Kara Imm, PhD, Empathy Interviews
ROUNDING UP: SEASON 2 | EPISODE 2
If there were a list of social skills we hope to foster in children, empathy is likely close to the top. Empathy matters. It helps us understand how others are feeling so we can respond appropriately, and it can help teachers understand the way their students are experiencing school. Today on a podcast, we talk with Dr. Kara Imm about a practice referred to as an empathy interview. We'll discuss the ways empathy interviews can help educators understand their students' lived experience with mathematics and make productive adaptations to instructional practice.
Mike Wallus: If there were a list of social skills we hope to foster in children, empathy is likely close to the top. Empathy matters. It helps us understand how others are feeling so we can respond appropriately, and it can help teachers understand the way their students are experiencing school. Today on a podcast, we talk with Dr. Kara Imm about a practice referred to as an empathy interview. We'll discuss the ways empathy interviews can help educators understand their students' lived experience with mathematics and make productive adaptations to instructional practice.
Mike: Well, welcome to the podcast, Kara. We're excited to have you join us.
Kara Imm: Thanks, Mike. Happy to be here.
Mike: So, I have to confess that the language of an empathy interview was new to me when I started reading about this, and I'm wondering if you could just take a moment and unpack, what is an empathy interview, for folks who are new to the idea?
Kara: Yeah, sure. I think I came to understand empathy interviews in my work with design thinking as a former teacher, classroom teacher, and now teacher-educator. I've always thought of myself as a designer. So, when I came to understand that there was this whole field around design thinking, I got very intrigued. And the central feature of design thinking is that designers, who are essentially thinking about creating new products, services, interactions, ways of being for someone else, have to start with empathy because we have to get out of our own minds and our own experiences and make sure we're not making assumptions about somebody else's lived experience. So, an empathy interview, as I know it now, is first and foremost a conversation. It's meant to be as natural a conversation as possible. When I do empathy interviews, I have a set of questions in mind, but I often abandon those questions and follow the child in front of me or the teacher, depending on who I'm interviewing.
Kara: And the goal of an empathy interview is to elicit stories; really granular, important stories, the kind of stories that we tell ourselves that get reiterated and retold, and the kinds of stories that cumulatively make up our identities. So, I'm not trying to get a resumé, I'm not interested in the facts of the person, the biography of the person. I'm interested in the stories people tell about themselves. And in my context, the stories that kids tell themselves about their own learning and their own relationship to school, their classrooms, and to mathematics. I'm also trying to elicit emotions. So, designers are particularly listening for what they might call unmet needs, where as a designer we would then use the empathy interview to think about the unmet needs of this particular person and think about designing something uniquely and specifically for them—with the idea that if I designed something for them, it would probably have utility and purpose for other people who are experiencing that thing. So, what happened more recently is that I started to think, “Could empathy interviews change teachers' relationship to their students? Could it change leaders' relationships to the teachers?” And so far, we're learning that it's a different kind of conversation, and it's helping people move out of deficit thinking around children and really asking important questions about, what does it mean to be a kid in a math class?
Mike: There's some language that you've used that really stands out for me. And I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit more about it. You said “the stories that we tell about ourselves”; or, maybe paraphrased, the stories that kids tell themselves. And then you had this other bit of language that I'd like to come back to: “the cumulative impact of those stories on our identity.” Can you unpack those terms of phrase you used and talk a little bit about them specifically, as you said, when it comes to children and how they think about their identity with relation to mathematics?
Kara: Sure. I love that kind of phrase, “the story we tell ourselves.” That's been a pivotal phrase for me. I think stories kind of define and refine our existence. Stories capture this relationship between who we are and who we want to become. But when I'm thinking about stories in this way, I imagine as an interviewer that I'm trying to paint a portrait of a child, typically. And so, I'm trying to interact with this child in such a way that I can elicit these stories, painting a unique picture of this kid, not only as a learner but also as a human. What inevitably happens when you do these interviews is that I'm interested in their experience in math class. When I listen to kids, they have internalized, “I'm good at math, and here's why” or “I'm bad at math, and here's why. I just know it.” But when you dig a little bit deeper, the stories they tell are a little more nuanced, and they kind of live in the space of gray. And I'm interested in that space, not the space of testing and measurement that would land you in a particular identity as meant for math or not meant for math.
Mike: I think what I was going to suggest is, why don't we listen to a few, because you shared a couple clips before we got ready for the interview, and I was fascinated by the approach that you had in chatting with these children and just how much information I could glean from even a minute or two of the interview slices that you shared. Why don't we start and get to know a few of these kiddos and see what we can learn together.
Kara: Sounds great.
Mike: We've got a clip that I'm going to invite you to set it up and give us as much context as you want to, and then we'll play the clip and then we can talk a little bit about it. I would love to start with our friend Leanna.
Kara: Great. Leanna is a third-grader. She goes to an all-girls school. I've worked in Leanna’s school over multiple years. I know her teacher well. I'm a part of that community. Leanna was kind of a new mathematician to me. Earlier in the day I had been in Leanna's classroom, and the interview starts with a moment that really struck me, which I won't say much more about. And I invited Leanna to join me after school so we could talk about this particular moment. And I really wanted to know how she made sense of what happened. So, I think we'll leave it at that and we'll listen to what happened.
Mike: Alright, let's give it a listen.
Leanna: Hi, I'm Leanna, and I'm 8 years old.
Kara: Hi, Leanna. Today when I was in your class, something interesting happened where I think the kids said to me, and they said, “Do you know we have a math genius in our class?” Do you remember that moment?
Kara: Tell me what happened in that moment.
Leanna: Um, they said, “We have a math genius in our class.” And then they all started pointing at me.
Kara: And what was that like for you?
Leanna: It was … like, maybe, like, it was nice, but also it was kind of like, all the pressure was on me.
Kara: Yeah, I was wondering about that. Why do you think the girls today—I mean, I'm a visitor, right?—why do you think they use the word “math genius”? And why did they choose you? What do you think they think of you?
Leanna: A mathematician …
Leanna: … because I go to this thing every Wednesday. They ask me what I want to be when I grow up, and I always say, a mathematician. So, they think that I am a math genius.
Kara: Gotcha. Do you think all the girls in your class know that you want to be a mathematician when you grow up? But do they mean something else? They didn't say, “We have a mathematician in our class.” They said, “We have a math genius.”
Kara: Are you a math genius? Do think, what does that even mean?
Leanna: Like, I'm really good at math.
Kara: Yeah. Do you think that's a true statement?
Leanna: Yeah, a little bit.
Kara: A little bit? Do you love math?
Kara: Yeah. Have you always loved math?
Kara: And so, it might be true that, like, is a math genius the same as a mathematician?
Kara: OK. Can you say how they're different?
Leanna: Like, a mathematician is, like … Like, when you're a math genius, you don't always want to be a mathematician when you grow up. A math genius is when you just are really good at math, but, like, a mathematician is when you really, like, want to be when you grow up.
Mike: That was fascinating to listen to. So, my first inclination is to say, as you were making meaning of what Leanna was sharing, what were some of the things that were going on for you?
Kara: Yeah, I was thinking about how math has this kind of unearned status, this measure of success in our culture that in this interview, Leanna is kind of pointing to. I was thinking about the mixed emotions she has being positioned as a math genius. It called into mind the model minority myth in which folks of Asian descent and Asian Americans are often positioned as stereotypically being good at math. And people say, “Well, this is such a lovely and respectful stereotype, who cares if it's not true?” But she later in the interview talks about the pressure of living up to this notion of math genius and what that means. I think about her status in the classroom and how she has the agency to both take up this idea of math genius, and does she have the agency to also nuance it or reject it? And how that might play out in her classroom? So yeah, those are all the things that kind of come to mind as I listen to her.
Mike: I think you're hitting on some of the themes that jumped out for me; this sense that kids who are participating in particular activities have been positioned, either by their participation or by their kids' perceptions of what participation means. And I thought the most interesting part was when she said, “Well, it's nice”—but there was a long pause there. And then she talked about this sense of pressure. What it's making me think about as a practitioner is that there are perhaps ways that as a teacher, if I'm aware of that, that might change something small, some things big about the way that I choose to engage with Leanna in the classroom; that I choose to help her navigate that space that she finds herself in. There's a lot for me there as a practitioner in that small clip that helps me really see her, understand her, and think about ways that I can support her.
Kara: Yeah. And, like, from a design perspective, I huddled with her teacher later in the day, and we talked about this interview, and we thought about what would it mean to design or redesign a space where Leanna could feel really proud of who she was as a mathematician, but she didn't feel the kind of pressure that this math genius moniker is affording her. And so, ultimately, I want these interviews to be conducted by teachers so that, as you said, practitioners might show up differently for kids or think about what we might need to think more deeply about or design for kids like her. She's certainly not the only one.
Mike: Yeah, absolutely. And I think part of what's hitting me in the face is that the term “empathy interview” really is taking on new meaning, even listening to this first one. Because feeling the feelings that she's sharing with us, feeling what it would be like to be in those shoes, I've had kiddos in my class who have been identified or whose folks have chosen to have them participate in programming. And I have to confess that I don't know that I thought as much about what that positioning meant to them or what it meant about how kids would perceive them. I was just struck by how, in so many subtle ways doing an interview like this, might really shift the way that I showed up for a child.
Kara: Yeah, I think so.
Mike: Well, let's listen to another one.
Kara: OK. Maybe Matthew, should we meet Matthew?
Mike: I think we should meet Matthew.
Mike: Do you want to set up Matthew and give us a sense of what we might need to know about the context?
Kara: Absolutely. Matthew is a fifth-grader who describes, in my conversation with him, several years of what he calls “not good” years in math. And he doesn't enjoy mathematics. He doesn't think he's good at it. He has internalized, he's really blamed himself and taken most of the responsibility for those “bad“ years of learning. When I meet him, he's a fifth-grader, and he has written a mathography at the invitation of his classroom teacher. This is a practice that's part of this school. And in his mathography as a fifth-grader, he uses the word “evolving,” and he tells the story of how he's evolving as a mathematician. That alone is pretty profound and beautiful that he has the kind of insight to describe this kind of journey with mathematics. And he really just describes a fourth-grade teacher who fundamentally changed his relationship to mathematics, his sense of himself, and how he thinks about learning.
Mike: Let's give it a listen.
Kara: Maybe we'll end, Matthew, with: If people were thinking about you as—and maybe there's other Matthews in their class, right—what kinds of things would've helped you back in kindergarten, first and second grade to just feel like math was for you? It took you until fourth grade, right …
Kara: … until you really had any positive emotions about math? I'm wondering what could we have done for younger Matthew?
Matthew: Probably, I think I should have paid a lot more attention.
Kara: But what if it wasn't about you? What if it's the room and the materials and the teacher and the class?
Matthew: I think it was mostly just me, except for some years it was really, really confusing.
Matthew: And when … you didn't really want in third grade or second grade, you didn't want to be the kid that's always, like, “Hey, can you help me with this?” or something. So that would be embarrassing for some people.
Kara: OK. You just made air quotes right, when you did “embarrassing”?
Kara: Was it embarrassing to ask for help?
Matthew: It wasn't embarrassing to ask for help, and now I know that. But I would always not ask for help, and I think that's a big reason why I wasn't that good at math.
Kara: Got it. So, you knew in some of these math lessons that it was not making sense?
Matthew: It made no sense.
Kara: It made no sense.
Matthew: And then I was, like, so I was in my head, “I think I should ask, but I also don't want to embarrass myself.”
Matthew: But also, it's really not that embarrassing.
Kara: OK, but you didn't know that at the time. At the time it was like, “Ooh, we don't ask for help.”
Kara: OK. And did that include asking another kid for help? You didn't ask anybody for help?
Matthew: Um, only one of my friends that I knew for a really long time …
Matthew: He helped me. So, I kind of got past the first stage, but then if he was absent on those days or something, then I'd kind of just be sitting at my desk with a blank sheet.
Kara: Wow, so it sounds like you didn't even know how to get started some days.
Matthew: Yeah, some days I was kind of just, like, “I'm not even going to try.”
Kara: “I’m not” … OK.
Matthew: But now I'm, like, “It's not that big of a deal if I get an answer wrong.”
Kara: Yeah, that's true. Right?
Matthew: “I have a blank sheet. That is a big deal. That's a problem.”
Kara: So having a blank sheet, nothing written down, that is a bigger problem for you than, like, “Oh, whoops, I got the answer wrong. No big deal.”
Matthew: I'd rather just get the answer wrong because handing in a blank sheet would be, that would probably be more embarrassing.
Mike: Oh, my goodness, there is a lot in a little bit of space of time.
Kara: Yeah. These interviews, Mike, are so rich, and I offer them to this space and to teachers with such care and with such a deep sense of responsibility ’cause I feel like these stories are so personal. So, I'm really mindful of, can I use this story in the space of Matthew for a greater purpose? Here, I feel like Matthew is speaking to all the kind of socio-mathematical norms in classrooms. And I didn't know Matthew until this year, but I would guess that a kid like Matthew, who is so quiet and so polite and so respectful, might've flown under the radar for many years. He wasn't asking for help, but he was also not making trouble. It makes me wonder, “How would we redesign a class so that he could know earlier on that asking for help—and that this notion that in this class, mathematics—is meant to make sense, and when it doesn't make sense, we owe it to ourselves and each other to help it make sense?” I think it's an invitation to all of us to think about, “What does it mean to ask for help?” And how he wants deep down mathematics to make sense. And I agree with him, that should be just a norm for all of us.
Mike: I go back to the language that you used at the beginning, particularly listening to Matthew talk, “the stories that we tell ourselves.” The story that he had told himself about what it meant to ask for help or what that meant about him as a person or as a mathematician.
Kara: Yeah. I mean, I am trained as a kind of qualitative researcher. So as part of my dissertation work, I did all kinds of gathering data through interviews and then analyzing them. And one of the ways that is important to me is thinking about kind of narrative analysis. So, when Matthew tells us the things that were in his head, he tells you the voice that his head is saying back to him. Kids will do that. Similarly, later in the interview I said, “What would you say to those kids, those kids who might find it?” And what I was interested in is getting him to articulate in his own voice what he might say to those children. So, when I think about stories, I think about when do we speak in a first person? When do we describe the voices that are in our heads? When do we quote our teachers and our mothers and our cousins? And how that's a powerful form of storytelling, those voices.
Mike: Well, I want to listen to one more, and I'm particularly excited about this one. This is Nia. I want to listen to Nia and have you set her up. And then I think what I want to do after this is talk about impact and how these empathy interviews have the potential to shift practice for educators or even school for that matter. So, let's talk about Nia and then let's talk about that.
Kara: You got it. Nia is in this really giant classroom of almost 40 kids, fifth-graders, and it's co-taught. It's purposely designed as this really collaborative space, and she uses the word “collaboration,” but she also describes how that's a really noisy environment. On occasion, there's a teacher who she describes pulling her into a quieter space so that she can concentrate. And so, I think that's an important backstory for her just in terms of her as a learner. I ask her a lot of questions about how she thinks about herself as a mathematician, and I think that's the clip we're going to listen to.
Mike: Alright, let's listen in.
Nia: No, I haven't heard it, but …
Kara: OK. I wonder what people mean by that, “I'm not a math person.”
Nia: I'm guessing, “I don't do math for fun.”
Kara: “I don’t do math for fun.” Do you do math for fun?
Kara: You do? Like, what's your for-fun math?
Nia: Me and my grandma, when we were in the car, we were writing in the car. We had this pink notebook, and we get pen or a pencil, and she writes down equations for me in the backseat, and I do them and she times me, and we see how many questions I could get right in, like, 50 seconds.
Kara: Oh, my gosh. What's an example of a question your grandma would give you?
Nia: Like, they were just practice questions, like, three times five, five times eight. Well, I don't really do fives because I already know them.
Mike: So, we only played a real tiny snippet of Nia. But I think one of the things that's really sticking out is just how dense these interviews are with information about how kids think or the stories that they've told themselves. What strikes you about what we heard or what struck you as you were having this conversation with Nia at that particular point in time?
Kara: For me, these interviews are about both storytelling and about identity building. And there's that dangerous thinking about two types of people, math people and non-math people. I encounter adults and children who have heard of that phrase. And so, I sometimes offer it in the interview to find out what sense do kids make of that? Kids have told me, “That doesn't make sense.” And other kids have said, “No, no, my mom says that. My mom says she's not a math person.” So, she, I'm playing into it to see what she says. And I love her interpretation that a math person is someone who does math for fun. And truthfully, Mike, I don't know a lot of kids who describe doing math for fun. And so, what I loved about that, she, A: She a described a math person's probably a person who, gosh, enjoys it, gets some joy or pleasure from doing mathematics.
Kara: But then the granularity of the story she offers—which is the specific pink notebook that she and her grandmother are passing back and forth in the backseat of the car—tell[s] you about mathematics as a thing that she shares a way of relating to her grandmother. It's been ritualized, and really all they're doing if you listen to it is, her grandmother's kind of quizzing her on multiplication facts. But it's such a different relationship to multiplication facts because she's in relationship to her grandmother. They have this beautiful ongoing ritual. And quite honestly, she's using it as an example to tell us that's the fun part for her. So, she just reminds us that mathematics is this human endeavor, and for her, this one ritual is a way in which she relates and connects to her grandmother, which is pretty cool.
Mike: So, I want to shift a little bit and talk about a couple of different things: the types of questions that you ask, some of the norms that you have in mind when you're going through the process, and then what struck me about listening to these is you're not trying to convince the kids who you're interviewing of anything about their current thinking or their feelings or trying to shift their perspective on their experience. And I'm just wondering if you can think about how you would describe the role you're playing when you're conducting the interview. ’Cause it seems that that's pretty important.
Kara: Yeah. I think the role I'm playing is a deep listener. And I'm trying to create space. And I'm trying to make a very, very, very safe environment for kids to feel like it's OK to tell me a variety of stories about who they are. That's my role. I am not their classroom teacher in these interviews. And so, these interviews probably look and sound differently when the relationship between the interviewer and the interviewee is about teachers and students and/or has a different kind of power differential. I get to be this frequent visitor to their classroom, and so I just get to listen deeply. The tone that I want to convey, the tone that I want teachers to take up is just this fascination with who they are and a deep curiosity about their experience. And I'm positioned in these interviews as not knowing a lot about these children.
Kara: And so, I'm actually beautifully positioned to do what I want teachers to do, which is imagine you didn't know so much. Imagine you didn't have the child's cumulative file. Imagine you didn't know what they were like last year. Imagine you didn't know all that, and you had to ask. And so, when I enter these interviews, I just imagine, “I don't know.” And when I'm not sure, I ask another smaller question. So I'll say, “Can you say more about that?” or “I'm not sure if you and I share the same meaning.” The kinds of questions I ask kids—and I think because I've been doing this work for a while, I have a couple questions that I start with and after that I trust myself to follow the lead of the children in front of me—I often say to kids, “Thank you for sitting down and having a conversation with me today. I'm interested in hearing kids' stories about math and their math journey, and somebody in your life told me you have a particularly interesting story.” And then I'll say to kids sometimes, “Where do you want to start in the story?” And I'll try to give kids agency to say, “Oh, well, we have to go back to kindergarten” or “I guess we should start now in high school” or kids will direct me where they think are the salient moments in their own mathematical journey.
Mike: And when they're sharing that story, what are the types of questions that you might ask along the way to try to get to clarity or to understanding?
Kara: Great question. I'm trying to elicit deep emotion. I'm trying to have kids explain why they're telling me particular stories, like, what was significant about that. Kids are interesting. Some kids in these interviews just talk a lot. And other kids, I've had to really pepper them with questions and that has felt a little kind of invasive, like, this isn't actually the kind of natural conversation that I was hoping for. Sometimes I'll ask, “What is it like for you or how do you think about a particular thing?” I ask about things like math community. I ask about math partners. I ask about, “How do you know you're good at math and do you trust those ways of knowing?” I kind of create spaces where we could have alternative narratives. Although you're absolutely right, that I'm not trying to lead children to a particular point of view, I'm kind of interested in how they make sense.
Mike: One of the things that … you used a line earlier where you said something about humanizing mathematics, and I think what's striking me is that statement you made: “What if you didn't have their cumulative report card?” You didn't have the data that tells one story, but not necessarily their story. And that really is hitting me, and I'm even feeling a little bit autobiographical. I was a kid who was a lot like Matthew, who, at a certain point, I just stopped raising my hand because I thought it meant something about me, and I didn't want people to see that. And I'm just struck by the impact of one, having someone ask you about that story as the learner, but also how much an educator could take from that and bring to the relationship they had with that child while they were working on mathematics together.
Kara: You said a lot there, and you actually connect to how I think about empathy interviews in my practice now. I got to work with Rochelle Gutiérrez this summer, and that's where I learned deeply about her framework, rehumanizing mathematics. When I do these empathy interviews, I'm living in this part of her framework that's about the body and emotions. Sometimes kids in the empathy interview, their body will communicate one thing and their language will communicate something else. And so, that's an interesting moment for me to notice how body and motions even are associated with the doing of mathematics. And the other place where empathy interviews live for me is in the work of “Street Data,” Jamila Dugan and Shane Safir's book, that really call into question this idea that what is measurable and what is quantifiable is really all that matters, and they invite us to flip the data dashboard.
Kara: In mathematics, this is so important ’cause we have all these standardized tests that tell children about who they are mathematically and who they're about to become. And they're so limiting, and they don't tell the full story. So, when they talk about “Street Data,” they actually write about empathy interviews as a way in which to be humanizing. Data can be liberatory, data can be healing. I feel that when I'm doing these interviews, I have this very tangible example of what they mean because it is often the case that at the end of the interview—and I think you might've had this experience just listening to the interview—there's something really beautiful about having a person be that interested in your story and how that might be restorative and might make you feel like, “There's still possibility for me. This isn't the last story.”
Mike: Absolutely. I think you named it for me, which is, the act of telling the story to a person, particularly someone who, like a teacher, might be able to support me being seen in that moment, actually might restore my capacity to feel like, “I could do this” or “My fate as a mathematician is not sealed.” Or I think what I'm taking away from this is, empathy interviews are powerful tools for educators in the sense that we can understand our students at a much deeper level, but it's not just that. It's the experience of being seen through an empathy interview that can also have a profound impact on a child.
Kara: Yes, absolutely. I'm part of a collaboration out of University of California where we have thought about the intersection of disability and mathematics, and really thinking about how using the tools of design thinking, particularly the empathy interview can be really transformative. And what the teachers in our studies have told us is that just doing these empathy interviews—and we're not talking about interviewing all the kids that you teach. We're talking about interviewing a select group of kids with real intention about, “Who's a kid who has been marginalized?” And/or “Who's a kid who I don't really know that much about and/or I don't really have a relationship with?” Or “Who's a kid who I suspect doesn't feel seen by me or doesn't feel, like, a deep sense of belonging in our work together?” Teachers report that just doing a few of these interviews starts to change their relationship to those kids.
Kara: Not a huge surprise. It helped them to name some of the assumptions they made about kids, and it helped them to be in a space of not knowing around kids. I think the other thing it does for teachers that we know is that they describe to do an empathy interview well requires a lot of restraint, restraint in a couple of ways. One, I'm not fixing, I'm not offering advice. I'm also not getting feedback on my teaching. And I also think it's hard for teachers not to insert themselves into the interview with our own narratives. I really try to make sure I'm listening deeply and I'm painting a portrait of this kid, and I'm empathetic in the sense I care deeply and I'm deeply listening, which I think is a sign of respect, but the kids don't need to know about my experience in the interview. That's not the purpose.
Mike: We could keep going for quite a long time. I'm going to make a guess that this podcast is going to have a pretty strong on a lot of folks who are out in the field listening.
Mike: If someone was interested in learning more about empathy interviews and wanted to explore or understand more about them, do you have any particular recommendations for where someone might go to continue learning?
Kara: Yes, and I wish I had more, but I will take that as an invitation that maybe I need to do a little bit more writing about this work. I think the “Street Data” is an interesting place where the co-authors do reference empathy interviews, and I do think that they have a few videos online that you could see. I think Jamila Dugan has an empathy interview that you could watch and study. People can write me and/or follow me. I'm working on an article right now. My colleagues in California and I have a blog called “Designing4Inclusion,” “4” being the number four, and we've started to document the work of empathy and how it shows up in teachers’ practice there.
Mike: Well, I want to thank you so much for joining us, Kara. It has really been a pleasure talking with you.
Kara: Thank you, Mike. I was really happy to be invited.Mike: This podcast is brought to you by The Math Learning Center and the Maier Math Foundation, dedicated to inspiring and enabling individuals to discover and develop their mathematical confidence and ability.