Fairly recently, a discussion on empathy education appeared in the opinions column of the biggest and most prominent Finnish newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, when Minna Kartamo, a school principal from Espoo, Finland, argued that schools should teach pupils skills in empathy (28.3.2020). The text soon inspired another piece in which Professors of Music Education from the Sibelius Academy (University of Arts, Helsinki, Finland), Heidi Partti and Marja-Leena Juntunen, highlighted the possibilities to teach empathy specifically through art education (9.3.2020).
Teaching students empathy is also one of the core aims of DIALLS. To be more specific, empathy is seen as one of the core skills of cultural literacy that students need to learn in today’s diverse Europe. In this project wordless picturebooks and short films, along with the creation of making of artefacts, are used to teach cultural literacy. Similar to what Partti and Juntunen have argued, in DIALLS art is thus used as a tool in teaching empathy.
Let us look at the relationship between art and empathy more closely. How exactly can art be used to teach a skill such as empathy? It is widely argued that art and literature can help us gain awareness of ourselves and others and therefore evoke empathy towards others. According to Olivia Fialho: “The question of the transformative purpose of the arts and of literature […] has been present since human beings realized that they could influence others through discourse.” Art can thus be defined as a form of communication that can be used with the aim of transferring not only information but emotional responses.
It should therefore come as no surprise that art as a tool to teach empathy and other social skills has been acknowledged in education before DIALLS. For instance, philosopher Martha Nussbaum has argued for the use of art in teaching empathy and acceptance of otherness, which she considers vital skills for democratic societies. There are also more critical stances towards using art to teach empathy and other social skills. Some scholars have reminded us that art should also be valued for its aesthetic qualities instead of its transformative abilities. However, teaching children empathy through art does not – nor should it – necessarily mean the dismissal of other forms of art education that focus more on its aesthetic qualities. For the purposes of DIALLS, what is relevant is that there are promising empirical studies suggesting that art and literature, indeed, can help teach empathy, but this is highly dependent on the teaching methods.
It is precisely the challenge of creating pedagogical tools for the teaching of empathy – along with the other skills vital for learning cultural literacy – that the DIALLS project focuses on. In these changing times of global migration and super-diversification, skills such as empathy are increasingly important for the peaceful development of today’s Europe.
Dr. Aino-Kaisa Koistinen, University of Jyväskylä
 See e.g. Fialho 2019; Leavy 2017
 Fialho 2019, 3–4)
 See also Leavy 2017, 199
 For example, Barone & Eisner 2012, 7
 Nussbaum 2010, e.g. 13–16, 95–120
 See Polvinen and Sklar 2019
 Fialho 2019, 10; Pauwels 2017, 108; cf. Polvinen and Sklar 2019
* This blog is based on a book chapter I am currently writing with Dr. Tuuli Lähdesmäki on empathy and intercultural dialogue.
Barone, T., and Eisner. E. W. 2012. Arts-Based Research. London: Sage.
Fialho, O. 2019. “What is literature for? The role of transformative reading.” Cogent Arts & Humanities 6/1692532: 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1080/23311983.2019.1692532
Kartamo, M. 2020. ”Elämäntaidoista pitäisi tehdä erillinen oppiaine.” Helsingin Sanomat, Vieraskynä, 28.2.2020. https://www.hs.fi/mielipide/art-2000006421461.html?share=309004e2be39b51309a607cecdcdb4d1 (accessed 3.4.2020).
Leavy, P. 2017. “Arts-based research design.” In Research Design, 191–223. Guilford Publications.
Nussbaum, M. 2010. Not for profit. Why democracy needs the humanities. Princeton University Press.
Partti, H. & Juntunen, M.-L. 2020. Taidekasvatus kehittää tunnetaitoja ja empatiaa, Helsingin Sanomat, Vieraskynä, 9.3.2020. https://www.hs.fi/mielipide/art-2000006432388.html (accessed 3.4.2020).
Pauwels, L. 2015. “‘Participatory’ visual research revisited: A critical-constructive assessment of epistemological, methodological, and social activists tenets.” Ethnography 16(1): 95–117.
Polvinen, M. & Sklar, H. 2019. “Mimetic and synthetic views of characters: How readers process ‘people’ in fiction.” Cogent Arts & Humanities 6/1687257: 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1080/23311983.2019.1687257