Through Others’ Eyes
The Power of New Perspectives
By Kathleen Cushman, co-author, Belonging and Becoming (Harvard Education Press), and
Wendy Baron, Chief Officer, Social and Emotional Learning, New Teacher Center
For most of us, it’s quite natural to approach a situation from our own individual point of view. We routinely make sense of what we see, what we hear, and the many other signals that get through to us based on what we already know from lived experience.
Yet, the filter of our own perception, while helpful, can also block valuable information. Unless we intentionally seek out other perspectives, we risk tunnel vision or narrow-mindedness.
When we limit ourselves to just one view of things, we potentially foster misunderstanding across the various spheres of life:
- At home, where the natural frictions between youth and parents can turn into blistering wounds
- At school, where our beliefs or preconceptions can close our ears to important evidence
- At work, where our styles and habits can block communication and collaboration with others
- In civic life, where if we lack the balance provided by differing perspectives, we risk autocracy or chaos
All of these scenarios invite the same powerful solution on the part of educators.
The ability to see from new perspectives — whether in the home, the classroom, the boardroom, or a civic forum — can offer thoughtful and positive solutions to the thorniest of problems.
Teaching that intellectual, social, and emotional skill can transform how we think, what we think, how we feel, and the decisions that we make, both large and small.
Teaching perspective-taking is an important tool for educators. What can that look like in the classroom?
Empathy lays the groundwork
Even very young children can learn to identify and empathize with the feelings or thoughts of others. Adults help when they teach preschoolers the words for different emotions and model how to voice their own feelings. They can then guide children to recognize these same feelings in the people around them.
Picture books, for example, can help young children interpret the actions and facial expressions of others. Other resources, such as the PBS program Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, offer both young children and their caregivers the chance to practice empathy through memorable explorations of different perspectives.
Children need a teacher who can model and support those skills. “If a child acts in a way that hurts another,” said Emilia, who teaches four-year-olds in Atlanta, “we often role-play the situation, so each child can identify the emotions that another may feel.”
Rather than shame the offender, Emilia first expresses empathy for the child harmed. Then, she helps both children put words to the feelings (such as jealousy or frustration) that led to the offense. Finally, she helps them plan and practice “helping behaviors” to use when such feelings arise.
With warm support and modeling by adults, children can start first grade with a better understanding of what they and their peers are feeling. During the elementary years, they will further develop the cognitive ability to “stand in someone else’s shoes.”
Role-playing expands the horizon
By middle school, students are ready to practice taking new perspectives in academic settings as well as in their social interactions through role-playing. The more authentic the form of role-playing, the more powerfully it seems to work.
Kerry’s sixth-grade humanities class included many English language learners, and most of her students were below grade level in reading. At the end of the year, they were able, however, to vividly recall what they had learned about ancient cultures in the Middle East because of active role-playing.
The unit had culminated in classroom battles and marches, with the children actively embodying and explaining their various clashing roles. As they acted out the parts of king, temple builder, or scribe, they began to imagine ancient cultures from different perspectives.
“We actually got to experience it first hand, how people used to work,” said a student named Ruby. “It made learning a lot easier.” Later, that unit would inform classroom discussions on how social position affects the distribution of power in 21st century America.
Youth take up dilemmas, thinking twice
As a veteran teacher at High Tech High, Tom Fehrenbacher designed a year-long eleventh-grade humanities course that staged six mock trials, each at different critical points in U.S. history. Rather than reading a series of history textbook chapters, Tom’s students participated in riveting peer arguments over complex dilemmas, experiencing the issues from the perspectives of key characters.
Esteban, 16, helped defend the early labor activist Eugene Debs for his part in an 1894 strike by American Railway Union workers. In trial preparation, as he reflects in this one-minute clip, “You’re looking at things in black and white” based on whether material would help the client. However, by the close of the trial, he found that “after you rethink…all the facts come back in [and] you see the whole picture once again.”
Tom’s students grew eager to find out more about the people whose roles they took on, and they often identified with their motives or actions. “You start to understand why these decisions were made and why it was controversial,” said Michael, who acted as a lawyer in a mock trial of Plymouth Colony’s military leader, Miles Standish, for killing an Indian leader he had invited to a peace treaty. His classmate, Sarah, thinking of the Puritans “trying to start a new life way off in the Americas,” wondered “what you’d do if you’d been in that situation.”
As another example, an anthropology unit at the NYC iSchool called “Sixteen” generated cross-cultural conversations among eleventh graders who conducted face-to-face Internet conversations with age-mates at schools around the world. In this one-minute video clip, Maranda describes the unsettling realization that perspectives from other cultures varied more than she and her classmates imagined.
Arts and literature bring new perspectives alive
The arts and literature can also draw students into relating to the perspectives of others—and giving voice to their own. Shaquana, a New York City high school student, credited her English teacher for creating “a safe place” for disagreement. “She doesn’t allow people to call people’s ideas stupid or completely disregard your opinion.”
On the other side, listening to critique without getting defensive also takes practice, she noted. “You have to understand that it’s your opinion that they’re attacking, not you.”
“But we’ve also learned how to defend,” her classmate Gabriela put in. “Because it’s not enough to just state your opinion—we also have to provide evidence. Where do you see that happening? At what point in the book did your opinion change and make you stand on where you stand right now?”
That habit of mind now serves her well, Gabriela added. “You move what you learn from this class to other classes.” (This three-minute video provides an example.)
Through dialogue, minds open to different views
The teenage years are ideal for students to train their minds on matters with social resonance, research1 shows. As adolescent learners explore new perspectives, analyze evidence, and come to their own decisions, they are not just learning academic skills but also shaping an identity: a sense of who they are and who they want to become.
After one eighth-grade class acted out “Twelve Angry Men” in class, the teacher had students compare the personalities of different jurors to those of their classmates. The jury group “reminds me of fights with my friends, when we’re trying to decide something,” a girl named Angelina said.
Kathleen, her teacher, had in fact chosen the play with the goal of opening minds. “A lot of our students are young men and women of color,” she noted. “Not only are people going to stereotype them, but they stereotype one another.”
In a time marked by grievous culture wars and uncontrollable disinformation, educators — as ever — bear the task of opening young minds to diverse perspectives.
From early childhood on through early adulthood, our students are looking to us to show them how.
1 See, for example, Turning Points 2000: Educating Adolescents in the 21st Century. Carnegie Corporation of New York; and Phinney, J. (1989). Stages of ethnic identity development in minority group adolescents. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 9, 1–2, 34–49.
Cultivating empathy through self-reflection
In some situations, empathy for others does not come easily. To meet the challenge, New Teacher Center suggests the following questions to ask oneself when it feels difficult to hear another’s perspective.
- If I were this person, how might I be feeling?
- Can I come up with more than one way of seeing the situation?
- What might have happened in the past that would cause this person to feel this way?
- What unmet need might this person have?
- Am I feeling frustrated?
- Am I willing to listen and be open?
- Am I willing to stick with an uncomfortable conversation?
- Who or what does this person or situation remind me of? Am I reacting to something from my past?
- Am I setting clear and healthy boundaries?
- What does my body language show?
How Teachers and Students Can Practice Perspective-Taking
Adapted from work by Austin (TX) Independent School District
Video, “Exploring Ideas from Different Angles” (1:21 min.)
Video transcript, “Exploring Ideas from Different Angles”
The first [mock] trial that I did, it was against Eugene Debs, and this was working with the whole union workers’ strike. And I kinda really learned a lot more about the working class and kind of how the working gets involved with unions, and a lot of other information like that. So although it kind of pertains to a particular time period, I feel like I get a lot more current experience too because this does help me learn a lot about our current day and how a lot of things from the current day was formed from past examples made in history.
As you’re doing all your [mock trial] research, you’re kind of looking in things in black and white as, “This will be good for my side,” and, “This will be harmful for my side.” And you kind of only pay attention to the facts that pertain to your case. That’s the mindset that you have to be in. But then after the trial is over, we have this big paper due that’s called like, “The Trial Recount.” And you basically have to go over all the facts that were said, and kind of take everything into account. And especially if you’re a jury member, you’re already doing this, because you’re having to watch the case and having to take in all the facts. But when you’re actually part of the case, well, after you kind of rethink about it, all the facts kind of come back in. You kind of see the whole picture once again.
Video: “Just Listen: Being 16 in Different Cultures”
Maranda, in grade 11, describes a class in which students used anthropological methods to investigate the experience of 16-year-olds in cultures around the world. “It was different for a lot of us,” she says. “It was very different.”
Video Transcript: “Just Listen: Being 16 in Different Cultures”
Actually, last quarter I took an anthropology course. It was called “Sixteen.” Um, we had to be anthropologists and what we did was, our final project was to create a documentary on what it’s like being 16. Any, um . . . any area with being 16. It could have been sports, it could have been relationships, it could have been authenticity on being a 16-year-old. It could’ve been anything. Um, within that course, you know, we went to this place where we had dim sum. And, you know, I mean it was different for a lot of us, it was very different. We had chicken feet—that was one of the main things that really stuck out to people. But the purpose of it was to step out of our preferences, step out of our person, you know—alleviate and completely, um, rid of our biases and take a look at something from an outside perspective. —Maranda, 16
Video, “Opening Minds, Changing Hearts” (2:47 min.)
Video transcript, “Opening Minds, Changing Hearts”
Gabriela: We were reading “Fences,” by August Wilson. And it was just that whole analyzing how the father’s actions and how his relationship influenced everything that had happened to Corey, his son. So, you know, we just really got to think about, “Hey! How did our relationship with our fathers, or any figure in our life as important as a father, how did that affect us, who we became in the future? And our persistence and our ambitions, how did that come to be?”
Susan: All these fictional works, every single character has some trait that’s like basically like the essence of human nature. And once you figure that out, it’s really easy to connect [with] them, because it’s like they have the same trait that you have even though sometimes you don’t show it. ‘Cause you’re like, “In a way I’m someone like them, and I would probably do something like that, too, if I was in the situation.”
Edwin: What this class has done for me is just open my mind to the possibilities of what the world is doing or changing around me. And I just feel like social and academics just come together as one. I just take what I learn through this class and apply it to everyday situations now.
Suraiya: This class changed what morals and ethics that I thought was wrong and right. There was this book that we read that really changed how I thought. It was “Ruined” by Lynn Nottage. And the main character, she was running a brothel, which when I first read it, I was like, “Why is she doing that? She’s reinforcing the patriarchy.” But as I read it, she was doing the right thing. Because that was her way of undermining the patriarchy and giving these women a safe place to stay in. It just made me open my eyes more to the world. I think it made me a stronger person. Yeah, voicing my opinions, but also understanding why people do what they do, because before I was just, “Oh! They’re wrong. Why would they do that?” But you need to understand their perspective, too.
Anissa: I find myself outside the class always talking about them. Like what would you do in that position? And just like thoroughly explaining what we were reading. And even outside the class I continue to ponder and just be like, “Oh. I could’ve said that.” Or, “Oh, this was a great idea.” But it’s always outside of the classroom.