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To Boost Creativity, Cultivate Empathy

Encouraging teens to empathize with others may enhance their creative thinking.

Source: frank_peters/Shutterstock

A new University of Cambridge study suggests that encouraging students in a classroom setting to engender empathy boosts their creativity. These findings (Demetriou & Nicholl, 2021) were published on January 25 in the peer-reviewed journal Improving Schools.

This study's title, "Empathy Is the Mother of Invention: Emotion and Cognition for Creativity in the Classroom," uses a play on words to reframe the age-old proverb, "necessity is the mother of invention," while highlighting the benefits of teaching students empathy.

"We clearly awakened something in these pupils by encouraging them to think about the thoughts and feelings of others," coauthor Helen Demetriou said in a news release. "The research shows not only that it is possible to teach empathy, but that by doing so, we support the development of children's creativity and their wider learning."

"This is something that we must think about as curricula, in general, become increasingly exam-based," Demetriou added. "Good grades matter, but for society to thrive, creative, communicative, and empathic individuals matter too."

About a decade ago, coauthor Bill Nicholl published a paper (Nicholl & McLellan, 2009) that investigated "what 'student voice' reveals about the nature of design and technology (D&T) lessons in English schools and the implications this has on their motivation and learning of complex tasks." Nicholl is currently a senior Design and Technology (D&T) Education lecturer at Cambridge; he teaches a secondary PGCE D&T course to other teachers.

"Teaching for empathy has been problematic despite being part of the D&T National Curriculum for over two decades," Nicholl said in a February 2 news release. "This [2021 ] evidence suggests that it is a missing link in the creative process, and vital if we want education to encourage the designers and engineers of tomorrow."

For the recently published D&T follow-up study, Demetriou and Nicholl spent a year following pupils (ages 13 to 14) at two different inner-London schools. One group of students were taught traditional curriculum-prescribed D&T lessons and weren't explicitly encouraged to empathize more with others. The other group's D&T lessons were designed to "engender empathy while solving real-world problems."

At the beginning and end of the school year, both groups of students had their creativity assessed using a well-established psychometric evaluation called the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (TTCT) created by Ellis Paul Torrance in 1966 and updated over the years. As mentioned, the researchers found that encouraging students to empathize more with others "measurably improved creativity and could potentially lead to several other beneficial learning outcomes."

"The results showed a statistically significant increase in creativity among pupils at the intervention school, where the [empathy] tools were used," the authors said. For example, in the "control classroom," where students followed a standard curriculum, TTCT scores only increased by 11 percent throughout the school year. In contrast, creativity scores rose by 78 percent in the intervention group that was encouraged to be more empathic.

Because empathy is often perceived as having two forms (e.g., emotional/affective empathy and cognitive/perspective-taking empathy), the researchers investigated specific aspects of creativity that involved empathy-related factors such as "open-mindedness" and "emotional expressiveness." Students from the empathy-intervention classroom scored significantly higher on psychometric tests that assessed empathy and creative thinking. Based on this empirical evidence, the authors speculate that "a marked improvement in empathy was driving the overall creativity scores."

Interestingly, Demetriou and Nicholl also found that, in general, girls and boys in the empathy-intervention classroom responded to D&T coursework in ways that defied gender stereotypes.

For example, although boys may typically feel discouraged from expressing emotion at school, overall, boys in the empathy-intervention group had a 64 percent increase in their emotional expressiveness scores. On average, girls in this group boosted their cognitive, perspective-taking empathy scores by 62 percent. "The gender differences charted in the study indicate that the intervention enabled students to overcome some of the barriers to learning that assumed gender roles often create," the authors note.

"When I taught Design and Technology, I didn't see children as potential engineers who would one day contribute to the economy; they were people who needed to be ready to go into the world at 18," Nicholl concludes. "Teaching children to empathize is about building a society where we appreciate each other's perspectives. Surely that is something we want education to do."

To sum up: This study suggests that cultivating empathy can kick-start a chain reaction that enhances emotional intelligence and boosts creativity, which, in turn, facilitates innovation and invention.


Helen Demetriou and Bill Nicholl. "Empathy Is the Mother of Invention: Emotion and Cognition for Creativity in the Classroom." Improving Schools (First published: January 25, 2021) DOI: 10.1177/1365480221989500

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