Interview with Kieran Donaghy

Sylvia Karastathi interviews Kieran Donaghy, one of the plenary speakers at the 39th Annual International Convention: “Be Creative and Inspire!”

Originally Published in the TESOL Greece Newsletter - Issue 136  

-Why is empathy an important concept for today's teaching community?

The key researchers in the field of social and emotional intelligence, of which empathy is a key component, are Christina Gkonou and Sarah Mercer (2016). Their work has shown that, although in all educational settings positive relationships between teacher and students, and among students, and positive group dynamics are essential for successful learning, in contemporary language classrooms - where communicative competence is a central goal, and which use communicative language teaching and student-centred approaches, which are highly social, interactional and interpersonal in nature -  positive relationships and dynamics are particularly important. Empathy is undoubtedly a vital skill in nurturing these positive relationships and dynamics. According to Jill Hadfield in Classroom Dynamics (1993): “Members of a group are more likely to have a sympathetic and harmonious relationship if they make an attempt to understand each others’ feelings and points of views.”

Furthermore, given the increasingly multicultural and multilingual nature of the classroom in many parts of the world, language teachers and students need to develop intercultural skills, and empathy has a vital role to play in promoting intercultural competence, which is a key facet of communicative competence. Nurturing empathy can increase students’ awareness, understanding and appreciation of other cultures.

-In which conditions can images promote modes of empathy, especially as their reception often-times occurs in the mode of the dispassionate observer?

I think images in general, and especially moving images are very effective at promoting empathy. When people try to explain the relationship between images and empathy they often refer to ‘mirror neurons’. Giacomo Rizzolatti, Professor of Human Physiology at Parma University, accidentally discovered mirror neurons while conducting experiments on monkeys. He noticed that a particular region of the pre-motor cortex was activated when a monkey picked up a peanut, but also that the same region lit up when the monkey happened to see one of the researchers pick up a nut. The brain responded as if the monkey had picked up the nut itself.

He and his team had accidentally discovered ‘mirror neurons’ - the neurons that fire up both when we experience something (such as fear) and also when we see somebody else going through the same or a similar experience.  However, some researchers now believe mirror neurons are receiving more attention than they deserve, as they are only one part of a much more complex ‘empathy circuit’ comprising at least ten interconnected brain regions. There is an increasing recognition of the complexity of empathy processes in the brain. Mirror neurons are only part of a larger ‘empathy circuit’. Nonetheless, there is a consensus among researchers that images seem to have empathy-fostering qualities.

This potential of images to foster empathy can obviously be exploited in the classroom. To effectively use images to foster empathy and overcome the boredom, apathy and passivity students may feel towards the image, it is necessary to treat images in all their different forms as visual texts and to promote visual literacy – to help students to understand (read), and to use (write) images.  There is an increasing recognition that visual literacy needs to be integrated into curricula. This is reflected by the fact that in the English language curricula of a number of countries – for example, Canada, Australia and Singapore – two new skills, viewing (an active process of comprehending visual media, such as television, diagrams, symbols, photographs, films, videos, drawings, and paintings) and visually representing (communicating information and ideas through a variety of media such as graphs, presentation slides, infographic, drawings, and videos) have been added to the traditional skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking.

-How can empathy and creativity be encouraged in the framework of a video-based lesson?

I tend to use short films which tell a narrative rather than videos in my class. Numerous studies have shown that films with a compelling narrative can generate empathy for people we perceive as different from ourselves . These short films which foster empathy among our students also promote creativity as students have to imaginatively step into the shoes of  people who are very different from themselves.

An effective way to foster both empathy and creativity is to ask students empathetic questions after watching a short film. When discussing a film in the classroom, we often focus more on what happened than on why it happened, relaying facts rather than exploring the thoughts and feelings that made characters behave the way they did. So when students watch a short film, it is important to give them time to reflect as a group on what they saw and heard, and how those narratives relate back to their own lives.

Here are a few empathetic questions:

• How would you feel if you were [person/character]?

• How do you think [person/character] might be feeling? How do you know?

• Can you think of a time when you felt the same way?

• What led him/her to make that (pick one) choice?

• What would you have done differently in that situation?

• Which character in the story do you relate to most and why?

Another effective way to foster both empathy and creativity after watching a short film is to act students to focus on a character and give them a perspective-taking instruction such as:

‘Imagine a day in the life of this individual as if you were that person, looking at the world through his eyes and walking through the world in his shoes.’

-What are potential pitfalls when working with moving images in the language classroom?

There a number of pitfalls when working with still and moving images in the classroom.

Showing feature-length films in one sitting

A disadvantage of this approach is that students may find it difficult to concentrate for two hours and this may lead to cognitive overload. Sometimes this method is used with little or no preparation, and often no pre-watching, while-watching or follow-up activities. Showing a whole film in this way is sometimes ‘justified’ as a ‘treat’ after a hard week of studying grammar or to calm down young students when they become agitated. It is probably better to only occasionally use film in this way without any clearly defined pedagogical goals as it fails to integrate film effectively into the curriculum.

Viewing a feature-length in short sequences and testing with listening comprehension questions

In this approach students view the whole film in short sequences over a number of sessions. There are two types of tasks teachers typically use to exploit this approach. Firstly, the teacher gives the students detailed viewing sheets, which they have often diligently prepared themselves, on language and cultural features of the film which the students have to complete.

This method is also used as a tool to aid listening comprehension. Students watch the film and are invited to carry out listening comprehension exercises and activities based exclusively upon what is said by the characters or the narrator, in very much the same way as they might with an audio text. The exercise types are usually exactly the same as those used in a listening comprehension task.

Although this approach is very thorough and pedagogically sound, a disadvantage is that it may be very time-consuming for the busy teacher if they create their own viewing sheets for each sequence. Most teachers do not have much time for extra class preparation.

Although this approach uses the full visual context to aid comprehension, a possible disadvantage is that it fails to exploit the other rich visual details of moving image texts. It seems a wasted opportunity to not have any tasks which focus on what the students have seen.

As film is a primarily visual medium, optimal educational use capitalises on its visual richness. Film becomes much less effective as an educational tool in language learning if the activities students are asked to do depend largely on non-visual elements of the film.

Showing short videos and films without any clear pedagogical goals

The emergence of YouTube in 2005 has made it easier for teachers to find a multitude of short videos and films.  However, there is the danger of just using the short film or video to grab the students’ attention, to make them laugh or simply entertain them without having any clear pedagogical aims.

-How can the creative teacher inspire both their students and their colleagues?

I think creative practitioners can inspire both their students and colleagues through their example. By being creative, teachers can expand what we know about language teaching and learning in order to discover new worlds within the confines of our classrooms. I also believe that through their example creative practitioners can help to debunk the myth that creativity is just about creating works of art or enabling students to be artistic. This still very prevalent belief is detrimental to both teachers’ and students’ efforts to be creative in the language classroom.


Kieran Donaghy is best-known as the author of the methodology book Film in Action (2015, Delta Publishing) and as the creator of the website Film English (, which has won an ELTons Award for Innovation in Teacher Resources. Kieran is a teacher and teacher trainer at UAB Languages, part of the Autonomous University of Barcelona and holds Master’s degrees in ELT and Business Communication. He is the founder of the ‘Image Conference’, the only conference exclusively devoted to the use of images in language teaching and the co-founder of the Visual Arts Circle (http://, a professional community of practice for language education professionals interested in the use of the visual arts. Kieran has published extensively on the role of film and video in language education and he has recently co-edited the volume The Image in English Language Teaching (2017, ELT Council).

You can find out more about Kieran and his work at: