Season 2 | Episode 2 – Empathy Interviews
Guest: Dr. Kara Imm
Mike Wallus: If there were a list of social skills we hope to foster in children, empathy is likely close to the top. Empathy matters. It helps us understand how others are feeling so we can respond appropriately, and it can help teachers understand the way their students are experiencing school. Today on a podcast, we talk with Dr. Kara Imm about a practice referred to as an empathy interview. We'll discuss the ways empathy interviews can help educators understand their students' lived experience with mathematics and make productive adaptations to instructional practice.
Mike: Well, welcome to the podcast, Kara. We're excited to have you join us.
Kara Imm: Thanks, Mike. Happy to be here.
Mike: So, I have to confess that the language of an empathy interview was new to me when I started reading about this, and I'm wondering if you could just take a moment and unpack, what is an empathy interview, for folks who are new to the idea?
Kara: Yeah, sure. I think I came to understand empathy interviews in my work with design thinking as a former teacher, classroom teacher, and now teacher-educator. I've always thought of myself as a designer. So, when I came to understand that there was this whole field around design thinking, I got very intrigued. And the central feature of design thinking is that designers, who are essentially thinking about creating new products, services, interactions, ways of being for someone else, have to start with empathy because we have to get out of our own minds and our own experiences and make sure we're not making assumptions about somebody else's lived experience. So, an empathy interview, as I know it now, is first and foremost a conversation. It's meant to be as natural a conversation as possible. When I do empathy interviews, I have a set of questions in mind, but I often abandon those questions and follow the child in front of me or the teacher, depending on who I'm interviewing.
Kara: And the goal of an empathy interview is to elicit stories; really granular, important stories, the kind of stories that we tell ourselves that get reiterated and retold, and the kinds of stories that cumulatively make up our identities. So, I'm not trying to get a resumé, I'm not interested in the facts of the person, the biography of the person. I'm interested in the stories people tell about themselves. And in my context, the stories that kids tell themselves about their own learning and their own relationship to school, their classrooms, and to mathematics. I'm also trying to elicit emotions. So, designers are particularly listening for what they might call unmet needs, where as a designer we would then use the empathy interview to think about the unmet needs of this particular person and think about designing something uniquely and specifically for them—with the idea that if I designed something for them, it would probably have utility and purpose for other people who are experiencing that thing. So, what happened more recently is that I started to think, “Could empathy interviews change teachers' relationship to their students? Could it change leaders' relationships to the teachers?” And so far, we're learning that it's a different kind of conversation, and it's helping people move out of deficit thinking around children and really asking important questions about, what does it mean to be a kid in a math class?
Mike: There's some language that you've used that really stands out for me. And I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit more about it. You said “the stories that we tell about ourselves”; or, maybe paraphrased, the stories that kids tell themselves. And then you had this other bit of language that I'd like to come back to: “the cumulative impact of those stories on our identity.” Can you unpack those terms of phrase you used and talk a little bit about them specifically, as you said, when it comes to