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Empathy – it is all about windows and mirrors

Since last week I have been taking a course about the movie The Godfather (1972), one of my all-time favorites! I often get emotional when watching it because for me, it represents my intense love for the cinema. I do not know if you have seen The Godfather before, but this is the story of a group of really cruel men whose actions could never be justified, and still, why do I cry over their sad stories? That is the amazing power of cinema – when it is beautifully done, it makes you empathize with people completely different from you. I feel for them because I see their struggles and I understand they are human just like me.

American film critic Roger Ebert once said that We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of the other. It allows us to put ourselves in someone else’s place, to imagine ourselves in situations that we might never live. Research shows what happens in our brains – we have neurons commonly associated with empathy. These are called mirror neurons and they are activated not only when we perform an action, but also when we observe someone else doing the same thing. According to Italian neurophysiologist Giacomo Rizzolatti, mirror neurons allow us to understand other people’s mind, not only through conceptual reasoning but through imitation. Feeling, not thinking.

What empathy does then is open a window to a plural, diverse and multicultural world. Thus, an empathetic attitude plays an essential role in understanding and appreciating diversity in life. Such windows allow us to establish a close connection between our self and the other. But how much do we really know about our selves?

The learning process can be seen as functioning both as a window and as a mirror: it is a way to reflect and reveal both an all-inclusive world and the students themselves. Therefore, good education should make room for the learner to look through windows to see the realities of others, and into mirrors to see their own reality reflected. Emily Style, founding co-director of SEED Project on Inclusive Curriculum argues that All students deserve a curriculum which mirrors their own experience back to them, upon occasion — thus validating it in the public world of the school. But curriculum must also insist upon the fresh air of windows into the experience of others — who also need and deserve the public validation of the school curriculum.

In our lessons, where are the windows and mirrors? Well, I will continue professing my love for the cinema and say movies can be a great beginning. Many teachers love using movies in their lessons to introduce new topics and new language as well as to provide listening practice, so how about we use them as our students’ windows and mirrors? To illustrate: a window is a story that sheds light into the other’s experience whereas a mirror is a story that reflects your own experiences and helps you build your self, your own identity.

I am a strong believer that teaching is never neutral. In the techniques and materials we use in our lessons, we advocate values whether explicitly or unconsciously. So we should ask a couple of questions here:

  • What kind of movies are we bringing to our lessons?
  • Who are the main characters?
  • Is there proper representation in terms of gender, race, sexuality, age, bodies?
  • Where are these movies from?
  • How do they contribute to the amplification of all voices in the world?
  • How do they set themselves apart from the dominant narrative of privileged people?
  • Do they provide learners with a wide repertoire of windows?

These questions should be taken into consideration when you are deciding which movie (or TV show, book, text) to be used in your lessons. They can also be asked to students as well as other empathic questions about the movies, for example:

  • How would you feel if you were (a character from the movie)?
  • How do you think (this character) might be feeling? What makes you say that?
  • Can you think of a situation in which you felt this way? What happened?
  • What motivated (this character) to do (an important action)? What makes you say that? Can you think of possible alternatives to this action?
  • Why was this a window/mirror to you?

When we encourage students to watch movies about diverse stories, we are presenting them with new windows and little by little, promoting the development of students’ empathy. Even if at first the alien nature of the other is all they can see, it is important to understand that it is a process. Empathy can be nurtured and developed.

We also introduce students to the language they might need to talk about current issues in their local contexts and globally, making it relevant to their personal and academic lives. Gender and racial issues, for instance, are topics pretty likely to come up outside their lessons so why not equip learners to talk about them?

Bear in mind that when students have the opportunity to look at diverse windows, they might see them as mirrors to their own stories. That is the beauty of looking at windows and mirrors! Sometimes when we peek through a new window, we can see our own image reflected in the glass, and the window now becomes a mirror. The shared humanity of the dialogue between the self and the other is what makes us realise that no person should be limited to any frame. Make sure students are taught to appreciate and celebrate unique stories as well as add their own voices to the mix.


Freire, P. Pedagogy of the oppressed. (1970). New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd.

Jaffe, A. A look in the mirror neuron: empathy and addiction. Available at: Accessed on October 12, 2020.

Style, E. Curriculum as window and mirror. Available at: Accessed on October 12, 2020.

Wilkinson, A. In Life Itself, the late Roger Ebert made a case for art in hard times. Available at: Accessed on October 12, 2020.


Akemi Iwasa, an academic consultant at Troika, has worked in the ELT industry for 15 years in the areas of materials design and teacher development. She holds the Cambridge Delta 1, a BA in Languages (UFRJ), a postgraduate degree in Neuroscience (UFRJ) and she’s currently undertaking postgraduate studies in Human Rights and Corporate Social Responsibility (PUCRS).

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