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Do we need DNA to experience empathy?

Social background and nationality are often used as markers of group identity.  Saying “I’m Greek” or “I’m Dutch” make us feel like we share a familiar set of cultural traits with others. This creation of an ‘in-group’ has the effect of also creating our ‘out-group’. We feel we are closer than we actually are to “in-group” members and more different than we really are with “out-group” members. This is where things can become risky, when we limit our pro-social stances to our in group and refuse it to others, creating an ‘us’ that is thought of as good, deserving and liked, and a ‘them’ that is far away, unconnected, undeserving and often times perceived as bad.

But what if we learn that your identity is not quite what we think it is? That, even though we feel French, Brazilian or Mozambican – of this or that ethnic origin – our DNA tells a far more complex story?

This 5-minute video recently became viral. We witnessed teachers around the world declaring that it was a great educational resource to prevent prejudice and racism, “because people will know that they are ‘not of pure origin’”. We decided to address this educational position and react to it with our sensitivity. We think it has the potential to actually develop the opposite and contribute to an increase in racist beliefs.

The video follows the reactions of a group of people with different nationalities when their DNA results reveal the unsuspected diversity of their heritage. When we first meet the individuals, they are clear on who they are and who they are not (and even which countries they don’t particularly like!). Yet, when faced with their “DNA world maps” (the countries of their evolutionary/biological heritage), it becomes clear their constructs do not reveal the whole truth about their identities.

The video raises some interesting questions that tell us that it may be a good educational resource but not for the reasons we heard about in social fora:

  • Is prejudice a biological or social construct?
  • Is knowing your DNA a cure for prejudice?
  • Is prejudice in our DNA?
  • Do we really need biological reasons to remind us to be open-minded?

The video has an aim: to create openness to others. We challenge this notion and think that this is not what it does. We think this “experiment” is not uniting. It is again dividing and teaching to respect/like people who are the same as us. The result is “if I don’t have the same DNA as ‘Bulgarians’, then I don’t like them; but if I do, I will start liking them”. It is again that we don’t respect/like human beings in general. The only difference is that before “knowing my DNA”, I only liked  ‘Lithuanians’. Now I will add a few more other “nations”, with whom I share the same DNA, to my “likes”.  

The video raises many other questions, including whether and to what extent can we expect knowledge (even purely scientific as in this video) to have an impact on our attitudes concerning issues that are so emotionally and politically sensitive.

It is for these ethical questions that we find that the video can be a good educational resource, not for the initial reasons professed by commentators. Raising our capacity for empathy, or developing competences for respect, tolerance and realising the interconnectedness of humanity is a value-based activity. Steering us away from that and making us believe that developing these competences is a biologically-based activity is quite a dangerous endeavour that undermines the fact that

no matter who we are, we share a common destiny as humans.

Is DNA so vital? Should we be aware of more defining elements of identity? For example,  sometimes our birth order in our family, or the people we meet, etc. makes a much bigger impact on our lives than our DNA.

If we  say “we all are unique”, there is no more of this this line, DNA or not.

Debating Europe

I just participated in

It was a very interesting experience to be asked to respond to students statements on diverse issues: is tolerance born or learnt?

I was asked the following questions:

Patrick thinks that tolerance is not innate, but must be basically lived and taught and for this reason, it is a fundamental error in the educational policy and cultural policy to save money.  Do you agree with Patrick?

James believes it is imperative that anyone wishing to live in any country speak the native language of the host country, which not only aids integration but also enhances the chances and opportunities for work.  What would you say to him?

Anthony thinks that mixed-language education programs do not help kids integrate and learn the language faster; he is rather in favour of a single language education.  What would you say to Anthony?

Alexandra’s thinks all Europeans should acquire full command of at least 2 other European languages, apart from their native language.  Do you agree with her?

Paul thinks that you don’t need to go to the extreme of “hate speech” to have you freedom of speech questioned and that you can’t say you disagree with immigration without being called xenophobic.  What would you say to Paul?

They selected one of my responses: the gist of which is that teachers need to be educated in tolerance to teach tolerance.

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Diversity in the classrooms of Europe :                    is tolerance born or learnt?

Debating Europe is designed to engage citizens and policymakers in an ongoing conversation on a range of vital issues shaping our future. It’s based on a simple model: citizens ask questions, policymakers and experts respond. It’s proved to be a popular idea: in under three years, it’s built-up a 500,000 strong community of citizens and over 175,000 Facebook and Twitter followers from across Europe to debate with its leaders. To date a selection of 30,000 questions have been put to over 900 key policymakers and experts. check out some of the debates: click here.

Now will policy-makers  be genuinely interested? … Anyhow, the experience was engaging and I was able to send  a positive message to my networks.

Engage you students: all students can participate in this initiative!

(an online discussion platform launched in 2011 in partnership with the European Parliament, Microsoft, Gallup and Skype)

La sagesse d’Edgar

Il faut apprendre à désapprendre pour réapprendre à apprendre (M. Edgar Morin)

September, back to school activities 1

Educators around the world will get to know new students, in new classrooms. It’s ‘time to get to know each other!’. I am collecting activities to get to know each other in a fun way.
Today: Name games
Here are a few.

jelly beans

Jolly Joan I (shown to me by Gerrit Maris)
Conditions: For big and small groups. Your students need to know how to write.
Make a circle. Each in turn student will say their name and and precede it with an adjective that they think can illustrate a small aspect of who they are. Jolly Joan! Bouncy Bilal! Vampy Visnja, Antsy Ana! Earthy Einar!
Tip: The adjective functions as a memory technique to help remember names.


Jolly Joan! II
Conditions: same as Jolly Joan I
• A follow up activity of Jolly Joan I is to continue the circle randomly. The first student choses another and says her adjective and name and then this student’s adjective and name.
• Each student does the same randomly.
Tip: Make sure everyone is called on


Ball of greetings (shown to me by Gerrit Maris)
Conditions: enough room to safely throw a soft ball.
• Throw a ball to one student. While you do this, enounce clearly and loudly your name and hers.
• She throws to another person in the circle, says her name and his etc.
• The game goes on until everyone can play without making mistakes.
Tip: Start slow and speed it up as you go and student start memorizing names.


Secrets in a basket (shown to me by Gudrun Ragnarsdottir)
Conditions: you need enough time to go through everyones slips, no one should be left out!
• Ask students to write something unusual about themselves on a slip of paper. Warn them that this will be made public. Put all papers in a basket. Regularly, when you need a break during class, go to the basket an pull out a random paper.
• Read what is on it. Students must guess whom it belongs to and call this person’s name.
• If this person in not the author of the paper he stands up.
• Go on until the class find the author.
• When the author is found let her say a few words to explain what she wrote on the slip.


Come, be my neighbour! (shown to me by Carmen Becker)
Conditions: none
• Make a circle. Create a gap between two participants.
• The person to the left to the gap has to choose a new neighbour by saying: ‘to my right the space is free. I wish came to me’. The person called has to take the place.
• The one that has the empty space on her right is the next to wish for a new neighbour, etc. until the whole group has been called.
Tip: it is important that each student be called at least once! Leave no one behind.


New media and education: an uphill path

New media and education: how will educators take up the challenge?

What is the role of the educators in the field of developing digital literacies and what is really at stake in the field? How can teacher education help the profession take up the challenge? These are a few questions that we will attempt to discuss in this article.


We have gone from a time when citizens of the world were consumers of media to a time when we are becoming producers of content; a time when information is controlled by many more than just a few, as it has been in the past. In the past 10 years, the Council of Europe has issued close to a dozen recommendations concerning new media and human rights. Upon re-visiting them, it’s clear that, whereas new media is at the forefront of the education agenda, most concerns are placed at the level of protection: protecting privacy, protecting children from harmful content, protecting human dignity….

Here, we would like to engage the reader to shift from this somewhat negative perspective and to adopt a more optimistic stance, to look for opportunity and to accept the act of doubt: we don’t know what the near, let alone the far way, future will bring in digital media, and one is forced to accept that by the time a publication on the topic is out, it becomes instantaneously obsolete. The rapid development in terms of technology forces us to be tolerant of ambiguity and to be flexible thinkers and educators when we tackle the topic of media literacy. We have to move toward a humanistic and creative perspective.

What is at stake in the field?

We will center the question of new media, and the new literacies that go with it, around 3 issues: language, democracy, and learning.

In terms of language the new media and its configuration of ideas is changing humans’ relationship to reading. Our human brain was never created to read as points out Maryanne Wolf (2008). It took humanity approximately 60 000 years to develop its oral traditions; 6000 years towards a tradition of writing and reading and 2000 years to develop alphabets… Now we are faced with a brand new way of transmitting ideas, it came 30 years ago and it is here to stay. A classic text on paper presents ideas in a linear, 2-dimensional way whereas new media content presents ideas in multidimensional way, with pages within pages, hyperlinks and imbedded texts, moving structures, boxes, fonts, colours, images and sound… Also, new languages are being created around new media: ‘texting’, ‘tweeting’ and ‘posting’ follow new rules of expression. Young people are engaging in language in creative ways, altering literacies. Many learners who present difficulties with reading/writing and learning (dyslexia, ADHD …) in our traditional contexts do much better with digital media because it puts to use other neuronal structures in our brains. New media can represent an opportunity for better equity in access to education in some parts of our societies.

In terms of learning and cognitive development, the new media environment constitutes a quantum leap from our traditional books, libraries and education institutions (Higher education institutions as well as schools). Studies of youth’s digital practices (MacArthur Foundation, USA Reports on Digital Media and Learning, 2008; Mediappro/European Commission 2006) point to young people’s extending friendships and interests and the development of self-directed and peer-based learning. Our learners today are in networks of learners in a society of networks. This has many repercussions on our education systems and educators will have to think about this: maintaining student interest in schools systems, re-thinking our expectations toward attention spans (long sessions of sitting and listening), dealing with the generation gap between teachers from a ‘TV world’ to students in a ‘web world’ (this gap will phase out organically!). ‘Technical media are not only tools of transmission but also instruments of understanding’ (Jökulson, 2010). The cyber-citizen encounters material, internalizes it and then externalizes it as stories. Because imagination helps us define our world together and make sense of our experiences, students should not be asked to internalize their teachers’ stories (with greater chances of misunderstanding them!), but they should make their own stories and meanings out of old and new elements. A ‘paradigmal’ change is awaiting educators here.

In terms of democracy, the media environment has a social effect: it is ‘designed’ (interfaces, platforms …) and therefore it elicits certain types of social interaction. The value laden designs of the web2.0 spaces of interaction points us towards new definitions of how we live together and this is where the issues on democracy and human rights come through. Certain research shows that the greater interconnectedness can actually increase our human experience of empathy (Rifkin, 2009). Recent news (‘the Arab spring’, 2011, Occupy Wall Street movement) has demonstrated how digital media can help citizens to organize, protest and attempt to defend their human rights. The cyber- subject has passed from a culture of consumerism to a culture of participation (Frau-Megs, 2011). On the flip side, the greater freedom of expression by way of anonymity of speech on the internet is increasing the visibility and aura of intolerant, violent and hateful speech. Obviously, governments and authoritative institutions will not be able to control the limitless human interaction on the net, and therefore the focus should be on educating the young, and reflecting on how the digital processes can be made friendly to human destiny.

What is the role of the educator in the field of developing digital literacies?

Right now, young people are doing, and making, on the internet with very little guidance on these matters. Cogito ergo sum. On the web, we ‘co-agitate’; our ideas are shared and mixed online to construct new knowledge. However, in order for young people to act, and interact consciously, knowingly, within their online activities, educators will have to support their values, attitudes, skills and knowledge for using web2.0 tools, a transversal approach.

Values and attitudes:

  • Respect
  • Tolerance
  • Diversity
  • Equity
  • Responsibility
  • Autonomy
  • Participation
  • Cooperation
  • Open-mindedness and flexibility
  • Curiosity
  • Privacy


  • Using the appropriate media for diverse types of content
  • Negotiating
  • Giving respectful feedback
  • Learning from peers
  • Searching, verifying, interpreting and evaluating sources of information
  • Deconstructing perceived realities (others’ and own)
  • Learning autonomously
  • Distinguishing the ‘public me’ and the ‘private me’
  • Technical skills

Knowledge and understanding:

  • Reflecting on and analysing the difference between data, information, and knowledge.
  • Knowing about how the internet works and what types of media are intended or appropriate for different types of communication.
  • Balancing/articulating the local and the global dimensions of encountered elements: (data, opinion, relations, competition …)
  • Knowing the ethical and legal aspects surrounding issues of authorship and intellectual
  • rights, human rights…
  • Understanding relevant terms

Our role as educators is on the table. We need to put this on our agenda. What strategies we choose will depend on what answer we give to this question: should education have a mission of awakening capacities in people or should it stand to set the boundaries of what should or not be learnt?

How can teacher education and teacher learning help educators take up the challenge?

The key to teacher education, at the dawn of the 3rd age of language (Bell, 2009), is access to quality lifelong learning. Continued support and education seen over the continuum of a teacher’s career are essential.

The generation gap will have to be bridged: today we have two generations of people that are visibly divergent in how they learn and think about learning. In conferences about new media, there is most often the moment where the elders of the group are told that they are thinking as ‘the television generation’… All teachers will have to learn and accept to take the risk of not being ‘the one who knows best’, or knows more. Accepting to relinquish some of our power, empathising with young people and, for some of us, accepting our ‘illectronacy’ is a first step.

If schools and education systems can shift from content to process, part of the path will be cleared for the development of new literacies. Such a shift includes letting go of our subject based curricula to open orientations: inquiry based learning, learning about cognition, thinking about thinking, learning the value of cooperation … Teachers as facilitators of learning on an interconnected world have to develop specific transversal competences in themselves: experimentation, systemic thinking and collaborative knowledge construction, problem-solving, critical thinking, capacity to face new developments quickly, cooperative spirit and skills, navigating in knowledge networks… Certain soft skills, such as respect for diversity and intercultural communication, will come to the forefront in teacher development because these are the issues that ‘pop up’ when dealing with new and constantly changing environments.

With the growing number of competences teachers need to acquire, one has to consider that teacher competences no longer be seen as individual and finite. Whole school approaches and supporting teachers acquiring collaborative skills, team teaching approaches, and cooperative techniques are in need. A number of practices can help support change:

  • implementing peer-training and team work to face the new competences needed for digital learning.
  • belonging to a community of practice, working on innovative learning structures.
  • organising teacher mobility, helping teachers integrate local, regional and internationalnetworks;
  • developing 2nd and 3rd language skills: teachers need language awareness to build on language diversity in the classroom and engage in regional and international networking.

If educators had more time planned in their schedules for these activities, much more could be done to help young people thrive and learn in digital contexts. Continuous professional development policies, as well as policies to enhance collective strategies for teaching and learning, effectively support those who are willing and able to try innovative actions in their school and classrooms. Ultimately our goal as educators is to fully integrate our young students’ ‘world of digital learning’, supporting ‘slow’, reflected, construction of knowledge within the ‘fast’ exchanges of our environment.


  • Barab, S. & Kling R. & Gray J. H., (2004), Designing for Virtual Communities in the Service of Learning, Cambridge University Press
  • Bell, R.P. (2009). ‘You are what you read’. Online Lecture, University of New England (Creative commons licensing)
  • Frau-Megs, D. (2011). Lecture notes. Living together in a connected world. 15-16 December 2011, CoE Think-Tank European Youth Centre, Strasbourg, France
  • Gee, James Situated Language and Learning: A Critique of Traditional Schooling. New York: Routledge, 2004
  • Jökulson, S. (2010). Creativity in Media Education. Merging Different Mindsets in. Media literacy Education, Nordic perspectives, 121-132. NORDICOM, University of Gothenburg.
  • Kimble, C. & Hildreth, P. & Bourdon, I. (2008). Communities of practice: creating learning environments for educators, vol. 1 &2. IAP-Information Age Publishing, Charlotte, NC, USA
  • Mediappro / European Commission (2006). The Appropriation of New Media by Youth. Available at
  • Rifkin, J. (2009). The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis. Tarcher
  • Wolf, M. (2008). Proust and the Squid. The Story and Science of the reading brain. Harper Collins.

All I need – Radiohead


It’s difficult to change what we think of as ‘good education’. For that we need to find out what our beliefs are:  What are our beliefs about what constitutes ‘good education’.

How do we learn and for what purpose?
Institutions need  to engage in that reflection. All teachers are responsible for this. Young people need to think about this, how will they continue after us? In peace, with respect, and active to change what is impossible, intolerable, unconscionable, and inconceivable.

Schools need to change their ways to include all youth and prepare them to be active citizens.

This video and song relates to all subjects: math, science, geography, language, social studies, civics, history … you name it.