A little perspective…

Over the weekend, some terrible stuff happened in Charlottesville, Virginia. I’m not going to throw my two political cents into the fray because there are already plenty of opinions out there on the issue.

Instead, I want to talk about perspective. And my students.

As an English teacher, I spend a lot of my time asking people how things would be different:

  • How would the story be different if it were told from a different character’s perspective?
  • How would the conflict change if a certain event hadn’t happened or happened differently?
  • How can one character make another character understand his point of view?

It’s difficult for the students to think critically enough to answer some of these questions. Heck, it’s difficult for many adults to think critically about things like this. And even when we confront these questions earnestly, there’s no guarantee that the assumptions we’re making are sensible or well-informed, let alone correct. Most of the deeper implications of this problem are lost on eleven-year-olds, so I play a little trick on my students to illustrate the perspective problem.

I put the students together in groups of four. Then I give each member a picture, face down on his or her desk. I say to the class,

I gave you all a picture. Don’t look at your picture yet, but just know that I gave everyone a picture of a sculpture. You know what a sculpture is, don’t you? A three-dimensional piece of art made of wood or stone or metal.

Here’s the thing, though. I gave everyone a picture of the same sculpture, but I want to see if your groups agree on what the sculpture is. Carefully take a peek at the picture I gave you. Keep it a secret. Don’t let anyone else in your group see it! And don’t say anything after you’ve seen it!

The students look.

Now, put the picture back face-down on your desk. Again, no calling out, but just nod your head if you recognized the animal in the sculpture.

The students nod vigorously.

Now, put it back face down on your desk. Look at the members of your group. Without making a sound, just mouth the word for the animal you saw.

The students silently confirm what they know to be true. I ask,

Ok, just tell me, yes or no, did your group all agree on the type of animal you saw?

A chorus of “YES!”

Excellent! Then we all agree. On the count of three, tell me what the sculpture is. One, two, three…

The room erupts into a garbled mess. Half the room shouts “elephant!” The other half yells “giraffe!” There is a split second of confusion before the indignation.

Elephant?! That’s not an elephant! It’s clearly a giraffe!”

“There’s no possible way you could think that’s a giraffe! It has a trunk and big ears and everything!”

Then they turn on me.

“You said you gave us all the same picture!”

I have to correct them,

No. I said I gave you all pictures of the same sculpture. I never said the pictures themselves were the same.

More accusations then. “You didn’t give us the same sculpture! You couldn’t have!”

Then, I reveal both pictures:

giralephant

“See!?” They all say. “They’re different!”

But the trick isn’t complete yet. There’s one more reveal:

giraffe-or-elephant-optical-illusion

Artist: Matthieu Robert-Ortis

This is when the jaws drop.

It’s a simple demonstration, but an effective one.

The hardest thing for students to understand is that our perspectives, like the pictures they received, give us a two dimensional view of a three dimensional issue. Every side is stuck at a fixed point around the sculpture, screaming about the animal that appears from that angle. The truth is that they are all simultaneously correct and incorrect.

And this is just bent wire. At least it’s a physical medium. You can see it. You can touch it.

It makes you think about how we rage about political ideologies and religion and economic policy. We’re all so sure. I’m convinced I’m right, too. Why can’t you see it?

But the truth of the matter is there are no giraffes, no elephants at all.

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