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Etudes and empathy: Towards a pedagogy of empathy

Alison Grove O'Grady and Thomas De Angelis


This chapter is both reflective and analytical, and discusses a funded project, referred to here as the Huddle, that responded to a call for discussions about new ways for pre-service teachers to engage students in more humane relationships and encounters in classrooms. The original remit for the Huddle was developed in response to increasingly frequent incidents of racism in schools, which had been identified by the then Human Rights Commissioner, Professor Gillian Triggs. At the time, Triggs was sustaining numerous, and at times bigoted attacks from sections of the media and notable commentators (not to mention a variety of politicians) over her unswerving commitment to upholding the integrity of Australia’s plurality of human rights legislation, and in particular Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 2012.1 For context, the successful footballer and former Australian of The Year, Adam Goodes had recently been racially vilified by a young woman at an Australian Rules Football match. It appeared that this incident and its attendant discourse, provided space for intolerant, prejudiced and discriminatory behaviours in classrooms around Australia. What was worse, the incident itself was couched within the scurrilous defence of free speech.

In her role as Commissioner, Triggs put the call out to expert educators for methods, practices and pedagogies that might better embed human rights education into initial teacher training, including but not limited to improving empathy for others. We responded in two ways: first, by joining the teacher reference group at the Australian Human Rights Commission and representing at a forum into Initial Teacher Education responses to Human Rights Education. Second, we convened a group of playwrights, practitioners, experts in the arts, performers and educators to explore the nexus between theatrical practices and traditions and pedagogy. These practitioners were called upon to situate their collective experiences of affective practices in relation to pedagogies of empathy in a group selling. We prioritised the sharing of experiences and engendered a discussion of critical reflection. The members of the Huddle are listed below.2

The Huddle participants were invited in recognition of their expertise and experience within their particular fields, which made them uniquely positioned to gain insight into the dialectical world of theatre and empathy. Additionally, the Huddle participants had been similarly motivated by the Goodes/Triggs episode. In short, the Huddle was a working group made up of like-minded empaths, which for our purposes was a qualification held by those whose professional practice was grounded in affective empathy. For one of the performers in the Huddle, this practice was born out of ‘a desire to represent reality in a way that affects an audience, and hopefully challenges them’. For a pedagogue participant in the Huddle, empathy was ‘part and parcel of every pedagogical decision I make’ and therefore a basis for practice, rather than ‘an end in and of itself. By co-interrogating the insights of both educators and theatre makers, we sought to answer these guiding questions:

  • • Can empathy be defined?
  • • Can empathy be distilled and facilitated as a practice in teacher professional learning?
  • • How do we frame empathy as pedagogy- and practice for pre-service teachers?
  • • Can theaU'ical methods explicitly inform the practice and praxis of pre-service teachers?

The group gathered to explore the potential for theatrical traditions, in particular Stanislavski’s Method of Active Analysis, to provide a critical pedagogic practice, based on the Method’s foundational precept of ‘etudinal exploration’. Etudinal exploration emphasises a non-verbal, affective and embodied approach to understanding complex emotional scenarios, contexts and positions. In this way, Stanislavski’s Method was appropriated as an embodied practice for preservice teacher professional learning. As empathy is currently and problematically articulated in the Western discourse, the group contended that a historical conceptualisation, problematisation and participatory approach to empathy can render pre-service and early career teachers with a pedagogical tool that could be integrated into everyday practice. This was to further the way pre-serv ice teachers understood their responsibilities under human rights laws and their affects, in particular Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 2012, and how they might develop a critical and strategic empathy, in their work as teachers. Together, we observed a persistent complexity in our analysis of empathy as a pedagogical tool, and in particular, recognised that empathic action in the training of pre-service teachers and associated fieldwork permitted our perceptions of the vagueness around understanding critical empathy and the negative connotations associated with a dominant theory of empathy.

In addition to an exploration of the usefulness (be it limited or enabling) of empathy as pedagogy, tills chapter will synthesise the Huddle experience and locate it within a field of study that sees empathy as method. For our purposes, empathy, with its basis in emotional affect, opens a door to a world of possibilities for pedagogical development. This chapter will also present theatrical traditions as essential in developing a ‘dramaturgical consciousness’ (Rilkin, 2009) and scholarly approach to its inherencies in developing affective and pedagogical empathy. The following contextualising literature review is given to assist in the framing of the epistemological and popular debates that seek to create a useful definition of empathy.

A brief literature review

Empathy has emerged in popular literature and online spaces with increasing prevalence (Hatcher el al., 1994). Previous generations, certainly in Western societies, were neither encouraged nor asked to discuss feelings and emotions and culturally for some groups, showing emotions could be considered a sign of weakness (Stout, 1999). This can be contrasted with a contemporary perspective on emotional affect, held predominantly by younger people, where talking about how you feel, about an issue or your state of mind, is more likely to be a sign of being socially aware (Cook, 2011).

In 7he Empathic Civilization (Rilkin, 2009), Rifkin situates empathy between the anthropological and the psychological, arriving at the conclusion that this is the age of empathy. His book challenges society to develop empathic intelligences in order to understand the brutality of damage to our natural environment, discrimination and marginalisation of minority groups, and the ongoing deprivation of communities. His work underscores the central themes of the OECD’s Future of Education and Skills 2030 discussion paper, which regards empathy as an essential social and emotional skill (OECD, 2018).

Both Rifkin’s work and the position paper grapple with the paradox that though we are seeking to develop affective responses and empathy for our future, we are simultaneously denuding environmental resources and reducing our humanity in issues of racial division. Rilkin (2009) argues for a ‘global empathy’, citing a view of humanity that is both inter and intra disciplinary, combining neuroscience, psychology and social scientific fields as a way to understand the human narrative and social tapestry.

Research and literature about empathy in a broad and generalised sense is fairly widespread, but for our purposes, and considering empathy in an affective sense, we contend that empathy must be a central part of an embodied pedagogy. Empathy is frequently understood within the literature in relation to training medical professionals, social workers and the like, and only infrequently with respect to educators and their pedagogies (Chen et al., 2008).

Leading scholars such as Ewing (2019) have offered timely reminders that pedagogy is for the learners and about learning. Her contribution to this research focuses on the importance of an arts-rich and imaginative learning experience, arguing that pedagogy- should be enriched by modifying theatrical traditions to engender critical and productive empathy.

Other definitions tend to reflect that empathy is sought to be better understood as a phenomenon, and it is important in any conversation about empathy to understand that (paradoxically) it can be used for nefarious purposes. For example, there is evidence to suggest that bullies often know how to attune themselves to the way people feel, drill down to the perspective and vulnerability of another person and then commit an act of transgression designed to substantially hurt the other person (Davis, 1990).

Scholars such as Stein (1964) provide a unique if less contemporary insight in terms of their semantic and interpretative definitions of empathy. In general, however the definition is one that can be surmised as a concept where empathy is accepted to be a cognitive process that has cultural imperatives attached to the way we might understand it;

I don’t simply see faces. I see angry faces, or faces transfixed with wonder, or bearing expressions of grief. I don’t simply see physical bodies as mere physical things but rather as embodying the lived experiences of the people in front of me.

(Stein, 1964 p. 42).

The common conception regarding empathy evokes the expression ‘to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes’ (Ewing & Saunders, 2016) and while this feeling about another person’s situation can be limited (Hoffman, 2000) as far as popular social commentators Bloom (2016) and Krznaric (2014) are concerned, it is a tangential way of understanding what it means to generate affective emotions, be they sympathetic or compassionate.

Because this chapter is in part about how empathy can be distilled into a teachable pedagogy- and practice, a critique of empathy as pedagogy is essential. Hoffman’s suggestion is that empathy requires more than an imagined stroll in someone else’s shoes and that the cognition associated with an empathic affective act requires responding to another person’s situation by assessing their needs and not assuming their suffering (Larocco, 2017).

Popular conceptualisations of empathy have been characterised as bearing a ‘cosy view’ Nelems (2017), which is an understanding of empathy as a basic common-sense concept that is broadly seen as a social good. This view and others like it, which see empathy in a simplistic ‘social good’ sense, have been interrogated by Larocco (2017) who argue that empathy is often conflated with sympathy and compassion—and the overall fuzziness around its application within professional practice in a range of fields makes the use and misuse of empathy potentially problematic. Nelems (2017) furthers her argument by suggesting that empathy has many different interpretations as a multi-dimensional, ethical and social construct, though she offers empathy as a ‘constellation of concepts and experiences’ and therefore a broader and pluralistic metaphor (p. 23).

In a similar vein Zembylas (2013) suggests that by carefully re-examining our pedagogies and their moral undertones, as teachers and educators we can help students navigate their way through what he describes as ‘troubled knowledge’. Troubled knowledge differentiates itself from the more commonplace pedagogies of conservative curricula, where emphasis is placed on affective responses and ‘explicit pedagogic attention’ particularly when discussing or facilitating learning that interrogates contestable issues. Zembylas suggests that part of a teacher’s tool kit of pedagogies is ‘strategic empathy’. The benison of such a method is manifold and provides purposeful ways to consider knowledge and meaning making. Using empathy in strategic and planned ways can, Zembylas argues, provision teachers with a space both physical and metaphorical to test their troubled knowledge and then channel it through careful strategising, into socially just perspectives.

Theatrical Traditions in the getting of empathy

Despite the plethora of evidence for increasing arts education in classrooms to improve student success rates (Ewing & Saunders, 2016; Fleming et al., 2016; Deasy, 2002; Fiske, 1999), various governments, certainly in Australia and also in the United Kingdom, have failed to act upon this evidence and instead remain fixed in a reductive view of curricula. The theatre has historically provided a vehicle for exploration of the human condition, pushing boundaries, contesting ideologies and turning a mirror to the audience often to provoke reactions of introspection and critical reflection. In the ‘constellation of empathy’ theory advanced by Nelems (2017), theatrical traditions lend themselves seamlessly to affective pedagogic practices and meaning making with compassion, sympathy and empathy as core components. An actor must get into the mind of the character by imagining themselves as the character (Szilas et al., 2003). Taking on the role of another person and understanding what motivates them, what they desire, what they intend and how they act are all empathetic tools used in the pursuit of acting in the theatrical tradition. The ability to harness a pedagogy- of empathy is central to a theatremaker’s practice, and it was our view that there could be a free exchange among pedagogues, theatremakers, and educators in the Huddle, that would inform the basis of a new pedagogy- based in embodied and affective empathy.

The traditions of modern, western theatre and its usefulness in this work owes a theoretical and practical debt to the work of Stanislavski (1949) and his method acting techniques. The intention in method acting is to imbue a character with a sense of the actor’s self, whilst remaining true to the integrity of the text. Important from a practice perspective is Stanislavski’s attention to the physical self, the language of embodied characterisation and his prioritisation of the malleability of the body.

Susan Verducci’s (2000) ground-breaking research into method techniques in developing moral reasoning practices is influential in this line of inquiry regarding our pedagogy- of empathy. Rather than canvassing definitional arguments about empathy, Verducci suggests that the way actors train in this method allows them to empathise by activating doable and discussable steps. She suggests that borrowing from Noddings (1984) ethics of care model and Nussbaum’s (1995) pity postulation, educators in this case, can appropriate these techniques to develop and cultivate empathy as a productive construct. Verducci is careful not to suggest that the students be manipulated by the process. Rather she affirms Brecht’s (1964) caution to avoid emotional manipulation of the audience and in this case, students and teachers.

Finally, it is critical in this discussion about pedagogy, empathy and praxis to situate what Rifkin (2009) describes as a ‘new dramaturgical consciousness’ (p. 554) positioning today’s generation of school students as globally sensitive and cosmopolitan consumers of affective notions and responses. This, he suggests, is evidenced by their lived experiences in digital social spaces. His hypothesis is that the third industrial revolution of technological change has opened the gates to a new generation of empathic sensibility (ibid.). Compared with the passivity of movie watching and listening to the radio, that were the past times of past generations, the internet has changed what we might previously have identified as pro social behaviour. Critics argue this generation have stunted sociability because of the internet whereas Rifkin argues their sensibilities are in fact heightened as a consequence of enlarging their emotional and empathic repertoire (p. 557). Coffman's (1990) use of dramaturgical metaphors to describe the way different roles and jobs might require a particular persona (that requires acting as that person), guides the designing and recruitment of pedagogy that is rich in theatrical and dramatic elements and can be constructed to enhance empathy, compassion and sympathy.

The practice

In the context of any dialogue about empathy, consideration needs to be given to art forms like the theatre that have provided human beings with a way to engage with and examine human relationships for millennia. Sharpening our outlooks and provisioning us with a mirror to hold up to ourselves, drama can be a democratising force (Neelands, 2016) that affords teachers, no matter the discipline, with the skills and conventions to carefully sequence and build upon students’ comprehension of what it means to live in the world.

Using the Aboriginal theory and method of Daddirri (Ungunmerr, 2017) that draws on our oldest living people’s culture and ways of listening, the Huddle participants collectively determined that work could begin if we embodied the practices we sought to capture. We were led through Daddirri by Zoe Cassini who acknowledged country and invoked the spirits of ancestors, the wind and waters we all share, to give us courage in our thinking.

The group acknowledged the definitional difficulties with empathy as a largely western and highly individualistic phenomena. Verducci’s (2000) suggestion that the potency of empathy lies in its transformational capacity was instructive as theoretical basis for interrogating the pedagogical potentialities of empathy. The Huddle participants conceived of a number of ways in which a pedagogy of empathy could be underpinned by theatrical and/or dramatic techniques to bring about affective change in practitioners, teachers and students. Passive empathy, Verducci argues, is deeply individualistic and often narcissistic and vague. Common conceptions of empathy as a ‘social good’ and that its promotion and fostering can only promote good, is in her view troubling. The Huddle participants agreed with this understanding and assertion that not all conceptions of empathy are equal. We decided to underpin our work guided by Verducci’s (2000) and Boler’s (1999) theorisation that argues a transformative empathy strives to understand the other by knowing they can never fully know their experience or be that person. This is contrasted with passive empathy where one believes it is possible to stand in another’s shoes and know their experience.

The robust discussions and views that we shared proved the perfect precursor to a series of embodied practices lead by Australian Playwright Thomas De Angelis (De Angelis, 2016) who devised modified etudes in the Stanislavskian tradition to allow all of us in the room to physically embody and explore. This technique developed originally by Stanislavski has been modified by many teachers of acting including the famous Lee Strasberg (1901-1982) and Stanislavski’s protege Maria Knebel (1898-1985) who passed this work down as a method in rehearsal processes. Active analysis and etudes are designed for actors playing any character with an active rather titan passive way to heighten character work and to ensure authenticity and integrity in performance. Rehearsal rooms, much like classrooms, use discussion, questioning, noticing and textual analysis as part of a suite of tools to gel under the skin of a character, play or scene and to produce a credible and aesthetic interpretation of the work. No two performances are ever the same—even when the scene has been performed by the same actor in the same theatre.

Etudes form the central dimension of active analysis. Etudes require embodiment and performance that mitigate any passivity and superficial interpretation of work because the participant needs to rely on improvisation and imagination. Etudes are developed to produce a scenic speech that combines the elements of empathic understanding including the emotional, the social and the psychological (Zamir, 2010). The etude action should allow actors an opportunity to develop a character’s memory of their own creation that then precipitates their ability to behave and decision make as if they had the lived experiences of that person or character. Etudes sanction the development of subtext and motivation before an actor takes on the cognitive task of memorising lines. Etudes come before any memory activity and rely on critical thinking, questioning and noticing in order that the character asks and answers powerful questions.

If ...

In an active analysis and practice of etude, the director asks the actors to use the ‘magic if (Counsell, 2013, p. 28) as the provocation to explore the inner life of a character and person. The empathic process requires some space and time to reflect and to improvise the experiences and personhood of the character. For example, in the Australian play Nothing But Nothing by Tovvfiq Al-Qady (in Cox, 2013), which is a play that dramatises the story of an Iraqi boat refugee and his incarceration in an Australian detention centre, by using the principles and practices of etude, before any rehearsal involves line memorisation the actors would need to use role to understand multiple perspectives of all the people in the narrative including unpopular policy officials and politicians. Using the ‘magic if as the stepping off point into performance creating original and improvised dialogue, the actor can then overlap and interact with the integrity of the text with their personal and critical engagement to make meaning. A consideration in this process of active analysis and etudes is that this performance is not designed to be seen by an audience. In a similar way to the concept of process drama (Heathcole & Bolton, 1995), the experience of performance and play in both these constructs is designed for the benefit of individual and collective unanimity and understanding.

Some interpretations of active analysis and etudinal exploration refer to ‘the pools of silences’ (Counsell, 2013, p. 24) created by asking questions and presupposing imagined lives without reading or engaging in information and contexts that might prejudice or compromise the spontaneity of the scene. Stanislavski’s process creates conditions for affective expression that allow actors to feel connected and importantly responsible for their character. As Ewing (2019) has argued, ‘dialogue and substantive conversations are central components of embodiment and enactment’ (p. 23) and these critical components are key to any development and со creation of empathy and rational compassion in a myriad of circumstances that are concurrently powerful and empowering. Zamir returns to the active analysis and likens it to learning a new language.

If you can only speak a few words in a new language you can’t really say you have learned it, that it is only when you have learned to speak a few sentences and ask questions in that language that you begin to understand and own it.

(Zamir, 2010, p. 238)

In developing etudinal exploration as a pedagogical tool in pursuit of teaching, we relied on a pre-text in the tradition of process drama (Ewing & Saunders, 2016; Bundy & Dunn, 2006), choosing to use a verbatim script taken from a previous study into attitudes of drama teachers to social justice in the curriculum (O’Grady, 2016). As these scholars have noted, the efficacy of a pre-text relies on a series of qualities in order for it to function as the tipping point for any embodied exploration of an idea or issue.

The playwright, Thomas De Angelis, led us through an etude which focussed on an exploration of the pre-text using the ‘magic if. The exercise began through listening to the pre-text, and after a short period of reflection, each participant used physical representations of the emotions expressed by the character in the pre-text in order to render it in an embodied and dramatic form. As the day drew to a close, the group engaged in a guided de-brief, that encouraged critical reflection and had two key objectives: the first being to understand the various engagements and knowledges that arose out of the etudinal exploration; and secondly, to assess the workability (albeit in a limited and time constrained way) of etudinal exploration becoming part of a pedagogy of empathy to develop a range of skills in empathic understanding. In general, the Huddle’s participants found that the etudinal exploration afforded a degree of freedom in choosing how to present an embodied response to the pre-text. In this way, it was noted that there were virtually limitless opportunities for empathic activities such as the etudinal exploration to frame complexified issues. Complexifying, recontextualising and repurposing narratives as explorations and ultimately presentations to an audience is the job description of most artists, and educators, it was found, could be armed with these same skills in the interests of developing a pedagogy- of empathy.

As one of the aims of the Huddle was to understand how a new method or repurposing of theatrical traditions might open up possibilities for developing empathic awareness and understanding, we also discussed ways to deepen conversation as a community of practitioners. The commonality found between classrooms and rehearsal rooms is the critical overlap between the role directors and classroom teachers play in shaping the climate for thinking and speaking and appreciating everyone’s ideas both affective and intellectual. This can also occur even when the ideas proposed may not accord with those held by the teacher or the director’s conceptualisation or characterisations in the play or performance piece. As Saxton et al. (2018) remind us, when students are able to create questions, and control and direct the exchange of ideas this can have the desired effect of a spill over into their lived worlds, where powerful conversations and an appreciation of other ideas can occur even when there is a disagreement. Learning to respect differences and inviting other contravening ideas is a part of a robust community of ideas and productive, inclusive discourses and of course— empathy.


As an applied practice, using theatrical techniques and traditions like the etudinal exploration as a principle tenet and praxis, the hope is that educators might see the benefit of a more nuanced and therefore effective invocation and understanding of empathy. The potential for educators to radically redraw the boundaries of expression, emotional embodiment and classroom participation by employing a pedagogy- of empathy remains high. The goal of this area of inquiry is for a classroom teacher to feel as empowered as a lead actor does in communicating the emotional narrative of a text—be it a textbook or playscript.


  • 1 Section 18C of the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act 1975 provides a civil action for the control of hate speech. The section, introduced by the Racial Hatred Act 1995, makes it unlawful to ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate’ a person or group on the basis of the ‘race, colour or national or ethnic origin of that person or a member of the group’ (Berg & Davidson, 2016).
  • 2 Members of the Huddle included: Professor Robyn Ewing A.O., leader in the field of Literacy and Arts education in Australia; Zoe Cassim, Educational Director at Reconciliation Australia, alumna and Bunjalung woman, whose presence was seminal in establishing an authentic voice and homage to Aboriginal traditions; Dr Stephen Sewell, Australian playwright of note, Head of Writing at NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Art); Hannie Rayson - award winning playwright, performer and commentator; Zoe Hogan, emerging playwright and teacher artist; Rachael Jacobs, activist, educator and performer; John Nicholas Saunders, Education Manager and Board member, Sydney Theatre Company; Contessa Treffone, actor and performer Sydney Theatre Company; Madi Duncan, teacher educator regional NSW; Emma Hughes, Head of Performing Aits, Holy Spirit school Lakcmba, South Western Sydney; Kate Smyth lecturer and researcher in Creativity; Professor Michael Anderson, pedagogue and leader in creative thinking and Huddle patron; and Thomas De Angelis, young Australian playwright, winner of the Rebel Wilson scholarship at ATYP (Australian Theatre for Young People) and Dr Alison Grove O’Grady who led the research into empathy and pedagogy.


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