Let’s Make Room for Kindness in Research and Instruction

       During my first semester of teaching, a colleague and I were having a conversation in which I noted the importance of kindness to my teaching philosophy and pedagogy. Their response? “I don’t really think kindness is a part of teaching.” At the time, I shrugged it off as a difference of opinion, but after adequate reflection, and given all that’s happening in the world, I find it important to note that values like kindness and compassion are fundamentally connected to teaching and learning, and to further assert that we should absolutely seek to incorporate such values in training law students to become effective—and ethical—lawyers.

       More recently, I asked two former educators: “Can and/or should kindness be a part of teaching?” The first response? “Absolutely!” The second? “Of course! That’s not a question.” Okay, so I’m not crazy. We went on to discuss how values like kindness and compassion set an important and positive tone for the entire learning experience, serve as an avenue to trust, and allow students the comfort and safety to take risks and ultimately learn better.

       But what do experts say? Well, according to neuroscientist and educator Dr. Judy Willis, neuro-imaging and brain-mapping research supports a relationship between teaching strategies that incorporate values like kindness, which decrease the negative impact of stress and anxiety and promote positive motivation and engagement, and an outcome in which students gain emotional resilience and learn both more efficiently and at higher levels of cognition.

       Of course, scholarly discussion on the role of such values as related to teaching is not new. But a brief look at some of the existing scholarship reveals that much of the conversation has taken place outside of the US. While UK authors, in texts like The Pedagogy of Compassion at the Heart of Higher Education more comprehensively examine care-centric approaches to instruction, deeming them “central to the experience of learning,” US scholars appear less convinced, or at least less concerned.

       Loosely related and an interesting trend to note is the growth of academic institutes dedicated to the study of kindness, compassion, and other similar values. In recent years, a number of top institutions in the US have begun to establish centers aimed at evaluating the benefits and widespread applicability of such values to higher education and other areas of society. Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, for instance, was established within its Department of Neurosurgery “with the explicit goal of promoting, supporting, and conducting rigorous scientific studies of compassion and altruistic behavior.” Just last year, UCLA opened the Bedari Kindness Institute, which is housed in its Social Sciences Division and “dedicated to the research, education, and practice of kindness, with the goal of empowering citizens and leaders to invest in building more humane societies.”

       And indeed, there have been some US scholars speaking more specifically to the inclusion of such values in pedagogical approaches to higher education. Cate Denial is one such example, and in a recent podcast, she encourages us to think about the connection between an online pedagogy of kindness and Universal Design for Learning principles. (Her book on “A Pedagogy of Kindness” is forthcoming!)

       Naturally, COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement have also worked to push the conversation forward. While perhaps the idea that kindness is not an inherent part of instruction was shared pre-COVID, as evidenced below, educators throughout the world have been more apt to advocate for the adoption of empathy-focused pedagogies in recent months.

       The truth is that kindness should be connected to everything we do, including teaching. How can we possibly expect to foster education and social progress without being kind? The world is evolving, and I submit that kindness is essential to the right kind of change. So let’s stop viewing kindness as merely incidental to research and instruction and start making room for it in our philosophies and pedagogies. Let’s make room for it in our virtual classrooms, at the virtual reference desk, and everywhere else in our personal and professional lives as we seek to create positive, necessary change.

Teach For America on Twitter: ""Educating the mind without educating the  heart is no education at all." - Aristotle http://t.co/UXK3BUYKq5"


Brandy Bagar-Fraley, Offering Compassion and Care in Online Courses, Faculty Focus (May 8, 2020), https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/offering-compassion-and-care-in-online-courses/.

Catherine Denial, A Pedagogy of Kindness, Hybrid Pedagogy (Aug. 15, 2019), https://hybridpedagogy.org/pedagogy-of-kindness/.

Compassion in Education, https://compassioninhe.wordpress.com/ (last visited Sept. 8, 2020).

Erin Rentschler, Engaging Students beyond the Traditional Classroom Part II: Pedagogies of Presence, Kindness, and Care, The Flourishing Academic (June 4, 2020), https://flourishingacademic.wordpress.com/2020/06/04/engaging-students-beyond-the-traditional-classroom-part-ii-pedagogies-of-presence-kindness-and-care/.

Frances A. Maratos, Paul Gilbert & Theo Gilbert, Improving Well-Being in Higher Education: Adopting a Compassionate Approach, in Values of the University in a Time of Uncertainty 261-78 (Paul Gibbs, Jill Jameson & Alex Elwick eds., 2019).

Jane E. Dutton & Monica C. Worline, Educators, It’s Time to Put on Your Compassion Hats, Harvard Business Publishing (Apr. 2, 2020), https://hbsp.harvard.edu/inspiring-minds/educators-its-time-to-put-on-your-compassion-hats?itemFindingMethod=Editorial.

Judy Willis, The Neuroscience Behind Stress and Learning, Edutopia (July 18, 2014), https://www.edutopia.org/blog/neuroscience-behind-stress-and-learning-judy-willis.

Karen J. Head, Let’s Add Compassion to Our Online Curriculum, The Chronicle of Higher Education (Mar. 31, 2020), https://www.chronicle.com/article/lets-add-compassion-to-our-online-curriculum/.

Raquel Wright-Mair, A Work of Heart: Practicing Critical Compassionate Pedagogy in the Face of Adversity​, Diverse Issues in Higher Education (July 17, 2020),  https://diverseeducation.com/article/184482/.

Sakinah Alhadad, Chantelle Warren, Ruth Bridgstock, Jude Williams & Mandy Lupton, Prioritising Care and Compassion in Learning and Teaching During the COVID-19 Crisis, Griffith University Blog (Apr. 7, 2020), https://blogs.griffith.edu.au/learning-futures/prioritising-care-and-compassion-in-learning-and-teaching-during-the-covid-19-crisis/.

Simon Robinson, The Pedagogy of Compassion at the Heart of Higher Education, 9 J. Glob. Resp. 130-34 (2018) (book review).

Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, http://ccare.stanford.edu/ (last visited Sept. 8, 2020).

Sue Clegg & Stephen Rowland, Kindness in Pedagogical Practice and Academic Life, 31 Brit. J. Socio. Educ. 719-35 (2010).

The Pedagogy of Compassion at the Heart of Higher Education (Paul Gibbs ed., 2017).

ThinkUDL Podcast, An Online Pedagogy of Kindness with Cate Denial (July 21, 2020), https://thinkudl.org/episodes/an-online-pedagogy-of-kindness-with-cate-denial.

UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute, https://kindness.ucla.edu/ (last visited Sept. 8, 2020).

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