Interacting with virtual simulations might seem like the antithesis of what we could see as an essentially human skill like empathy. However, taking the time and expertise to develop initiatives like this is a recognition of it. Not only its complexity, but its importance in interactions and of how we need to take a holistic approach to learning how to understand others.
Can you learn empathy through interacting with a computer—even though, by definition, the skill requires understanding and sympathizing with real people?
When Kathleen Marek first heard about virtual simulations designed to help teachers be more responsive and even empathetic to students in distress, she was skeptical. “I thought it was interesting that it was computer-based,” says Marek, who works as the mental health program coordinator for Santa Clara Unified School District in California, “but it was sort of ironic.”
Yet when she spoke with teachers, she found many of them were receptive to the idea.
“This one math teacher said, ‘I think about interpersonal interactions with students that I’ve had and I wonder how much of what I said led to whatever happened’”—especially if it was bad, Marek recalls.
The teacher’s biggest fear was fumbling a sensitive conversation and accidentally making things worse, so she wanted the chance to practise empathic conversations in a safe, controlled space. “I thought, of course, that’s genius,” Marek says.
Earlier this year, the Santa Clara district held a one-day training for hundreds of teachers and support staff using simulation software from a company called Kognito, which specializes in creating one-on-one virtual conversations around health-related topics, such as bullying, suicide prevention and substance abuse.
The company’s simulations make use of virtual students and role playing techniques. It’s just one approach to creating challenging scenarios for educators that test not only their decision making abilities, but their capacity for building trust and relationships with others. The big question, of course, is how—and also, is it effective?