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The development of empathy has played a significant role in my work over the last few years. From developing students’ soft skills to working on interfaith dialogue courses, one of the features at the core of each has been a focus on developing students’ abilities to empathise with and understand the feelings and motivation of others. In my opinion there is a real deficit of empathy in our world at present, with the increasing polarisation of political views and the algorithmic reinforcement of our own biases, this is something I feel we as teachers urgently need to redress.

For this reason, empathy and the portrayal of people who our students might see as ‘other’ has become an important part of my work when designing materials at PeacheyPublications. I realise that to some extent this flies in the face of accepted views on materials design, which posits that we should be showing our students images of themselves and representing them within the materials. Whereas I know this may make sound economic sense, I believe that we must also expose our students to people who are different from themselves in order to build a better and broader acceptance, tolerance for and understanding of the world around them.

In this article I would like to share a few simple activities that we can use with visual narrative to encourage students to put themselves into the lives, minds and feelings of others and to see beyond the surface appearance. I believe that visual narrative and particularly videos without spoken dialogue are an excellent medium for the development of empathy. Narrative is designed to touch our emotions and help us identify with characters that may be very different from ourselves.

Many of the ideas used below were features in my webinar presentation ‘Exploiting Short Video Clips for Language Practice‘ and have been used in the lessons that I have written for ‘10 Video Shorts Lessons‘. The activities can be used individually or paired together as appropriate for the materials you are using them with.

Activities for developing empathy through visual narrative

  • Body language – Show students a video and pause at specific points. Ask them to think about what the persons’ body language shows and how they are feeling. Ask the students to copy the body language of the character.
    • Rationale: Building awareness of body language can make students more aware of this important subconscious aspect of communication. Understanding body language can help us to understand people better, and also understand what we may be communicating through our own body language.
    • Example video: The First Date
  • Thought bubbles – Create thought bubbles, pause the video at specific points, and get the students to write down what the character is thinking.
    • Rationale: This encourages students to put themselves into the minds of other people, and also helps to make them more aware of subtext. People often don’t say exactly what they mean, and there can be quite profound differences between their words and their thoughts.
    • Example Video: Laundry Quandary
  • Where is the conflict? – Most narrative is based on some form of conflict. Ask students to watch the video and identify the nature of the conflict. Most common narrative conflicts fall into one of four categories: Character vs Character, Character vs Nature, Character vs Society, Character vs Self.
    • Rationale: Understanding the nature of the conflict and why the conflict exists can make students more aware of people’s conflicts in everyday life.
    • Example Video: Spellbound
  • Mapping emotions – Ask students to draw a horizontal line across the centre of a page. At the top left ask them to draw a ‘+’ sign and at the bottom left ask them to draw a minus ‘-‘ sign. Then select a character from the video and ask them to watch the character and graph their changes in emotion as the video progresses. When ever an event happens that changes the character’s emotional state, they should draw a line either up or down. At the end of the video, they can compare and describe what was happening in the video and how and why it impacted the characters emotions.
    • Rationale: This activity helps students become more aware of the impact of events on both the positive and negative emotions of others. This activity can also be used to track the students’ own emotions towards a character in a narrative.
    • Example Video: L3.0
  • Personal parallels – Ask students to watch a narrative and try to identify at least 10 things they have in common with a character from the narrative. At the end of the video, they can discuss their commonalities with other students and see who had most/least in common with the character.
    • Rationale: This activity can encourage students to see that even with characters that may be different from ourselves, we can try to find common ground.
    • Example Video: In a Heartbeat
  • Backstory – Ask students to create the backstory to the narrative they watched. Get them to think about what happened before the story began, how different characters met, how their relationship developed. Students can discuss this together and then share their backstories and take the best ideas from each story to create a new one.
    • Rationale: This encourages students to think outside the narrative and look at what may have led to the conflict in the narrative. This helps students to see that there is a chain of events that leads us to where we are, and this may help them understand motivation.
    • Example Video: No-A
  • Childhood – Ask the students to try to imagine the character as a child. What was their childhood like? What were their parents like? What circumstances did they grow up in? What happened to them that led them to develop certain character traits they display?
    • Rationale: This is particularly effective when used with the negative characters in a narrative. It helps students to understand that we are all born in innocence and what we become is often as a result of chance and circumstances and the things that happen to us rather than through our own choices.
    • Example Video: Zing
  • Interviews – Ask students to think of 10-12 questions to ask one of the characters and find out more about them. These could be questions about their hobbies or background. Once the students have chosen their questions, they can work in pairs and one student can play the part of the character from the narrative while the other one uses the questions to interview them.
    • Rationale: This helps to put the student into the role of the character and think about things from their perspective.
    • Example Video: Starlight
  • What’s their motivation? – Ask students to watch the narrative and decide what motivates each character. You can do this by asking them what the character wants to achieve and why they want to achieve it. Their initial answer to this is usually quite superficial, but you can encourage students to think more deeply about their answers by teaching them how to use the ‘5 Whys’ technique. Using this technique, they continually try to dig a layer deeper into the root causes that motivate actions. So for example if they decide the character is motivated by the desire for money, they then ask “Why does he want money?” and if the answer is “He thinks he will be happier.” ask “Why does he think money will make him happy?” and continue in this way five times. Students work together to try to dig down 5 levels into what motivates the characters.
    • Rationale: This encourages students to look more deeply into what motivates people and helps them understand what causes people to do the things they do. This in turn can help students to understand, rather than judge, the behaviour of others.
    • Example Video: Distracted
  • Crazy questions – Prepare a list of questions about a narrative, but make sure the answers to the questions aren’t contained within the narrative. Give the questions to the students after they have watched and ask them to try to imagine what the answers may be. The questions could be about any aspect of the characters’ life, e.g. Did he have a happy childhood? What kind of school did he go to? Who is his best friend? What does he like to have for breakfast? What is his happy place? Try to create a list of around 20 – 30 questions for students to think about, and then they can discuss the answers together. Stress that there is no correct or incorrect answer, they should just use their imagination.
    • Rationale: This activity helps students to think more deeply about the full richness of a person’s life. This can be especially powerful when used with peripheral types of characters, such as a storm trooper in Star Wars. Many characters in narrative are regarded as inconsequential and dehumanised. These characters are easily ‘killed off’ without anyone really considering the impact that it has on the lives of other people. Every person has friends and family and dreams and ambitions, and encouraging students to think about each character in a deeper way can encourage them to see the value in every person.
    • Example Video: No-A

I think it’s important to remember that commonly when we watch visual narrative we are shown how the drama unfolds from the perspective of the hero, but I think it’s also important to focus some of these activities on the ‘villains’ too. Drama is often based around creating polarised characters to show the battle between good and evil, wrong and right, but in reality things are seldom this simple. Most people and situations have some good and bad aspects. Few people are wholly evil, just as most people are also flawed. Helping students to understand and empathise can help them become more tolerant and open-minded of the views of others. At least, I hope so.

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