TeenLife Blog

Supporting teen success, one post at a time

Gap Year Programs Teach Higher Order Empathy

Posted by | View Comments

Gap Year Programs Teach Higher Order Empathy

Our second major area of impact is the development of higher order empathy in students. Teaching empathy is a hot topic. Business leaders believe it is key to strong organizational function. Educators believe it is a means of preventing bullying. Sociologists believe it is the root of healthy relationships. But, this discourse seems to rely heavily on the easier end of the empathy scale. It includes comforting someone who is the victim of violence, oppression, or circumstance. Slightly tougher — but still easy — is trying to understand and work productively with someone who holds a different opinion.


Higher order empathy is much more difficult to master. This is the empathy that allows us to treat someone who commits a violent or oppressive act with love. Higher order empathy leads one to ask, “What would it take for me to commit those same violent and oppressive actions?” A person with higher order empathy considers it part of their duty to create a pathway for the offender to become a productive part of the community he is harming.

This is the empathy Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. referenced when he called upon civil rights workers to love their enemies. This is the end of the empathy scale that is incredibly difficult to master. Yet, Dr. King and other great leaders have pointed to it as a crucial component of social impact leadership. The development of these capacities is a core component of TBB’s mission and vision.

Those working in higher ed will find interest in this growth because it represents outstanding development of metacognitive skills. Higher order empathy requires strong systems thinking capacities to see the “big picture.” Both K-12 and higher education have assigned a high value to these skills because they are essential for critical thinking and problem solving.


To measure TBB’s impact on students’ capacity for higher order empathy, we first identified four outcomes that represent evidence of such growth:

  • Demonstrates empathy for all – oppressor and oppressed.
  • Recognizes and responds to one’s position of privilege or oppression in various settings and circumstances.
  • Can shift one’s “frame of reference” to critically analyze problems and perspectives.
  • Actions are justice-oriented as opposed to service-oriented.

Growth for any one of these outcomes represents progress toward TBB’s mission. However, when we combine the four, we see TBB’s programs creating exceptional higher order empathy in our students. Below are the measurements of growth:

Higher Order Empathy


The “Empathy for All” outcome is core to this area of impact. We coded for evidence that students were seeing all sides of issues, particularly those that were emotionally charged by the presence of clear “winners” and “losers.” Developmentally, students at the college transition age tend to respond strongly with emotions, often leading to advocacy for one perspective over another. The low Q1 scores show evidence of this. Yet, by the end of the period, there is dramatic improvement in their ability to empathize with all stakeholders.

The “Self-Awareness about Privilege & Oppression” outcome measures evidence that students are aware of how their privilege affects their interpretation of and relationship to issues of oppression. Higher order empathy requires reflection upon one’s own values and relationship to instances or systems of oppression. This is an advanced metacognitive task as it requires both deep introspection and the ability to see oneself as part of a dynamic set of inter-related stakeholders. We believe this growth is the result of students being challenged and supported to explore their assumptions and values while also engaging complex and dynamic social issues through inquiry.

The “Can Shift Frame of Reference” outcome measures students’ abilities to see and analyze issues from the perspective of another person. Again, this is an advanced metacognitive skill. It requires not only understanding the assumptions and perspectives undergirding one decision, but it requires holding another’s perspective while analyzing a complex issue. To do this successfully, one must determine how the assumptions and perspectives of another function as a dynamic and changing system in response to issues. Growth in this area is attributable to engagement with diverse stakeholder groups in fieldwork placements and homestay communities. Additionally, the inquiry based approach of the seminars challenges students to identify, share and analyze how their assumptions and values shape their perspectives.

Higher Order Empathy

The “Justice-Oriented” outcome measures the degree to which students are oriented toward a pursuit of justice rather than service. This outcome assumes that service and charity can be oppressive (see Paulo Freire and Amartya Sen for more). A justice orientation is evidenced by a focus on supporting the agency of others. As the graph shows, this is an area of significant growth. Our students often come with an idealistic vision of providing direct service to improve the lives of others. We see strong growth toward a more justice oriented approach to social impact as a result of direct daily exposure to local development experts who demonstrate the complexity of the issues faced within the community. Additionally, the curriculum challenges students’ core assumptions about international development, its purpose, and its practice.


Higher order empathy is not easy. It requires advanced self-awareness and metacognitive skills that must be intentionally developed. These are not simply academic pursuits. They require learning and engagement with the world that is personal, rooted in an examination of one’s assumptions and values. They come to the surface as emotions and perspectives about critical issues with real human consequence. By developing these capacities, TBB is preparing students to approach their higher ed and professional careers with the ability to synthesize information, work across disciplines, and innovate toward meaningful social impact.

Coming Up…

Next, we’ll examine TBB’s impacts on students’ capacities as learners. We’ll also share questions this study raised that are shaping further study both of our impacts and our program model. Stay tuned…

Blog post adapted from Thinking Beyond Borders. This is the third post in a series by Andrea Canuel and Robin Pendoley presenting the outcomes of Thinking Beyond Borders’ impact assessment (here are posts #1 and #2). The outcomes and analysis presented here are written for a broad audience. For a deeper look into the study, you can download it in its entirety.

Get More Great Content Here!

Written by Scott Ingram

Robin Pendoley is the founder of Thinking Beyond Borders. Robin’s blog posts on education and social change have been featured on Forbes, Ashoka, and Innovation Excellence.

comments powered by Disqus