#Deepen Teacher Inquiry - Hack No 14

Empathy Mapping & Ideating While you Explore

"No thought is ever complete until it's written down."
Col Fink -Thought Leaders Business School

The Cognitive Theory Behind Empathy Mapping and Ideation

Write, Draw, Speak......

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Empathy Mapping and Ideation are methods which enable us to represent our ideas in different ways so we can explore and deepen our thinking.

During the Empathy Mapping process, we write down all our ideas and thoughts about student learning. We then utilise this data in the Ideation process, where we draw our ideas, visualising our thinking through the process.

Why do we do this? Drawing engages different parts of our brain than writing does. When drawing, we create a visual representation of what we think. Once we do this, we can see it with greater clarity and better identify other aspects of our ideas. This process creates a pathway to deeper thinking.

The last part of the Ideation process involves speaking to our team about what we have drawn and what we are thinking. When we vocalise ideas and thoughts, we always articulate them in more detail than when we write or draw.

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Why do an Empathy Map?

Empathy Mapping, as part of a teacher Inquiry, is likely to be different from what you may have experienced previously.

There are three dimensions of learning - cognitive, social and emotional. Because learning is largely an emotional exercise, it is often messy, and there is a lot more involved than just the data. Empathy Mapping helps to plug us into the emotional side of our students learning and creates a space where we may notice things that we would not have seen by observing data alone.

It is useful for us as teachers to have a dig around our emotional thinking in regards to the learning of our students and not just in regards to the recognised constructs of teaching such as content and curriculum.

Completing Your Empathy Map.

The idea of an Empathy Map is that we blow our thinking really wide and get lots of ideas. All of your thoughts which relate to your students and their learning gets written on your Empathy Map. We can then explore our thinking and frame up our ideas around the following points.

  • What we are thinking and feeling about the students learning

  • What we find ourselves saying and doing regarding the students learning

  • What we see the students doing regarding their learning

  • What we hear the students doing regarding their learning

  • The things that hinder learning - the pains and classroom politics.

  • The things that are happening which are encouraging learning

If an idea is recurring in different areas of your Empathy Map, be sure to note it down consistently. If you see that that you're writing the same thing down in several quadrants, that points to the importance of this particular idea.

Note at this point. All our thinking is framed up around our students learning, and we are not focusing in on our practice - YET! Herein lies the difference of the Deepen Teacher Inquiry process. It starts by thinking and connecting on a deeper level about our students learning, as opposed to focusing in on our teaching practice.

The focus here is on connecting with the thoughts you have about your students learning, which are not necessarily outcome-driven. It is about looking at the things that resonate with you and subconsciously consume you. These are things that you recognise and acknowledge but may not be able to label just yet. It all starts with the learner. By starting at this point, the focus is on our students and their learning. Supporting and enabling student learning is why most teachers are doing what they are doing. So, we're starting with our internal purpose for our jobs, the reason we turn up to work every day.

Analysing Your Empathy Map.

Once you have lots of ideas on a page, you can begin to look for themes. These can be found by looking across all areas of your Empathy Map and matching up similar ideas. Themes are built from the ideas we have written down numerous times within two or three areas of the Empathy Map.
These themes might be problems or struggles you have identified. Alternatively, they might be positive things that are happening with learning.

The Ideation Process.

Draw your ideas, and then speak them to the room.

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Ideation is about drawing and speaking your ideas. In the six boxes on the Ideation Map, you will draw a representation of your themes from your Empathy Map, one theme into each box.
Ideally, no words are used; however, if this is a struggle for you, a word or phrase may be used to help you in the discussion.


The superpower of the Ideation process is in the sharing, the collaboration.
Once we have finished drawing our ideas on the Ideation Map, we speak about our drawings. We explain our drawings to build further into the context of our ideas by creating an oral representation of each picture.
When we speak about our thinking and our drawings, we use more descriptive words to build a story around our thinking. Our brains are wired for story. During this part of the Ideation process, we are connecting with others and being brave with our stories—it's in our biology. The idea of storytelling has become ubiquitous. It's a platform for everything from creative movements to moments of clarity. But the idea that we are "wired for story" is more than a catchy phrase.

Neuroeconomist Paul Zak has found that hearing a story—a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end—causes our brains to release cortisol and oxytocin. These chemicals trigger the uniquely human abilities to connect, empathise, and make meaning. Story is literally in our DNA. Creativity embeds knowledge so that it can become practice. We move what we're learning from our heads to our hearts through our hands. We are born makers, and creativity is the ultimate act of integration—it is how we fold our experiences into our being.


The round-robin activity that gives this process its real impact!
At this point, we go around the room and share our thoughts about the stories we have heard.
The framework we use follows:

Pink for Think.

A pink post-it note is used to write an idea that starts with "Have you thought…". Have you thought…” feedback is intended to share an opinion you have about the story you have just heard. Dependent on the content of the story, this is likely to be solution-based and ideally will ultimately help accelerate student learning.

Green for Go.

A green post-it note is used to write an idea that starts with "I like...". The concept is to give affirmation in feedback to the teacher who has shared their thoughts with the group.

When we engage through collaboration and contribution, some really awesome golden nuggets drop out of our dialogue. The feedback we give and receive builds on our thinking and ideas. This ultimately contributes to and strengthens the Inquiries of all involved in the session.

If you are interested in enhancing learning in your school, take a look at the link below for details on my book. Even better, contact us to have a chat about options for Deepen Teacher Inquiry workshops in your school.

Nga mihi.


From the Archives


Measure What Matters

The Power of Qualitative Evidence and a Look Into the Learning Process.

Your commitment to the learning of your students is enabled through your connection to the learning and learning needs of your students. This connection occurs within your Inquiry and is connected to the learning process by measuring learning in your classroom. Measuring learning and measuring the learning process enables you to know the impact you are having on your students’ learning in a deeper way than assessment data ever could.


The Process

Exploring - Looking Out Then Looking In

I am curious, what drives the focus of your Inquiry?

In so many schools I see a mandated focus on priority areas that can end up crippling the impacts of the entire Teacher Inquiry process. Part of what I love about the work I do, and the schools I work with, is the change that we are making towards empowering the Inquiry process and accelerating teacher growth. This is the true spirit of Deepen Teacher Inquiry.

We are constantly working towards not only refining the Inquiry process, but also empowering change. Empowerment through the drive to re-purpose and re-frame appraisal involves moving Deepen Teacher Inquiry towards the centre of the whole learning system. It's an approach which needs to apply to all levels and all parts of the organisation.