Skip to Content

Ashby, R., and P. Lee. “Children's Concepts of Empathy and Understanding in History." In The History Curriculum for Teachers, edited by C. Portal, 62-88. London: Falmer, 1987.


In this chapter the Ashby and Lee examine how elementary school students conceptualize empathy and use the concept of empathy to understand the past. Since this is a pilot study the authors qualify their results and conclusions as preliminary and tentative.

After asking the children “to explain Anglo-Saxon oath-helping and the ordeal,” Ashby and Lee conclude that young students move through five stages of sophistication in their use of empathy. In the first stage, “the ‘divi’ past,” students understood the past as unintelligible and people in the past as “not as clever as us.” In the second stage, “generalized stereotypes,” they provided a stereotypical account of people’s roles and actions. In stage three, “everyday empathy,” students understood the past with reference to the present and were thus unable to see the differences between the past and present. However, in stage four, known as “restricted historical empathy,” students were able to understand the past with specific reference to the situation in which people found themselves, noting that these situations must be different from similar ones in the present. Taking this one step further, in stage five, “contextual historical empathy,” children were able to apply the fourth concept to a wider picture, indicating that if a particular situation in the past differs from a similar one in the present people’s lives in general must have differed in the past. Thus, the main difference in stage five is students’ ability to use certain strategies learned in one learning context and apply it to another.

To conclude, the authors offer suggestions on how to teach empathy maintaining that the best way to do this is to allow students to present each other with conflicting views of the past.

Ana Laura Pauchulo