Explore Human Universals

Students will read about traits that are universal to humans around the world, regardless of economic status. This will help create an editorial mindset that is not colonial, but rather one of mutual sharing between peers.


What students will learn

  1. Universal traits that all humans share.
  2. Reading and preparing for a discussion.
  3. The meaning of "empathy" and why it is important for this project.

Lesson topics

Human Universals

Students should review a list of Human Universals. For older students, Brown's accompanying paper is also a useful read.

When we did the pilot of Project Empathy, we used this session as a discussion led by the students. Some points that were covered included:

  • What is the purpose of defining Human Universals?
  • What is an appropriate method for generating such a list? What determines that one trait make the list while another does not?
  • Is the list accurate? Do you believe you embody every characteristic on the list? Does everyone in the group?
  • Do you think this list would have changed throughout history?
  • What makes us human? How many of these traits do intelligent animals share with us? Is it "all or nothing" or a sliding scale - does not having one trait disqualify an individual from being human or is there a specific quantity?
  • Are all of the Universals of equal value?

What is Empathy?

It is important to fully understand what empathy is in the first place. Is it the same as sympathy? Is it a conscious choice, or an ingrained trait? Is it desirable?

We also want to continue to reinforce the awareness of audience. This is a major component of honing empathy: instead of just reading instructions and completing a task, be aware of how you are synthesizing those instructions and how you might convey your work to others. We run into this all the time in class work. I was always annoyed by my math teacher deducting points for not showing my work. “But I got the right answer!” I would protest. Transcribing via pencil what happened so much faster via neuron seemed like tedious busy work to me. I might have felt differently if I knew that my math homework would be read by someone my age who might not have a textbook and not understand algebra. In that context, showing work makes sense and becomes essential. The journey becomes equally as important as the destination.

When we did the pilot for Project Empathy, the 7th graders had a round table discussion about this as well as what human universals are and why they are important. Here are two more great articles that can fuel a discussion:

"Empathy Is Actually a Choice" New York Times, July 10, 2015.

"The Baby in the Well: The Case Against Empathy" The New Yorker, May 20, 2013.

"Denmark has figured out how to teach kids empathy and make them happier adults" Quartz, August 22, 2016. 



If you have additional materials that you think would add to this curriculum, please write to me, thane@projectempathy.co. This is a collaborative project and we hope that, through more participation, we can make it even better.