The fourth R

Ashoka, the organization famous for empowering changemakers throughout the world, sought to infuse empathy into the next generation of schoolchildren. But they found schools to be wary and teachers to be resistant.

We discovered that the key was uncoupling empathy from the curriculum and coupling it instead with what teachers do naturally: tracking and encouraging relationships among children. As one of our collaborators, Nina Rappaport, said: “We just need a fourth R. Reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic and relationships.”

This critical piece of context informed the Start Empathy toolkit Ashoka released the following year.

“Cultivating empathy and building up change-making skills in children and the adults modeling their behavior isn’t the result of a single exercise,” Ashoka’s Lennon Flowers told us about the toolkit. “We do have an extraordinary of concrete exercises that help you start today. But in the end, it’s not about that. It’s about being intentional in every conversation you have with every child, as well as your peers and administrators.”

The insights we developed with Ashoka greatly informed our later work on mindfulness education with the Dalai Lama Center for Peace + Education. We also took up the theme of scaling social impact with Ashoka the following year.