Actor Cillian Murphy and NUI Galway Launch New Empathy Education Initiative

Pictured were Jack Gaffey and Ella Anderson, UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre Youth as Researchers, with actor Cillian Murphy and UNESCO Chair Professor Pat Dolan, Unesco, Child and Family Research Centre NUI Galway. Picture Jason Clarke.
Jan 23 2020 Posted: 15:09 GMT

UNESCO Chair Professor Pat Dolan and actor Cillian Murphy today (Thursday, 23 January) launched a new initiative to introduce Empathy education for secondary school students in Ireland. The programme, Activating Social Empathy, is part of a suite of work undertaken by a team of researchers at NUI Galway that has developed a concrete basis for understanding empathy education among adolescents. A major focus of the UNESCO Chair’s work both nationally and internationally, is the role of empathy in the development of social understanding and its potential to enable young people to foster better social responsibility, civic behaviour and critically, action. 

UNESCO Chair and Director of the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre at NUI Galway, Professor Pat Dolan said: “Within schools, empathy education initiatives like the one we launch today equip young people with vital skills in social emotional learning as well as offering them opportunities to engage in active citizenship and more compassionate caring towards others. Empathy education is urgently needed in schools to curb hate speech aggression and racial and other forms of negative profiling – it is imperative that the new incoming Minister for Education and Skills adopts empathy education in the same way as maths or other stem subjects.”

Earlier work by the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre (UCFRC) research team conducted with adolescents identified a need for greater focus on the promotion of empathy related skills and social values in Irish secondary schools.  In response, researchers at the Centre have developed Activating Social Empathy, an interactive, social and emotional learning programme to teach empathy skills and foster positive peer relations among secondary students. The programme is designed to form part of the Junior Cycle Wellbeing Programme and targets students’ learning and skill building around four key principles: Understanding Empathy, Practicing Empathy, Overcoming Barriers to Empathy, and Putting Empathy into Action.  

Professor Dolan continued: “The Activating Social Empathy programme was piloted in seven schools from September 2017 to June 2018. Overall, feedback on the programme was positive, with students and teachers typically reporting that the programme had a positive impact on students' empathy and personal development. Due to this initial positive feedback, we are now preparing to begin the next evaluation phase.”

Following a two-year feasibility testing phase, the programme is being launched as part of an evaluation study using a randomised-control design, in 25 schools nationwide involving over 2000 students. The evaluation will assess the impact of the programme on students’ empathic attitudes, social values, and interpersonal behaviours. The evaluation is being carried out by the UNESCO Child & Family Research Centre (Prof. Pat Dolan & Dr Charlotte Silke) and the School of Education (Dr Niamh Flynn & Emer Davitt) at NUI Galway. The full, evaluated programme will be available as a free resource to schools in Ireland from September 2020.          

The launch, which was also attended by youth advocates for empathy education, provided an opportunity to showcase the Youth as Researchers Video Resource Library for Schools and Community Groups, developed in collaboration with Foróige, narrated by Cillian Murphy. The event is part of a broad focus of the UNESCO Chair in extending the broader ethical education of youth in national and international settings in collaboration with UNESCO.       

Commenting on the event, actor and Centre Patron Cillian Murphy said: “You can’t really be an actor without employing empathy as a very important tool in your arsenal. In supporting this education programme which we are launching today, my hope is that it will help young people see that everyone has a different story and everyone’s story is valuable.”


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