Empathy and a 7th Grade History Class

This post is part of my Professional Growth Plan documentation on how I’m using Design Thinking in my classroom

One Grade 7 assignment I have done the past few years is a trial set during the Industrial Revolution, where students must answer the question: Should children be allowed to work in factories?

The assignment reads:

We are in Industrial Revolution England and the country is growing at an incredible rate.  The advancements in technology and the rapid urbanization of the country have lead to drastic changes. But not everyone is benefiting from the changes.   Young people are being asked to work in factories, for long hours and low wages.   Now the country is debating whether  the welfare of children is more important than the economic and technological progress occurring in the country.

You will be assigned a role in a trial we will be having in class. Some of you will be witnesses and other people will be lawyers.  There are two sides being debated and you will have to persuade people that your position is correct for the time period during the industrial revolution.

I’ve always liked this assignment. I like how easy it is to differentiate the roles for different students. I like the fact that students are introduced to primary documents and have to use them to formulate an argument. I like the fact that students dress up for the trial and they get into the spirit of the trial and have fun. I also really like that students are forced to think about a perspective that they might naturally think is wrong; namely the position that people would argue for child labor.

Trying to understand new, different, and abstract (i.e historical) perspectives can be difficult for grade 7 students. This year, I added a formative assignment prior to introducing the trial: an empathy map*. An empathy map is something used in Design Thinking,” to help you synthesize your observations and draw out unexpected insights”. Often used to understand a customer or client’s needs, an empathy map is being used in more classrooms as Design Thinking makes the move into more academic settings. Suggested by Adrian Baker, an empathy map is an excellent way for students to gain insights into historical figures. For this assignment, I used an empathy map to have students think about what life was like during the Industrial Revolution for children, factory owners, and campaigners.

It turns out I had to be away from school when my students were working on their empathy maps. So I made a video explaining what they had to do.


And because I was out, I made another one explaining how important empathy can be in understanding a historical figure.


When I came back to school (after Spring Break), my student pulled up their empathy maps and immediately could remember the perspective of the person they read about. I could immediately assess their understanding of primary sources. And they could immediately get to work at formulating questions for the trial based around what they observed and synthesized on their empathy maps .


Empathy Map for supporter of child labor


Doctor Against Child Labor

Doctor Against Child Labor

Empathy Map for Children Working During the Industrial Revolution

There is no doubt that doing the empathy map has strengthen my students’ understanding of the issue of child labor during the Industrial Revolution. It is a seemingly simple tool that allows my students to make their thinking visible and to gain a deeper understanding of historical perspectives.

Hard to feel bad about that.


*A big thanks to @davidjbland for putting together this great Google Draw template of an empathy map that let my students collaborate and share.

About Rebekah Madrid

MYP Humanities Instructor. International School Teacher in Japan. Google Certified Teacher. Apple Distinguished Educator. National Board Certified Teacher. Traveler & TV Watcher. This is where I write my thoughts about all of the above.
This entry was posted in Design Thinking, Humanities, Professional Growth Plan, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Empathy and a 7th Grade History Class

  1. This post had a lot of useful ideas. I have made a copy of your Google Draw template of an empathy map. I planning on modifying it a little to use in a circle of viewpoint exercise I’m doing in my fourth grade class. I will share an issue with the students, for instance deforestation in rainforests, and then the students will need to share different perspectives on the issue. The simple layout will help them organize their thoughts. Thanks for sharing.

    • Can’t wait to see how you use it! I’m really loving how Design Thinking and Making Thinking Visible overlap and how they help my kids demonstrate their thinking.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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