Intergroup Empathy: The Role of Diversity in Learning

The Innovating Pedagogy Report 2017 sees ‘intergroup empathy’ as a long-term trend in educational technology. Online learning environments and social media networks form global virtual spaces. In these spaces, people from different backgrounds interact with each other, even if they come from countries or cultures that are engaged in conflict. In order to improve relations between diverse groups of people, it is important to develop empathy in the group members. This post discusses pedagogical strategies for inclusive classrooms.

What does intergroup empathy mean? We react and deal with people depending on whether we feel that they are in-group, in the same group, or out-group, in a different group (Venman, 2016). This categorization will –involuntarily –trigger people to feel less empathy towards others who belong to a different group. people have implicit bias, or unconscious bias against people who belong to another group (Jolls & Sunstein, 2006). Developing empathy allows us to understand and feel with others, and overcome prejudices and stereotypes.

Resonance, Reasoning, Response

In learning environments, specific pedagogical strategies can encourage intergroup empathy, including development of empathy in three areas: empathic resonance, empathic reasoning, and empathic response. According to Ferguson, et al. (2017), e-learning instructors can use many strategies to allow their students “to know, feel, and understand the internal state of another person, and respond accordingly” (p. 22). These strategies involve careful planning to improve the intergroup contact. These strategies aim to develop the following three areas:

  • Emphatic Resonance: is an instinctive emotional reflection of other people’s feelings
  • Emphatic Reasoning: is an intentional undertaking to imagine yourself in another person’s shoes
  • Emphatic Response: is having the motivation and will to appropriately address another person’s needs

In schools and universities, students and teachers need to work together to co-construct a learning environment where all students have an equal chance to achieve results that show their full potential.

The podcast ‘Well Said’ features an episode on interactive and inclusive classrooms that suggests several methods to help teachers create motivating classroom interactions and build feelings of in-group empathy between the students:

  • Allow students to develop necessary skills and close learning gaps by setting up routines to practice
  • Give information in small chunks
  • Use innovative lesson delivery methods, such as podcasts
  • Use backwards design (find out what students want to learn and do and design the course accordingly)
  • Account for the diverse characteristics and backgrounds of all students by explaining topics using different delivery ways
  • Hold students accountable for their learning
  • Allow students to talk and discuss topics with their peers
  • Ask students about their thought processes
  • Offer group work and make the classroom environment suitable for this by allowing for flexible seating that lends itself to discussions.
  • Offer hands-on learning and scientific discovery

The Innovating Pedagogy 2017 report likewise features strategies that teachers can apply in their classrooms to allow for inter-group empathy. Some of these suggestions are:

  • Using meditation to encourage students to have positive feelings and participate in activities in a constructive manner.
  • Using gamification which allows students to become more confident about their interactions with others in a safe and virtual context.
  • Using role playing that helps students see issues from new perspectives
  • Using virtual reality which allows students to live through different experiences in safe environments.
  • Using imagined contact in which students can get in contact with others using many different media
  • Using neutral or constructive issues which help students avoid experiencing possible violent outbursts.
  • Using certain modes of communication that can be tailored to the needs of the participants as they engage in dialogue.

Intergroup empathy in all levels of education

Inter-group empathy is not only important in online contexts, but it is also important for all levels of education, from K-12 until higher education in face to face settings. To help students feel empathy towards others who belong to different groups, Gottlieb (2014) suggested that parents and teachers play a huge part in this process. Allowing children to role play, play games, sing songs, interview their peers, have group discussions, experience hands-on projects, or any other type of active learning helps these students to feel like they belong to the same group where cooperation and justice are predominant.

Projects and tools

  • UnityWorks Foundation, is trying to help children embrace others from different ethnicities, backgrounds, religions, and so on by using PowerPoint presentations, curriculum guides, and workshops amongst many other resources.
  • The Enemy targets to help students, teachers, and parents avoid prejudice and accept others. Students have the chance to learn about the experiences and background stories of three combatants from three different conflict zones by using virtual reality app to bring the enemy to life. This game aims to teach people that we are more similar than different.
  • Humans of New York is a multimedia project that emphasizes the common needs of all of us. Users can choose between three categories: Stories, Countries, or Series. Each of these categories encourage us to feel empathy towards others by allowing us to understand their points of view and perspectives.
  • To-Be Education offers different role playing games. Each student chooses a character and builds an argument that will convince others of this character’s point of view.
  • The Implicit Association Test (IAT) allows people to uncover their implicit bias. Test takers are asked to group words or pictures depending on racial, religious, ethnic, and many other categories.


Bias creates divisions within societies and amongst different groups from different backgrounds. Education is one of the most important tools that will help people learn tolerance, understanding, and forgiveness. Our world is filled with conflicts that are often the result of misunderstandings and ignorance of other cultures and groups. This brings into the limelight the importance of intergroup empathy to allow people from every walk of life to come together. For this reason, it is imperative that schools build this critical issue in their curricula.



Devine, P. G., Forscher, P. S., Austin, A. J., & Cox, W. T. (2012). Long-term reduction in implicit race bias: A prejudice habit-breaking intervention. Journal of experimental social psychology, 48(6), 1267-1278.

Dörnyei, Z. (2007). Creating a motivating classroom environment. International Handbook of English Language Teaching, 719-731.

Ferguson, R., Barzilai, S., Ben-Zvi, D., Chinn, C.A., Herodotou, C., Hod, Y., Kali, Y., Kukulska-Hulme, A., Kupermintz, H., McAndrew, P., Rienties, B., Sagy, O., Scanlon, E., Sharples, M., Weller, M., & Whitelock, D. (2017). Innovating Pedagogy 2017: Open University Innovation Report 6. Milton Keynes: The Open University, UK.

Gottlieb, R. (2014). Overcoming Prejudice. Accessible online.

Jolls, C. & Sunstein, C. (2006). The Law of Implicit Bias. Faculty Scholarship Series. Paper 1824.

Well Said: Interactive and inclusive classrooms. (2017). University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Vanman, E. (2016). The role of empathy in intergroup relations. Current Opinion In Psychology, 11, 59-63.



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