Zero Degrees of Empathy

Teachers working with students on the autistic spectrum will clearly be attracted to this latest book by Simon Baron-Cohen. However those who work with troubled and disruptive students may also get some insights into how all our minds work when self-needs and other-needs are in conflist. As teachers we are tempted at times to view our most difficult students as if they were touched by evil! In this book Baron-Cohen proposes a radical shift, turning the focus away from evil and on to the central factor, empathy. Unlike the concept of evil, he argues, empathy has real explanatory power.

Putting empathy under the microscope he explores four new ideas: firstly, that we all lie somewhere on an empathy spectrum, from high to low, from six degrees to zero degrees. Secondly that, deep within the brain lies the ’empathy circuit’. How this circuit functions determines where we lie on the empathy spectrum. Thirdly, that empathy is not only something we learn but that there are also genes associated with empathy. And fourthly, while a lack of empathy leads to mostly negative results, is it always negative?

The book is now available via the usual booksellers and websites. 

Troops into teaching

Michael Gove’s policy of troops into teaching is aimed at improving discipline in our schools. What does that mean about the role of the teacher in today’s schools? It certainly tells us a lot about this government’s concerns over unruly pupil behaviour despite a decade of impotent initiatives by the last government. But what, if anything, does the military bring to the classroom?

What we gather is that the ex-soldier demonstrates  a more effective leadership presence in the classroom, not by shouting or bullying but by a calm and controlling presence, as much by their body language as what they say. Really what government is saying is that these people are more assertive. But if that is what is needed in many of today’s schools why are teachers not being given these skills in their own initial training? Why are universities and colleges failing to provide new teachers with these skills, and why doesn’t the government promote assertiveness training for serving teachers?

These assertive skills of behaviour management are not unique to the forces. Twenty years ago the classroom management programme known as Assertive Discipline was introduced into this country. It had an immediate impact in schools where it was used. The government of the time even recommended it in a White Paper. But educational politics isn’t that simple. It’s not what works that sticks; it’s what happens to be the political flavour of the time. Assertiveness and ideas of “discipline” ran contrary to the trendy liberal educational powers that be with their insistence on children’s rights, conciliation and negotiation rather than direction and leadership. As far as government was concerned Assertive Discipline got lost amongst all the student voice initiatives that clamoured for attention.

So now we are back to the same problem – but this time rather than use our existing teacher workforce, the idea is to draft in the ex-military ready equipped with the skills to manage. But assertive skills are needed by every teacher, some more than others, and the Assertive Discipline programme is still being taught to teachers in schools where its senior management sees the importance of clear positive leadership in the classroom. Why not use what we already have? It will empower all teachers, not just the military, and be far more cost effective. Or is there another political agenda yet again?