Perspective Taking

When this teacher assigned her students to debate a topic, they learned more than effective argumentation—they learned how to consider the perspectives of others.

The fable of six blind men and an elephant can help students realize how people can come to different conclusions about an issue. In this story, each blind man experiences just one part of the elephant and thus come to different ideas about what an elephant is. One man falls against one side of the elephant and declares it to be a wall; another feels the tusk and decides the elephant is very much like a spear; and so on.

I used this fable to introduce an assignment to the students, that of participating in an informal debate on free-market capitalism. I told the students to think of capitalism as the elephant in the room and to consider different ways individuals might experience the effects of a capitalist society. 

In preparing for the debate, I had students work from the proposition that capitalism is the best way to achieve the common good. I told them to do some research and be prepared to argue for and against this proposition. One of my goals for this assignment was to help students develop perspective-taking skills. Perspective taking, which involves understanding other people’s thoughts and feelings, is critical to having empathy or compassion for others.

I was delighted with the outcomes of this assignment. Students identified and articulated some of the social issues related to free-market capitalism and the common good, including such issues as greed, the widening division of wealth, violation of human rights and the growth of monopolies. Arguments presented by the students also produced heated debate about how protections and violations of individual rights influence the common good.

Until the day of the debate, students didn’t know which side of the proposition they would be asked to defend. I did this to broaden their understanding of both sides of the issue. The most important rule I had for students on the day of the debate was to really listen to each other. I also explained the criteria I would use for grading their participation in the debate: (a) clear statements of their position with supporting argument, (b) evidence of really listening to each other and (c) the use of respectful language in articulating their own statements and in challenging the statements presented by the opposing side. 

A part of this assignment asked students to complete a written report. Part One of the report was to be completed before the day of the debate and could be used as notes during the debate. Part Two was to be completed after the debate and included an opportunity for students to suggest their own grade for how they participated in the debate.

After the debate, I gave students an opportunity to share some of their insights and feelings about the assignment. Several students expressed how helpful it was to research both sides of the proposition and that they were still thinking about the pros and cons long after the debate.

I concluded this discussion by sharing a quote from the poet Rumi: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” I did this not to suggest that some things are clearly right and others clearly wrong, but to emphasize the importance of really listening to each other and trying to understand different perspectives. It is a skill I hope my students can bring to many aspects of their learning and their lives.

Wilson is an educational consultant and curriculum writer.