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Blog post: Randy Ziegenfuss on Empathy’s Place in Our Schools

Randy Ziegenfuss

After he listened to Ravi Hutheesing‘s keynote address on Friday, Randy Ziegenfuss got thinking about greater empathy and its part in addressing millennials and other student groups today.

After listening to Ravi Hutheesing‘s keynote, Can millennials save education?, the idea of empathy was the thread that ran through my curiosities. Ravi shared that millennials make up the largest generational sub-group and that they differ from baby boomers in behaviors, politics, and life purpose. While his focus was on millennials, the same could be said when comparing millennials to those we currently teach in our schools – Generation Z. Whether we are baby boomers or millennials, we need to understand that Generation Z learns and thinks differently than we do. Some of the curiosities and questions (mostly unanswered) that the keynote prompted for me:

  • Is empathy the key skill of our time? What is possible when we understand our leaners – truly understand them? Do we take the time to understand every child’s needs, passions and interests. If we want truly personalized learning, we’re going to have to do this. How is a lack of empathy creating many of our problems? And what larger local and global problems could we solve if we could better understand those we need to influence or those who have opposing viewpoints? It seems empathy could be a key to changing our world. I’m reminded of the book Unselfie by Michele Borba and the benefits of a focus on empathy with our children. How are we intentionally teaching empathy in our schools?
  • What are the best conditions for learning for the current generation? In my school district we have been engaged in conversations around our beliefs about learning. Personalized, relevant, contextualized. Competency-based. Open-walled. Social. Characterized by learner agency. Do today’s learners value these differently than millennials and baby-boomers? How are we having conversations with our Generation Z students to ensure we are providing the best learning environments to meet their needs and support their passions?
  • What role do/will exponential technologies play in the learning of Generation Z? Our youngest children will not graduate from school until the 2030s. Their life span may well exceed 100, taking their lives into the next century. We’re already seeing signals of exponential change in the areas of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, bio engineering, space exploration and 3D printing. How are we taking into considerations seismic shifts in technology and the world when we are designing learning opportunities? How can empathy inform us as we go about redefining our own work as educators and leaders?

More questions than answers. But then that is what learning is about – inquiries that lead to more questions.

Randy Ziegenfuss is superintendent in the Salisbury Township School District, Allentown, PA. Connect with Randy on Twitter, at, and on the TLTalkRadio podcast!

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