Empathy Maps FOR THE WIN!

Looking for a way to get inside somebody’s head? Empathy Maps are here to help!


I first stumbled onto the concept of Empathy Maps at the Virginia ASCD annual conference in November of 2018. If you haven’t ever seen the tool, it was originally developed by a guy named Dave Gray, who maintains an innovation-inspired website at Gamestorming.com.

As luck would have it, this resource wasn’t originally designed for use in the education space. But we’ll get into classroom applications in just a sec. I’ll let him explain:

We designed the Empathy Map at XPLANE many years ago, as part of a human-centered design toolkit we call Gamestorming. This particular tool helps teams develop deep, shared understanding and empathy for other people. People use it to help them improve customer experience, to navigate organizational politics, to design better work environments, and a host of other things.

In The Innovator’s Mindset, George Couros shares the story of a video originally published in the Harvard Business Review, titled “To Innovate, Disrupt Your Routine,” which tells the story of how one airline dealt with a spike in complaints to their customer service team. Couros explains:


And though corporate types will declare the initiative a triumph thanks to “radical innovation,” educators around the world witness this same philosophy in classrooms around the world every single day, and probably know this activity by a more familiar name: The airline was able to enact radical changes because they asked the people making the decisions to put themselves into the shoes (err, seats, rather) of the very same folks whose concerns they were seeking to address.

That my friends, is what we like to call empathy.

In a classroom, teaching empathy is a critical tool for listening with the genuine intent to understand, and developing a shared appreciation from where another viewpoint, person, or people might be coming from before racing to judgment of their belief systems or behaviors. The application of this principle is myriad, and can be scaled and scaffolded for learners of any age from elementary school students all the way through a team-building exercise at a faculty retreat. Using a modified version of the Empathy Map tool initially conceived by Dave Gray and the folks at Gamestorming, educators can:

  • Ask students to imagine the world as seen from behind the eyes of a fictional character (Prince Hamlet, Boo Radley, Harry Potter, or Katniss Everdeen spring to mind)
  • Challenge classes to assess a real-world political crisis or economic problem from the perspective of a historical figure or industry leader (say, a major recession as seen from the perspective of a CFO, or a border conflict as witnessed by a politician seeking re-election in a state with heated partisan divide).
  • Compel learners to explore a culture from an unfamiliar culture or far-flung corner of the globe they might otherwise never had cause to consider (how might a Palestinian react to the latest news in a war-torn region in the Middle East? Why might a person of color in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood feel uneasy around a police officer if stopped without cause?)
  • Push faculty members to consider the viewpoints of their colleagues, students, parents, or school administrators while building trust, rapport, and community as part of a broader effort to make sense of every side of a major initiative before blindly moving forward into the “problem-solving” phase of the project (e.g. Why might neighborhood residents be concerned about our school adding massive lights to our outdoor track and stadium? How might math department colleagues be affected by the latest performing arts concert being rescheduled to the same weekend as the SAT?)

Very quickly, you can start to see there’s really no limit to the number of uses a simple graphic organizer like the Empathy Map can provide in your school or classroom. And as an instructional coach, I’ve helped teachers integrate this tool into their pedagogy for lesson plans ranging from 9th and 10th grade literature (great for getting inside the heads of two warring families in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet) through honors eleventh grade classrooms studying psychological realism (a perfect tool for deciphering stream of consciousness!) and twelfth grade students studying world religions (a handy way to visualize how Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus share many essential truths in common while still perceiving the world through very different lenses).

To put too fine a point on things — the possibilities really are endless.

Here’s an editable classroom copy of the Empathy Map tool I whipped up inspired by the original to offer to folks looking to make use of it in their own classrooms.

Author: John

John Meehan (@MeehanEDU) is an English teacher and school instructional coach at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia. He began his teaching career in 2010 as a career switcher through The New Teacher Project, after spending five years working in social media and event marketing. He is a 2017 ASCD Emerging Leader, and an alumnus of the 2016-2018 Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Teacher Advisory Council. In 2016, he was named one of Arlington, Virginia’s “40 Under 40” by the Leadership Center for Excellence. He is a past presenter and regular attendee at educational conferences throughout the United States, including the annual conference for National Catholic Education Association, ASCD Empower19, and the Play Like a Champion Today: Character Education Through Sports summer conference at the University of Notre Dame. He’s an avid runner who’s completed more than three dozen marathons, half marathons, long-distance road relays, mud runs, and obstacle course races. John lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.