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The case for empathy in the history classroom

Martyn Davison

This article argues that empathy has an important place in the history classroom and can contribute to the aims of The New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007). The article examines the concept of empathy from both an affective and cognitive angle. It proposes that empathy is linked to The New Zealand Curriculum in the affective domain through the key competency relating to others and cognitively through the Social Sciences learning area’s focus on understanding people’s perspectives. The article also examines differing ways of conceptualising empathy within history education and seeks to explain what these might mean for practice.

The case for empathy in the history classroom

Martyn Davison


This article argues that empathy has an important place in the history classroom and can contribute to the aims of The New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007). The article examines the concept of empathy from both an affective and cognitive angle. It proposes that empathy is linked to The New Zealand Curriculum in the affective domain through the key competency relating to others and cognitively through the Social Sciences learning area’s focus on understanding people’s perspectives. The article also examines differing ways of conceptualising empathy within history education and seeks to explain what these might mean for practice.


Empathy in the history classroom is about thinking (cognition) and feeling (affect). According to Shemilt (1984) empathy can be thought of cognitively as the ability of students not only to “think themselves into alien situations … [and] alien minds” (p. 54) but also to question how they go about doing this. Empathy is also about drawing an emotional or affective connection with the past so that students can be appropriately moved by historical events (Bardige, 1988). Both of these ways of seeing recognise that empathy is about deliberately engaging with the strangeness of the past. In so doing empathy may also help students to understand unfamiliar perspectives in the present.

It is interesting that Barack Obama (2008) talks about empathy as a guidepost in his desire to find common ground. He argues that an empathy deficit—the inability to think about how one’s actions (or inaction) will affect others—explains why people turn away from helping those who are struggling in society. In other words, Obama argues that being able to empathise is highly desirable. Ashby and Lee (1987, p. 85) reason that while it may be too simplistic to say that empathy will lead us all towards the common good, it is true that “where the alien is seen as stupid and inferior, there is little chance of progress towards genuine understanding”. Empathy, then, is attuning ourselves to past beliefs and avoiding what Brophy and Alleman (2006) call presentism: a belief that from the viewpoint of hindsight people in the past are easily patronised and seen as less smart than we are today.

In history education, empathy helps students overcome presentism by placing past beliefs within their context. Students come to realise that people in the past acted in a way that made sense at the time. A failure to understand this is problematic. Borries (1994, p. 347) comments that “whoever is unable to reconstruct, by way of understanding the other, the logic of action of that person’s “strange” forebears will also fail to recognise the different reasoning patterns among his or her contemporaries of the current world theatre”. Thus, empathy in the history classroom is not a lifeless historical concept but instead one that may lead to students making open-minded choices when encountering diverse perspectives in the here and now.

The New Zealand Curriculum and empathy in history education

There are two places in The New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007) that are pertinent to empathy in history education. Firstly, empathy is most clearly signalled in the front of the document in one of the five overarching key competencies, relating to others. The inclusion of this competency in The New Zealand Curriculum follows a large international project that identifies a series of important 21st century competencies, including “relating well to others” (Rychen, 2003; Rychen & Salganik, 2003).

In The New Zealand Curriculum, the key competency relating to others is about:

… interacting effectively with a diverse range of people in a variety of contexts. This competency includes the ability to listen actively, recognise different points of view, negotiate, and share ideas. Students who relate well to others are open to new learning and able to take different roles in different situations. They are aware of how their words and actions affect others. They know when it is appropriate to compete and when it is appropriate to co-operate. By working effectively together, they can come up with new approaches, ideas, and ways of thinking. (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 12)

Described by Hipkins (2005, 2006) as more than a co-operative social skill, this competency emphasises inclusiveness and understanding the different contexts of people’s lives. O’Connor and Dunmill (2005), discussing relating to others from the perspective of arts education, have similarly highlighted its affective focus on relationships, working together and the forming of friendships.

Empathy is also relevant to the latter part of The New Zealand Curriculum, where subject knowledge is discussed. Here, one of the main goals of the Social Sciences learning area is identified as exploring how “people … are shaped by perspectives [and how] others see themselves” (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 30). History’s achievement objectives at curriculum level 6 also focus on: “understand[ing] how people’s perspectives on past events that are of significance to New Zealanders differ” (2007, supplement).

Drawing these points together, the front part of The New Zealand Curriculum appears largely to frame empathy affectively, whereas in the second part of the document there is more focus on the cognitive process of understanding perspectives. This is interesting because recent literature (Barton & Levstik, 2004; Dulberg, 2002) about empathy in history education emphasises the importance of seeing empathy as being both affective and cognitive. However, as Harris and Foreman-Peck (2004) and Yilmaz (2008) argue, there is still a tension in the history community about the extent to which empathy should be defined using a predominantly affective or cognitive lens. Much of the unease that Yilmaz describes could be the result of seeing the affective criteria of empathy as emotionally fuzzy and not in keeping with the supposedly more disciplined intellectual methods of the historian. In the United Kingdom, Harris and Foreman-Peck (2004) indicate that empathy had disappeared from discourses about history education by the late 1980s, and describe this as stemming from an attack which cast empathy as an approach to history that pursued a “let’s pretend” view of the past. Furthermore, its affective attributes were too wishy-washy to properly assess (Low-Beer, 1989). Yet, an argument can be made that challenges this criticism and supports the view that empathy does need to include the affective and that it is possible to assess (Booth et al., 1986). If the history classroom is to support the key competency relating to others and the history achievement objectives within The New Zealand Curriculum then a definition of empathy that includes both the affective and cognitive is needed.

Empathy in the history classroom

Any discussion of empathy owes a great deal to Collingwood’s (1946) philosophical argument that the past can be understood by rethinking it. By critical re-enactment the historian can get inside the mind of those who lived in the past. This idea of rethinking the thoughts of people has, according to Dray (1995), been misinterpreted as giving an historical agent [someone who lived in the past] “whatever thought you find yourself thinking” (p. 53) or, in other words, imagining what you would do in someone else’s place. This has led to the criticism that empathy in history classrooms is an excuse for students’ imaginations to run riot as they make up fanciful replies to questions such as “Imagine you are onboard the Endeavour and you spot land.” Low-Beer (1989) wonders how imagining the feelings of others is possible when those feelings are “uncertain, ambiguous and many-layered” (p. 8). Jenkins (1991) says something similar, from a postmodern perspective, when he posits that people cannot travel back in time without taking their present-mindedness with them. But, the idea of empathy being the ability to imagine exactly the same thought as Captain James Cook is not what Collingwood is arguing.

Instead, Collingwood’s aim is to test out an historical action by critically using evidence “to see whether it can really be thought” (Dray, 1995, p. 56). Therefore re-enactment is a process of verification or thinking about how feasible a certain course of action was. Put another way, the historian is looking at an historical event from “the [historical] agent’s own point of view” (Dray, 1980, p. 25), but is doing so in a disciplined way because they are building a picture of that person’s life using the available evidence and their imagination. Such evidence is often fragmentary and ambiguous, but it is still possible to imagine what might have happened and what the possibilities were. Perhaps the “imagination starts from evidence and then returns to evidence with the ability to see it in a new light” (Lee, 1984, p. 95). This means that since the evidence is being looked at from the position of someone who lived in the past, imagination is needed to suppose what that position might have been. When historians look at evidence from a certain supposed position, then the evidence takes on new meaning. Therefore, imagination plays an important part in how evidence is read. For instance, in describing the experience of a Pacific person coming to New Zealand in the 1970s, using imagination tied to evidence could lead to an account of experiences such as arriving by plane into a cold climate with no job, few family members for support and difficulties with English. Without imagination, evidence could be used, but the reader’s understanding may not be the same. For Lee, history without imagination often does not make any sense. Nonetheless, some researchers (Downey, 1996; Foster, 2001) have placed more emphasis upon the handling of evidence than upon the role of imagination, and therefore they define empathy as a predominantly cognitive concept.

When described as a cognitive process, the term empathy is sometimes replaced by perspective taking or perspective recognition (Downey, 1996; Levstik, 2001). Downey argues that empathy requires a cool detachment that holds different perspectives “at arm’s length” (1996, p. 117). It also requires the ability to explain these perspectives using information and evidence, recognise that past perspectives are different from those held in the present and to be aware that in the past there were multiple perspectives. Foster (2001) similarly defines historical empathy as an understanding of the context of the past by careful use of historical evidence. He argues that emotional and imaginative responses, such as sympathy and admiration, are not particularly helpful because they only bring us closer to the sympathetic motives that help us identify with someone. The aim of empathy, Foster argues, should not be to identify with another point of view as if it were our own. He makes the point that it is not desirable for school history to expect students to identify with the feelings of individuals such as Hitler. In other words, historical empathy from a cognitive viewpoint is about trying to think from someone else’s standpoint rather than feeling what it would be like to be standing in their position. This involves using evidence to reconstruct the perspectives of people in the past and developing sufficient historical knowledge to be aware of the context in which these lives were lived. Building up this context often involves using a variety of sources and the handling of multiple perspectives. Needless to say, it is a difficult thing to do. McCully, Pilgrim, Sutherland and McMinn (2002) (in Northern Ireland) and Levstik (2008a) (in New Zealand) suggest that it is perhaps an unreasonably difficult thing for teenagers to do.

Observing Year 11 history students in a predominantly Unionist grammar school, McCully et al. (2002) found that the students who had handled a variety of sources and multiple perspectives could temporarily empathise with a Republican viewpoint about the 1916 Easter Rising, but they immediately returned to their own Unionist perspective as soon as the teacher tried to make an analogy between the Martyrs of 1916 and those involved in the 1980s H-Block hunger strikes. In a similar way, Levstik (2008a, p. 360) found, in her study of secondary school history in New Zealand, “students’ tolerance for different perspectives increases with distance—and decreases as they try to use history to help resolve local differences”. She points out that Pākehā students could explore perspectives about civil rights in the USA but showed an unwillingness to consider perspectives associated with Māori land claims. This research illustrates that an exclusively cognitive approach to empathy may be insufficient because it does not shift students’ pre-existing beliefs. Still, it may be worth considering the hypothesis that, given more time to practise, the students observed by McCully et al. and Levstik would have empathised more successfully.

In researching her ninth-grade world history class, Kohlmeier (2006) argues that initially her students struggled with empathy. Yet, by the end of one semester studying the past lives of three very different women, they had “demonstrated an increasing capacity for historical empathy” (p. 51). While Kohlmeier attributes this improvement to providing students with the opportunity to practise empathy, especially through discussion, she also highlights the significance of the students caring about the women they were studying. Kohlmeier posits that without this caring or affective empathy, “I am not sure the students would have done the hard intellectual work I asked of them” (p. 52).

It is perhaps not a coincidence that in Kohlmeier’s research, her students empathise most successfully with Ji Li, a young girl living through Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China. This is not only because she is the last woman they studied (and hence they are well practised) but she is the easiest of the three women to care about. The other two (Irina Ivanova, a peasant woman living in Stalin’s Russia, and Magdalena, a merchant’s wife in 16th century Nuremberg) are both adults and one lived in the remote past. Levstik (2008b) reasons that to think historically students must first “care about the content of history” (p. 56). Similarly, Dulberg (2002) emphasises that, for students, caring about the past and what happened to people is the “point of engagement … a way in” (p. 11), which drives further inquiry and the beginnings of cognitive perspective taking. Even those such as Little (1989), who disagree with Collingwood’s idea of re-enacting the past thoughts of another, admit that “the impulses spurring one to … [empathise] may be affective” (p. 38). Yet, if the affective is the beginning of empathy, Levstik argues that it is also “a component of mature historical understanding” (2008b, p. 56).

In studying history, Dulberg (2002) describes students’ endeavours as involving “a back and forth rhythm between affect and cognition” (p. 11). Moving towards the affect, students use their imaginations and make connections that allow for an emotional and moral response to what is being studied. Moving back towards the cognitive, students develop sufficient contextual knowledge to understand multiple perspectives and how people in the past saw the world differently. Students who both think and feel as they empathise are described by Barton and Levstik (2004) as developing an informed and tolerant outlook on the present. They avoid the pitfall of assuming only their perspective is normal.

Drawing these arguments together, it is possible to develop two schematic models of empathy. Figure 1 illustrates how the ability to empathise increases with practice (Kohlmeier, 2006) and is developed from the building of historical knowledge.


In interpreting Figure 1 it is important to stress Brophy’s (2002) observation that there is an optimal amount of historical contextual knowledge that students can process. Too much contextual information and students may see a past action as a “foregone conclusion” (p. 354). Too little and they may be at a loss to understand why one action appears more appropriate than another. Perhaps Nuthall’s (2007) research is helpful here as it suggests that students have to be given time to process new knowledge and be provided with sufficient opportunities (he suggests at least three) for it to be absorbed into their working memory. In other words, making a judgement about when and how much time to spend developing student empathy is an important decision for the classroom teacher to make.

Figure 2 takes the different ways history education researchers—notably Lee (1984), Shemilt (1984), Booth et al. (1986), Portal (1987), Barton (1996), Downey (1996), Foster (2001), Dulberg (2002) and Barton and Levstik (2004)—think about empathy and combines them into six criteria. Three of these criteria are affective: using imagination to recognise appropriate feelings; listening to and entertaining other points of view; and being caring, sensitive and tolerant towards people. The remaining three are cognitive: building historical contextual knowledge; being aware of the past as different from the present; and tying everything to evidence.


However, as Barton (personal communication, 25 May 2009) stresses, there are several ways that these criteria may or may not fit together. First, the affective and cognitive can be seen as separate but existing in a sequential relationship. As already discussed, Barton and Levstik (2004) and Dulberg (2002) place the affective first, arguing that this draws students into wanting to find out about evidence. But, equally, the cognitive could be placed first. Wineburg (2007) describes how, to do history well, it is vital to carefully consider context whenever looking at evidence. He suggests history is about cultivating caution and discipline and avoiding a rush to judge. In other words, judge only after you have understood. Second, the affective may impede a cognitive understanding of empathy and vice versa. Schweber (2004, p. 57) argues that when a teacher places the affective first it “supplant[s] any chronology or almost any information being taught at all”. Her case-study-based research on teaching the Holocaust found that while an affective approach may well foster feelings of antiracism, it did not instil much Holocaust history. Contrastingly, Bardige’s (1988) study of looking at the journals of students who were learning about the Holocaust found that nearly the opposite could be true. As students develop cognitive skills, such as recognising multiple perspectives, they find it harder to hold on to their “moral sensitivities and impulses” (Bardige, 1988, p. 109). Personal action to stop wrongdoing is replaced by a more distant cognitive approach of calling for governments or society to do something. The third way of considering the relationship could be that one lens is correct, whether it is affective or cognitive, and the other should be rejected. This way of conceptualising empathy is not as common, but Foster (2001) seems to dismiss affective empathy when he argues that it is associated with the dangerous traits of sympathy and overidentification.

These different ways of conceptualising how the affective and cognitive do or do not fit together are important when considering how to foster empathy in the history classroom. If the affective comes first because it motivates learning, then asking students to look at the murder of Emmett Till—as movingly portrayed in the civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize (DeVinney, 1991)—might lead them to ask the moral question “How could anyone do that?” Hooked into wanting to find out more, students might then move into the cognitive realm of using evidence and building up their contextual knowledge of life in 1950s Mississippi. The first part of this approach might do a great deal to instil in students a feeling of antiracism, but on its own it might give them insufficient historical knowledge of the period. Alternatively, the cognitive could be placed first. Students could be taught the historical context of 1950s Mississippi before moving on to engage with the moral judgements surrounding the murder of Emmett Till. This would follow Wineburg’s (2007) observation that historians should not be in a rush to judge. Yet, as Bardige (1988) points out, carefully examining each point of view tends to dull students’ moral sensibilities. Perhaps the way forward is to more fully investigate these various patterns of conceptualising the affective and cognitive. It would be interesting to compare these approaches and examine how students’ ability to empathise is influenced by the sequence in which the affective and cognitive are played out. Similarly, it could be useful to investigate whether students’ ability to empathise differs in the study of different contexts and issues.

Implications for practitioners

In the context of New Zealand secondary schools, it is important to consider in what ways historical empathy connects to the newly introduced curriculum document, The New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007). Figure 3 illustrates how the affective part of empathy might intersect with some of the characteristics of the curriculum’s key competency, relating to others, in the history classroom.


Clarifying where there is a relationship between relating to others and empathy in history education is helpful to practitioners for a number of reasons. First, it signals to history teachers where there is an opportunity to engage with this key competency as they explore empathy. This helps to fulfil the intention of The New Zealand Curriculum to place the key competencies at the heart of classroom practice.

Second, clarifying this relationship helps to address Gilbert’s (2006) concern that there could be a tension between student-centred key competencies, which focus on usable knowledge to sustain successful lifelong learning, and knowledge-centred secondary school subjects, such as history, whose disciplinary knowledge can be about content coverage. In pursuing the latter, history teachers may think that by ignoring the key competencies they can continue to deliver “the same sorts of knowledge … [students] have always learnt, maybe tweaked a bit, but the same kind of things” (p. 53). However, if history teachers deliberately pursue a concept such as empathy, and indeed, other concepts, such as causation, they will be addressing ideas surrounding knowledge and attitudes that are common to the key competencies. Only when history education is very narrowly conceived as solely memorising factual content does Gilbert’s concern hold sway. Figure 3 illustrates the common ground, as well as where key competencies and a historical concept such as empathy are different.

Third, it makes it clear that not everything that is thought of as relating to others can fit into what is meant by empathy in the context of history education, and vice versa. As Wispé (1986) asserts, sympathy is a way of relating to others and often involves feelings of wanting to alleviate their suffering, because its object is the “other person’s well being” (p. 318). In the history classroom, sympathy is seen differently. As Lee (1984) points out, sympathy leads to “agreement” with people in the past and therefore is likely to lead to history writing that is one-sided. While sympathy might sometimes be a commendable response to the situation of past lives, and may make it easier to enter into the past, it is not a necessary criterion for empathy. Instead of sharing the feelings of a person who lived in the past, empathy is about “recognising that the feelings are appropriate, given the way the person concerned sees the circumstances” (Lee, 1984, p. 97). That said, if what people did in the past is always appropriate because they did it from their perspective at the time, there is a risk of introducing moral ambiguity into the history classroom. It is therefore necessary to recognise the appropriateness of past feelings, but also to be ready to apply critical judgement to those feelings. A further instance where relating to others is not the same as empathy is the sharing of ideas and identifying with each other’s point of view. As Brophy (1999) argues, overidentification among students studying United States history often means that Native Americans become “them” and the colonists become “us”. He goes on to argue that identification only builds empathy from one perspective and this is simply bias.


The challenge of empathising with people in the past is an important limitation to what is being argued in this article. Downey’s (1996) study of historical thinking among young students in a fifth-grade classroom in Oakland, California, concluded that historical empathy is a “formidable challenge” (p. 115). He argued that without sufficient historical information and time, students were unable to construct the perspectives of others and simply held on to tenacious stereotypes, in this case “about British rule in colonial America” (p. 135). A similar point is made by VanSledright (2002), who found that the American fifth-grade students he researched held a particularly resilient belief that the past is out there waiting to be discovered as a single truth, and could be found in textbooks. VanSledright argued that, although students may have the desire to imagine and listen to past beliefs, that past reality had “long since ceased to be” (2002, p. 4). Furthermore, the research of Wineburg and Fournier (1994) demonstrated that presentism, the tendency of present beliefs to impinge upon the past, is an intuitive way of thinking that is difficult to shift. They describe it as a “psychological default state that must be overcome before one achieves true historical understanding” (p. 286). Finally, Borries (1994) argues that present beliefs, such as a moral concern for human rights, frustrates empathising because students are dismissive of past beliefs that do not correspond to their present beliefs.

Research does suggest possible ways of addressing these barriers to empathising. Brophy, Alleman and Knighton (2009) argue that stereotypes and presentism can be reduced when teachers directly challenge stereotypes held in prior knowledge, refer to people in the past as “we” rather than “they” and establish a common base of historical knowledge so that students can construct their own further understandings. This research suggests that asking students to demonstrate empathy with material they are unfamiliar with, or have no contextual knowledge of, will fail. Barton and Levstik (2004) argue that empathy should be taught in contexts that allow for emotional engagement and are personally relevant to students. They have found such contexts to be about discrimination, injustice and resistance. However, Borries (1994) would argue that this may be because students are more comfortable studying such contexts because they match their existing beliefs about what is moral. Nonetheless, Barton and Levstik argue that this is a good thing if school history is about wanting students to take action when they see injustice rather than simply being able to understand it.


Empathy has the potential to support the key competency relating to others and the history achievement objectives within The New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007). However, this potential is unlikely to be realised if empathy is narrowly defined as either a solely cognitive or a solely affective concept. Therefore, this article puts the case for a broader interpretation of empathy and proposes that empathy can be seen as containing six criteria, three of which are affective, and the remainder cognitive (see Figure 2). It is hoped that by clarifying the meaning of empathy and signalling where there are opportunities for history students to develop it, this article is of practical use to those within the history education community. Finally, how the affective and cognitive components of history unfold in the history classroom, and exactly how individual students become better at empathising with past lives, are interesting questions for future research.


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The author

Martyn Davison is a classroom teacher and head of history at Pakuranga College. He is currently enrolled as a part-time student at the Faculty of Education, The University of Auckland, and is in the third year of the Doctor of Education degree programme.