Using Visual Art to Develop Empathy


By Amanda Koonlaba

Koonlaba Art Empathy 300x300A few years ago, I was teaching my 3rd grade art students about Vincent Van Gogh. I showed a short slideshow of his major works, one of which was The Potato Eaters. Afterward, I gave the students a few minutes to talk to their neighbors about what they saw, and I overheard this conversation:

“Did you see those people eating? It was that painting with all the people and all the dark, sad colors?”

“Oh, yeah I remember seeing that one.”

“That one broke my heart. They looked hungry and hurt. You could just see that they were hurting.”

I was quite surprised by what I overheard. I thought the students would choose to discuss the pieces that are more popular in the elementary school setting, such as the sunflowers or the bedrooms. The empathy oozing from that conversation left me with a very specific question: How can I help develop empathy in my students instead of waiting for it to happen haphazardly?

Ron Ritchhart and David Perkins of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero tell us that learning is the direct result of thinking and that the development of thinking is a social endeavor. While this seems obvious, it is worth exploring in the context of the complexity of empathy as a social skill.

Learning Is the Direct Result of Thinking

Simply viewing a work of art can evoke emotions. The colors, the textures, and the subject matter can all influence the immediate emotional response of the viewer. The key to using this surge of emotion to develop empathy is to direct it from being indescribable to something concrete.

After trying several different versions of this lesson, I recommend a variation of Project Zero’s See, Think, Wonder strategy. Students can record their responses on a chart with three columns (See, Think, and Feel). Have students explicitly list what they see, think, and feel when looking at the artwork. For instance, if students are viewing The Potato Eaters, the See column might include the word plate. Students might list the words only one because they are too poor to buy more next to the word plate as their response for the Think column. Finally, they might add the word helpless in the Feel column. You could give students a word bank of appropriate terms for the Feel column to help them avoid oversimplified words like happy, sad, and mad. This strategy of viewing and responding to artwork is akin to the literacy strategy of using evidence from text to make inferences. So, there is carryover into the regular education subjects and beyond the visual art classroom.

The Development of Thinking Is a Social Endeavor

The next step is to allow students to engage in conversation with their peers. The See, Think, Feel activity helps to foster a safe environment for students to share their feelings. The evidence from the artwork that was listed in the See column provides students with a concrete, factual element to which they can refer when discussing their feelings. It’s like a security blanket that adds a protective layer to their vulnerability. Simply put, it is easier to share something so personal when you have evidence to explain why you feel the way you do.

I recommend directing this conversation by asking students to share their See, Think, Feel charts in pairs. When one student is finished sharing, the other should repeat back what she heard. This validates students’ responses, ensures engagement, and helps students develop their speaking and listening skills.

Follow Up

Neuroscience research has shown that children who have a solid, well-developed sense of self have a greater capacity for empathy. The See, Think, Feel activity allows students to think about their thinking and emotions. They are able to share with peers in a safe, accepting environment.

Follow up is important for this activity to be effective. A writing activity that allows the students to expand on their See, Think, Feel chart is appropriate. Students can write more about their feelings after engaging in peer discussion. Have them carry this writing through the entire writing process to make this activity even more integrated with language arts content.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Viewing a piece of art and connecting their own feelings to what they see allows them to learn about themselves. When students better understand themselves, they can better understand others. As teachers, we can assist our students in the development of empathy by letting them think to learn and partake in social interactions within the safe environment of our classrooms.


Amanda Koonlaba teaches visual art in Tupelo, Miss, and serves as an arts integration instructional coach. She is an ASCD Emerging Leader and will complete a specialist degree in educational leadership in December. Connect with her on Twitter @AKoonlaba.