Originally published (in Finnish) on June 8, 2020.

Sometimes it’s thought that discourse on compassion is most intuitively connected to academic branches that examine interpersonal relationships, such as the humanities, social sciences, or psychology, as opposed to more economics- or technology-minded, ‘hard’ sciences. However, compassion has links, through substance or context, to teaching in all academic branches.

For instance, the ecological crisis and resulting climate refugeeship, stopping species from going extinct, and preparing for biological threats are problems that exist in our time, and we need to cooperate and share responsibilities among branches in order to solve them.

Renowned philosopher Martha Nussbaum notes that all levels of public education should develop students’ ability to imagine other people’s experiences and to face them. In recent years, researchers have been developing a pedagogy of compassion, where the uniting factor is the power for social change. The aim of this approach is to empower students, teaching staff, and the whole university institution to work towards the common good. The focus can be, for example, on the people who struggle the most amidst the COVID-19 crisis or on climate refugees. The actions taken may include “radical” realizations of ethical citizenship without utilizing the inadequate tools that the pedagogy is trying to discard.

Pedagogy of compassion can build a foundation or even mirror an entire institution’s operational policies that aim to challenge systemic inequality or fast-spreading moral discourse. Applications of the pedagogy of compassion are characterized by a particular emphasis on reflection. You reflect on what your beliefs and attitudes are and on what other people need and want. The reflectivity enables you to openly encounter different identities. It presents itself not only on an individual level but also in teams and management activities. The same kind of reflectivity offers a way to promote innovations and to build the most efficient processes that support the core mission at a given time. Especially when the responsive nature of teaching is realized in practice, students get an opportunity to develop their ability to analyze their thoughts as well as others’ through discussion.

The pedagogy of compassion is not an approach that one applies in a laboratory setting ‘away from the ones who suffer’. It’s a professional trait that doesn’t turn a blind eye to other people in a conference room or a lecture hall, and it doesn’t look for persons who are ‘worthy’ of compassion. It encourages young people to adopt an action-oriented mutual responsibility. The starting point for pedagogy of compassion is that the compassionate agent cannot always be distinguished from the receiver of compassion. This is also demonstrated by the pedagogy of compassion in practice, as the mechanisms for showing and receiving compassion are connected in several ways.

Compassion holds vast potential for becoming more apparent in university pedagogy. It can also be a balancing counterforce to certain expectations of how students should ‘perform’.

A compassionate-interaction-based seminar group intervention at the University of Hertfordshire showed that a positive social experience in a group had a significant effect on the learning process and on critical thinking skills. There have been several other promising interventions, too. We need not only a better theoretical understanding of compassion and pedagogy but also more empirical research on how compassion and pedagogy intertwine in the university setting.