The Fifth C of Essential Learning?  Compassion.

In past posts, I’ve written about the four C’s of 21st learning:

  • collaboration
  • communication
  • critical thinking and problem solving
  • creativity and innovation

I’ve also proposed tossing the moniker ’21st century skills’ and instead refer to them as the four critical elements of learning (the 4 C’s). In order to expand the focus and educate the whole child, I propose we add a fifth critical element… Compassion.

It has been often said that the learning environment plays a significant role in the experiences of students, especially when a teacher is trying to create an environment that engages the learners in creative, meaningful experiences. Millions of dollars have been spent on new desks, tables, chairs, and technology to enhance learning spaces. Walls and tabletops have been painted with idea paint, interactive whiteboards have been mounted, and iPads distributed. And while all those changes have made a significant impact on student learning, I want to focus on a part of the learning environment that plays an equally important role, but is often overlooked when designing the learning space… The climate created by the relationships between the students and the teacher.

I began examining these relationships back in 2006 while working on my Master’s thesis. I was looking for a way to assist teachers in creating a learning environment that made students feel safe and nurtured. My search lead me to Carl Rogers, a psychotherapist responsible for the development of the client-centered approach to therapy, and Nel Noddings, a philosopher focused on the ethics of caring in education. Out of that research came a comprehensive program designed to guide teachers towards developing relationships with students centered on mutual respect and empathy. While I would love to tell you all about that program, I’ll save it for another post.

In his 2006 TED talk entitled “How Schools Kill Creativity,” Ken Robinson shared the following:

If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.

Being creative means taking a risk, or many risks, on the path towards original ideas that have value. The social and emotional environment a teacher creates in their classroom will have a significant impact on a student’s willingness to take chances and be wrong. If a student feels safe, respected, and cared for, he/she is much more willing to put themselves in a situation where failure is possible, if not probable. They will do this because their failure will be treated as a learning experience, instead of a validation of their lack of worth.

Unfortunately, our schools are becoming increasingly risk-adverse, and teachers are operating more out of fear of the assessment than the passion for educating kids that they once had. At least, that’s what I’ve noticed in the schools I’ve worked in and visited. This increased stress creates an environment more focused on getting to the prescribed answer and less on the skills necessary for growth in today’s rapidly changing global landscape. During a recent conference with state education leaders, a representative from one of the local colleges shared this with the group: “this state’s schools are very good at training students to come up with the correct answer… Unfortunately, these students do not know how to ask the right questions.”

Failure will be treated as a learning experience, instead of a validation of their lack of worth.

We need to make a shift. Instead of just trying to meet the needs of every student, we must strive as educators to ignite and engage each child’s passion. Kids are natural learners and instinctively creative. And when they feel safe and nurtured, they’re far more willing to try something new or challenging without the fear of failure. We also need our students asking questions, exploring possible solutions, and embracing the learning process as a difficult, but rewarding endeavour. This can only happen when they are in an environment where they feel safe and nurtured… An environment built on compassion.


Feature image courtesy of Flickr, Kalexanderson.


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