Preventing Polarization: 50 Strategies for Teaching Kids About Empathy, Politics, and Civic Responsibilty by Michelle Blanchet & Brian Deters

8. Fight Apathy and Promote Empathy

  • Empathy is a skill that allows a person to see the world as others see it or walk in another’s shoes. You need to convince students that it is in their best interests to have empathy. Having empathy unites us and can prevent or at least dull polarization. Conversely, anger or hatred results in irrational actions and an increase in polarization.
  • Travel can help you get to know other people and cultures and real travel can be embellished with digital travel. Make sure your students take virtual field trips and ideally Facetime or Zoom with people in other cultures both in the US and in other countries. To have empathy students first need to be confident and love themselves.

9. Engage in Moral Ambiguity

  • The author’s premise is that we should all rely on our moral compass, ethical code, and character to help us make the best possible decisions. Therefore it is important that teachers help students find theirs. Thus when they discuss complex issues like abortion or standardized testing they will have a basis for their opinions.
  • The two basic polarizing forces they face are the media and religion. This means that both should be faced, not swept under the rug. A study of religions should reveal more similarities than differences. A study of media should show how the simplification of an issue can lead to polarization. (Doug: I see the media as the big culprit here. Students should be encouraged to sample media with both left and right-wing biases.)

10. Inspire Changemakers

  • The big idea here is to empower students so they can take action that makes some kind of positive difference. Maker spaces, genius hours, service learning, and volunteering can all promote this. Reaching beyond the school walls is key. They should always try to collaborate. (Doug: I disagree with the idea of attending protests as some are mostly peaceful.
  • Let students know they should never stop learning and always be responsible for everything they do. Stress treating people kindly. Give opportunities to invent, build, research, question norms, and start a business. Rethink assessments so students can show what they can do rather than regurgitate facts. Keep content relevant, connect with the real world, and emphasize hands-on activities.


  • Without holistic knowledge we become vulnerable to extreme beliefs. Authoritarian governments are the by-product of an uninformed population that is also vulnerable to dangerous misinformation. (Doug: Our media also omits information that doesn’t fit their biased narrative. Since it’s difficult to find unbiased media, you need to routinely consume media with both right and left biases. In short, you want to teach students how to think, not what to think. Students should be able to tell you both sides of any political argument.)

Michelle Blanchet and Brian Deters

  • Michelle is an experienced educator who founded the Educators’ Lab, which supports teacher-driven solutions to educational challenges. She has a master’s in international relations from Instituto de Empresa in Madrid, has taught in the US and Switzerland, and presented at many prestigious conferences. She is the co-author of The Startup Teacher Playbook: How to Personalize Professional Learning for You and Your Students.
  • Brian has been teaching social studies and coaching for over 27 years. He is the co-host of the 4 a Better Tomorrow podcast. He has a bachelor’s degree in secondary education from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champagn and a master’s in educational administration from Illinois State University. He has served as an adjunct professor and now teaches at Morton High School in Morton, Illinois.
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