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Culture of Empathy Builder:  Helen Demetriou

Empathy is Vital for the Creative Process to Thrive

 Helen Demetriou


Helen Demetriou obtained her PhD in developmental psychology from the Institute of Psychiatry, University of London in 1998, where she also worked at the Centre for Social, Genetic and Developmental Research.  Since then, she has worked at the Faculty of Education of the University of Cambridge as Research and Teaching Associate. Helen is the author of, Empathy, Emotion and Education. She has performed many studies about empathy, creativity and education, including the recent study, Empathy is the mother of invention: emotion and cognition for creativity in the classroom.


"we argue that a very important aspect that influences invention and creativity is the empathy factor... Such exploration and immersion through perceptual openness, role-taking and flexible ego-control characteristic of empathy correlate and lead to creativity and thence to constructive evaluative reflection: explore, create, evaluate.

 Empathy and open-mindedness in the real world: all these form the vital ingredients for the creative process to thrive and for encouraging the designers of tomorrow.



"Most people think that empathy – the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes – is fixed, but it’s not. Empathy can be taught. Research has shown that reading can help children develop empathy. Through reading, children can experience the situations of others that are very different to their own, and reflect on that experience."


According to the age-old proverb from Plato’s Republic: necessity is the mother of invention, the main motivation for creating new discoveries is the need for them. However, as well as the necessity factor, we argue that a very important aspect that influences invention and creativity is the empathy factor. This mixed methods research investigated the impact of empathy instruction on the social and emotional skills of creativity in the UK Design and Technology (D&T) classroom.


Pupils in year 9 (aged 13 to 14 years) from two schools were assessed for their creativity levels using the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (TTCT) both at the start and at the end of the academic school year. In the intervening period, whereas the control school continued as normal with its usual D&T lessons, the intervention school’s D&T lessons were replaced by a creativity tuition kit called Designing Our Tomorrow (DOT), which involves instruction in empathising.


Pupils from year 7 (aged 11 to 12 years) in a third school were given the DOT task alone and interviewed about their experiences of it. Results showed that unlike the control school, whose emotional and cognitive creative scores in fact decreased over time, the intervention school increased in its levels of emotional and cognitive creativity, as measured by the TTCT. These quantitative as well as the subsequent qualitative interview findings and pupils’ portfolios suggest that creativity can be taught and particularly via instruction that advocates the importance of empathising with the subject matter.

Demetriou, H. & Nicholl, B. (2021: in press): Empathy is the mother of invention: emotion and cognition for creativity in the classroom. Improving Schools.

Demetriou, H. (2019). More reasons to listen: learning lessons from pupil voice for psychology and education. International Journal of Student Voice, vol 5.

Demetriou, H. (2018). Empathy, Emotion and Education. Palgrave MacMillan Press.
This book explores the construct of empathy and its connection with education. Charting literature on the origins and evolution of the concept of empathy, the author examines the multifaceted nature of empathy and the external and internal influences behind this concept. The relationship between empathy and education is examined through the impact they have on each other for the development of social and emotional understanding, positive social behaviours and effective teaching and learning.

POSTnote (2018). Developing non-academic skills. Shipton, E., & Bermingham, R. (eds.). Houses of Parliament: Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, no. 583.


To Boost Creativity, Cultivate Empathy
Encouraging teens to empathize with others may enhance their creative thinking.
Christopher Bergland

Feb 03, 2021

"A new University of Cambridge study suggests that encouraging students in a classroom setting to engender empathy boosts their creativity. These findings (Demetriou & Nicholl, 2021) were published on January 25 in the peer-reviewed journal Improving Schools."

This study's title, "Empathy Is the Mother of Invention: Emotion and Cognition for Creativity in the Classroom," uses a play on words to reframe the age-old proverb, "necessity is the mother of invention," while highlighting the benefits of teaching students empathy."



Empathy-Oriented Teaching Fosters Creativity, Study Finds
New research suggests that social and emotional teaching in schools may encourage creativity among young people.
By Sadie Cathcart
February 17, 20210
"Demetriou and Nicholl highlight many schools that have integrated empathy-promoting programming have done so in the context of literature and humanities curricula. In early education, distinctions between subjects may be less explicit, whereas opportunities to explore perspective-taking as school advances may be more obvious in reading, writing, and social studies than in science and math."