Oct 8 • 3 min read
Food truck from the 2018 Foxtoberfest celebration

This‌ ‌is‌ ‌part‌ four ‌of‌ ‌a‌ ‌‌six-part‌ ‌series‌‌ ‌on‌ ‌using‌ ‌empathy‌ ‌in‌ ‌the‌ ‌classroom.‌ ‌ ‌

Some people have a mind for finance. Others don’t—or think they don’t. 

Dave Nash, associate professor and deputy chair of strategic management at the Fox School, found that empathy helps people understand subjects that might be outside of their comfort zone. 

For example, in 2016, the Free Library of Philadelphia started a business resource and innovation center, staffed by librarians, that would help people develop businesses that were sustainable and investable. The Library contacted the Fox Management Consulting (FMC) team to help it develop a curriculum that would allow the librarians to serve their clients in a substantive way. 

For the language-loving librarians, a good portion of that curriculum was in finance and economics. Nash recalls, “The librarians, while very well educated, were not business people with business experience. They were tolerant but not necessarily enthusiastic about the whole project.” 

Nash created two exercises designed to make finance relevant and interesting to this reluctant group. 

He started with a personal exercise. “Since we all know ourselves, we started with, ‘How investable are we?’” The group looked at their compensation versus their costs, determining what were fixed or discretionary and evaluating financing costs like principal and interest payments. They looked at what they own, like the value of a car or savings account, versus what they owe, like student loans or mortgages. 

“Many of them were looking to start families, buy homes or downsize, so their future financial needs were particularly relevant to them,” says Nash. 

Nash and the FMC team also picked up on the librarians’ passion for the food trucks around the libraries. So, Nash had them do an exercise where they started their own food truck business. The librarians chose their products, looked at profit margins and imagined their customers’ buying habits. 

According to Nash, they became energetic and excited. 

“They all wanted to grow those businesses, so they looked at what kind of additional investments they had to make, like ingredients and equipment. They saw how much cash they would be generating or could finance and how much they would need.” 

Nash found that the learners were more passionate about understanding the subject matter because they were passionate about the context. When they put themselves in the shoes of a food truck owner, they wanted—and needed—to know how to be successful. 

“Those concepts resonated,” says Nash. “They were able to figure out why (these tools) were useful.” 

That’s the value of empathy, as Nash and his colleagues explain. It engages people, brings the imagination to life and can dramatically change a person’s desire and need to learn about a topic. When placed into a context that students are excited about, a subject becomes less scary. Then, it’s simply a process of repeated application, says Nash. 

Use empathy to teach hesitant learners. 

  • Foster relevance by relating and applying a topic to a familiar situation.
  • Create a safe zone where “no expertise” is welcome. 
  • Find a passion to encourage excitement and interest. 
  • Create the need to know.
  • Demystify the topic by illustrating it in the context of the need. 
  • Apply, apply and apply some more to encourage internalization.

For more information, view Nash’s PowerPoint and video presentations on empathy’s impact on teaching difficult topics, as presented in the 2020 Academy of Management Annual Conference.

This series is sponsored by the Fox School’s Translational Research Center (TRC), Fox Management Consulting (FMC), Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning (CITL), Department of Strategic Management and Fox Experiential Education; Temple University’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching (CAT), and Flinders University’s New Venture Institute

Dave NashEmpathyEmpathy and FinanceEmpathy and Imagination for ResearchEmpathy in the ClassroomFox Management ConsultingFree Library of Philadelphia