference points as you design differentiated learning and teaching activities.
  2. Modify and adapt learning and teaching activities (and the learning environment) as you gain insight

Co-created learning through seeking feedback

  1. Engage students in the process to provide feedback on the design of learning and teaching activities
  2. Modify and adapt learning and teaching activities (and the learning environment) as you gain insight


(*Empathy Map adapted from David Gray, XPlane)





















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