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Beyond the Echo Chamber: Why Empathy in Education Matters

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Throughout my career as an educator, and based on my many interactions with students, professors and employers, I have learned one of the best secrets to success. It is surprisingly simple; long-term educational and professional success comes down to empathy. This may catch many people off guard, because most were probably expecting to hear about a new business strategy, or complicated practice or method. The truth, however, is that successful businesses and leaders are where they are because they have unique skills that allow them to connect with and understand other professionals, their clients and their employees. This type of empathy is an essential component of emotional intelligence that we call "professional readiness" and teaching it should be our goal for all graduates of higher education institutions.

Innovation is the driving force in business and in overall growth, but the only way for innovation to be achieved is to employ individuals who understand that their role is more than the task at hand. Those who effectively pursue innovation and creativity recognize the value and role of building relationships, creating authentic connections and understanding a client or business need. When you have members of your staff that connect well with others and have developed the necessary understanding of your client's business this staff is creating new solutions and thinking innovatively. Without empathy, work simply follows the status quo and nothing ever changes or evolves. It is for this reason that competency-based education programs should not be followed as a stand-alone educational option, but should be used as an important part of a degree program that also incorporates courses offering opportunities for interaction with both peers and professors, available within the classroom or online from thousands of miles away.

While some competency-based classes can certainly be valuable, and even necessary parts of degrees, focusing solely on the competency-based system leads to students learning in an echo chamber. Sure, the students may earn a degree or certification because of their ability to demonstrate competencies through self-paced study, but this will happen without those students ever having to work cooperatively, solve a problem with other group members or show empathy for a fellow classmate while working through the process. This emotional intelligence, the ability to empathize with others, is critical for the professional readiness that is absolutely required the moment a student enters the workforce.

Having a college degree does not guarantee success. There are numerous examples of success and failure whether someone has earned a degree. What a degree does is confirm the attributes and knowledge a person has gained on their journey through their education. When we strip away essential components of the learning process like opportunities for collaboration and peer learning, we lose more than we gain. There is a cost to education devoid of human interaction. Where the students who focus only on earning their degree will certainly walk away knowing how to tell time, the students who pursue a more complete education that includes opportunities to develop professional and personal skills leave knowing how to make the watch (so to speak).

Emotional intelligence, and empathy in particular, will take students beyond the echo chamber of learning that is unavoidable when students pursue only a competency-based certification, and will assist in creating the essential connections that will inevitably open the doors for professional and personal success. In considering your educational plans, it is important to think very seriously about selecting a program that will allow you those important opportunities to interact with and learn from professors and classmates.

It is critical that as educators we recognize that while competency and proficiency are undoubtedly required and an essential part of overall success, such an approach to learning will never give students all of the skills or emotional intelligence that it takes to be ready for a career. Professional readiness must be a key part of education, as it not only teaches professionalism but also develops the essential requirement of empathy.

Though various industries and jobs will require different services and skills from the individuals hired, the common thread between each industry is that it will be successful because of employees that are relationship focused, innovative, forward thinking and unafraid to get out and create success for themselves and with others. The "college-lite" experience -- simply requiring skills and competency to prove proficiency rather than providing an experience with a professor and other students -- may give you the degree you have been looking for, but will not provide you with the education that you seek. As you set your larger educational goals, focus on getting outside of the echo chamber and emphasizing professional readiness. It will be the combination of these skills and the degree that you earn that will set you on your path to a very successful future.

Jayson M. Boyers is the executive director of the Division of Continuing Professional Studies at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont, a private institution that offers bachelor's and master's degrees in professionally-focused programs balanced by an interdisciplinary core curriculum.