Miranda McKearney OBE is one of the four founders of new initiative EmpathyLab, the empathy, literature and social action programme which aims to make a difference to thousands of children’s lives by building empathy skills through reading and storytelling. As founder and former CEO of The Reading Agency, Miranda previously worked with librarians to explore new solutions to social issues caused by literacy problems.
Q: When did you first become interested in empathy, and how did the idea for EmpathyLab come about?
When I ‘”retired” from the charity I founded – The Reading Agency – I intended to go trekking, and had no idea I’d end up setting up another organisation. But I got hooked by the emerging scientific research showing that reading builds our real-life empathy skills. With my four fellow Empathy Lab founders, we talked to many psychology and mental health experts, who emphasised the damaging effect of society’s empathy deficit on young people.
So far, worldwide, there were no empathy education strategies that systematically exploit the power of stories and contact with authors to build empathy. That’s the area we focused on at a big Think In, asking parents and teachers whether there was a need for a programme that uses stories to help children build their empathy skills and social activism. We encountered a resounding YES, and EmpathyLab’s work has built from there.
Q: Can you tell us a bit more about the link between reading and empathy, and the research that has been done in this area? Why is empathy important?
With repeated experiences, practice and learning our plastic brains can change – 98% of us are capable of improving our empathy skills. New scientific evidence from researchers in the USA and Canada shows that an immersion in quality literature is an effective way to build these. Our brains reacts to fictional worlds as if they were real, so we experience what the characters feel, and this helps us practice our social skills. The empathic emotions we feel for book characters helps us have the same sort of sensitivity towards real people.
And why empathy? In our darkening and divided world, we see it as a beacon of hope, a much-needed force for connection and understanding, and an antidote to the recent horrifying rise in hate crimes. Empathy is also one of the most crucial of the social and emotional skills children need in order to thrive. Without it, young people will struggle to collaborate, listen well or form strong relationships. In the workplace, they will find team working very hard. Empathy is key to relationships; understanding others helps us become good friends, partners, workmates, citizens.
Q: There’s been a lot of excitement around the Read for Empathy book collection, a collection of 30 books specially selected to build children’s understanding of other people’s experiences and perspectives. How were the books selected?
Teachers and librarians told us they wanted a collection of very contemporary, diverse books with strong empathy angles. So we invited publishers to submit suitable titles, and were bowled over by the wonderful books that came through. An expert panel of seven – librarians, teachers, book industry experts – then read the books, and hotly debated which 30 should be included. The selection day was hosted by our partners The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education.
Q: After last year’s successful pilot, Empathy Day is becoming a permanent fixture – this year it’s on 12 June. Tell us a bit more about what will happen on the day.
There’s a major focus on using books as a tool to challenge prejudice and build connections between us.
• We want everyone to join in a massive social media campaign, using #ReadforEmpathy to share empathy-boosting book recommendations.
• Schools, libraries and workplaces are hosting special empathy-focused author events, and also joining in a Swap Your Reading Life experiment designed to get conversations going between people who don’t know each other well.
• Empathy Walls in offices, libraries and schools will create a focal point where people gather to talk about the books that have really helped them understand someone else.
• Children in EmpathyLab’s 14 pioneer primary schools – from Carlisle to the New Forest – will make Empathy Awards to book characters showing exceptional empathy.
• Empathy Cafes will be piloted with families in four library services – Devon, Essex, Sheffield and St Helens, funded by the Carnegie /Wellcome Trust Engaging Libraries initiative.
Q: How can schools and libraries get involved?
At the simplest level, absolutely everyone can swap #ReadforEmpathy ideas on social media. Organisations wanting to do more can contact firstname.lastname@example.org to sign up to take part and get our toolkits. There are also downloads and big picture ideas at www.empathylab.uk.
Q: What’s next for Empathy Lab – will there be more projects to come?
We’re very excited at the interest from authors, schools and libraries in our work – for instance 35 public library services are taking part in Empathy Day. So we’ll be building on this to run powerful local and national events on subsequent Empathy Days.
And for the first time, in 2018, we’re offering open access training for schools – either INSET or a Peters based training day on 28 September. In 2019 we aim to partner clusters of schools in developing a strategic approach to using our Empathy Explorers programme. Anyone interested in either can contact me at email@example.com.