The art of empathy: A mixed methods case study of a critical place-based art education program

Bertling, J. G. (2015). The art of empathy: A mixed methods case study of a critical place-based art education program. International Journal of Education & the Arts, 16(3), 1-26.


This mixed methods case study examined middle school students’ empathy with the environment within a critical place-based art education program. The curriculum for the program was focused on ecological imagination, defined as using art to understand the role of the self within, and the impact of humans on, the environment.
Using drawing exercises, interviews, pre- and post-surveys, reviews of visual/verbal journals, observations, and focus groups were used to answer these questions, the study found that students’ positive environmental views increased as a result of their participation. Throughout the program, students exhibited empathy with the environment as they cared for nature, developed an awareness of the environment, and began to accept responsibility for the state of the environment.

Key Findings:

Students showed growth in ecological awareness, demonstrated a willingness to work for ecological change and concluded the semester with positive ecological views. The changes in views towards the metrics ‘rights of nature’ – the idea that nature should exist outside the control of human regulation – and ‘ecological crisis’ – when the environment of a species/population becomes uninhabitable – were statistically significant and showed students became more empathetic with their environment.

Significance of the Findings:

Integrating the arts into environmental education programs can be effective in building students' understanding of and successfully cultivating empathy with the environment. It allows for students to experience the connectedness of the environment, to develop a desire to care for nature, and to readily act for ecological change and improvement. Arts educators can use ecological imagination to expose students to other thoughts and theories on the environment, including moving past a human-centric view.


A case study design was used to understand student experiences of empathy within the real-world context of a classroom. The researcher chose a single bounded system—a 7th grade introductory art class at a public middle school in the southeastern United States. The researcher was the primary teacher of this class, which provided a high level of accessibility to the students. The class had 20 students and represented students from a range of socioeconomic levels and differing racial backgrounds within a traditional public middle school. The researcher sought answers to the following questions:

- How do middle school students demonstrate empathy with the environment throughout a critical place-based art program?

- How does participation in ecological imagination curriculum affect a student’s positive or negative environmental views?

- What aspects of ecological imagination curriculum contribute to a student’s empathy with the environment?

The researcher conducted drawing exercises, interviews, focus groups, observations, and visual/verbal journal reviews to address the following topics related to Research Questions 1 and 3: 1) students’ demonstrations of empathy with the environment during the semester, and 3) the aspects of the program that contributed to student empathy with the environment. A survey measured the quantitative variables related to Research Question 2—students’ positive environmental views.

Limitations of the Research:

Since this study was designed as a case study, the results are not intended to be representative of the general population. Since girls tend to have more affective attitudes toward the environment and positive environmental views than boys, the over-representation of girls, 15 out of 20, in this case is a significant factor to consider when determining the transferability of the results to other populations. In addition, its design as teacher-researcher is a significant component of the case. The teacher researcher was highly invested in this process. This investment could have translated into higher quality instruction, more individualized attention, and attentive planning, which could have contributed to more positive results than might have occurred in a typical classroom.

Questions to Guide New Research:

- How does this educational approach affect students of different ages, racial demographics, and geographical areas?

- Does this educational approach impact students in urban areas? What are the complexities of implementing this curricular approach in urban schools?

- How does this educational approach affect students’ ecological views and empathy with the environment after the study has ended?