January 17, 2012 The Why and How of Teaching Perspective
Perspective is a rampant word in our society, particularly in a culture where individualism is valued for its one-does-not-meet-all approach. But when it comes to actually ‘teaching’ perspective…well, two things come to mind – what does that mean, to teach perspective, AND how can it be done?
From where I’m sitting at this moment in time, I define perspective as a personal viewpoint that one takes on any particular issue or how one views any situation at any given time – each one of us has a uniquely colored lens, if you will, tinted by our life experiences, our fears and desires, our second-to-second encounters and interactions with the environment. This, in and of itself, is impossible to teach – how could we possibly teach something that can only ever be seen through another’s eyes?
But we all have a perspective, and we all see and interpret the world with that intact (whether we’re consciously aware or not), and that is the unifying band that ties us all together as a relatable race of beings. To awaken students to their own individual perspective, and then to the idea that others have their own perspectives (which may be quite similar or very different from our own, depending on the case) is – or what I can only imagine to be – one of a teacher’s ultimate challenges.
I went for one of my typical 3.5(ish) mile runs about a week ago; my house is less than a block away from a rather secluded beach, and sometimes (even in the dead of winter) I end my run by walking down to the shore, more often than not just to gain a sense of presence, of wordless beauty – communicated so eloquently by the sea. I stood on the compact sand, looking out over the waves, and bent at the waist to stretch my hamstrings; as I grasped my ankles and peered at the fading blue sky, a flash of thought suddenly appeared in my mind, as quickly and fleetingly as a seagull in mid-flight – “who’s to say that the sky is really up, and that the ground is really down? Right here and now, it could just as easily be the other way around.”
I realize that this insight might prompt some to say, “yes, but considering that most of us don’t go around walking on our hands…” True. But what if? And what if we were the type of animal that spent most of our time on this earth in a relatively upside-down position, say much as a opossum or a bat might do? If either one of those creatures was able to and had the need to conceptualize such an idea, might they refer to the ground as ‘up’ and the sky as ‘down’?
It’s not a question to truly ponder over or to get carried away by on a philosophical stream. The point is, one man’s up might be another animal’s down, and that’s just dealing with a rather concrete and everyday, normal experience. This is the type of concept heavily inherent in the interpretation of historical events, for example. The pedagogical direction in which my cohort has been pointed is to first and foremost consider whose viewpoint or perspective is being communicated through any particular historical text, whether that be a primary or secondary source (particularly the latter), and to then discuss and explore other perspectives that might be relevant in viewing such a situation i.e. painting a more complete and accurate picture.
One of my favorite examples in a related junction is the topic of man-made maps – when looking at any particular type of map, be it a climate, economic or resource, topographic, or physical map (and the different sources within these types) – which one is ‘right’? There isn’t one of course; each type of map provides a different perspective, some being more accurate than others and some being more relevant depending on their purpose, but they each provide (broadly speaking) a contributing viewpoint that makes up a collaborative whole.
I can think of a simple activity, which would work with any grade level (even starting in K) in which you have the children look around their environment and make personal silent observations about any of the things that they notice (and having them write these down in the later grades would be a beneficial extension). Then, gather in a large circle or some other conducive group formation and have each student share some of their observations. It will be quite obvious that some observations are very similar, while some are very different. This provides a great launching point for discussion, which could go in upteenth directions (depending on the environment and group at hand).
Perspective is an inescapable but often invincible concept to children, let alone adults. Teaching that concept can be a richly engaging experience, and one that can be taught from any angle and at any point in time.