How Do You Help Students Broaden their Perspective?

Growing up in a predominantly caucasian small town in New Hampshire, my perspective was limited.  I didn’t know what it was like to live in a city.  I didn’t understand how different cultures functioned.  While I generally used a growth mindset when learning about new things, my scope of prior knowledge was very narrow.  As I age, like cheese and fine soda, my perspective continues to broaden and grow larger.  I’m learning new things and gaining a new perspective each day.

Teaching sixth grade, I’ve found that the students come to us with an incredibly small bank of prior knowledge, some of which is based on biases or stereotypes.  So, as we learn about new cultures and communities, it’s important that our students have an open and growth mindset in order to increase their flashlight beam of perspective and knowledge.  While we talk a lot about perspective and what it means, that’s not enough to help our students grow and develop.

We started our first cultural unit of study a few weeks ago with a unit on mapping to help the students be self-aware of how inaccurate flat maps are compared to globes.  This allowed us to introduce the idea of perspective as it relates to looking at maps of various places.  We branched this out a bit today with an activity to help the students see how their limited prior knowledge can sometimes lead to misconceptions about new chunks of information.  We shared some images with the students that showed people in different contexts.  We had the students make observations before we explained exactly what the pictures displayed.  Some of the boys had their minds blown by this activity.  They couldn’t believe that they were incorrect.  It’s not that they were wrong, it’s that they have such a small bank of knowledge from which to pull that their perspective is narrow.  A lot of their observations included stereotypes.  So, we talked about stereotypes and what they are.  We helped the students understand the importance of having an open mind when learning new information so that their perspective can grow.

We wanted the students to then take this new knowledge out for a test drive.  So, we had the students read an article about the Nacirema culture.  If you aren’t familiar with this article written several years ago by an anthropologist, you should check it out.  It’s very enlightening.   The students, working with a partner, read through the informational article and answered questions about the strange group of people.  We then had a whole group discussion about what they noticed and wondered regarding the Nacirema people.  Then, we pulled off the wool that was covering their eyes because of their limited perspective and explained to them how Nacirema is really just American spelled backwards.  They were shocked.  “What?  No way.  It doesn’t make sense,” were all things we heard the boys exclaim when we dropped this knowledge bomb on them.  They were mystified.  We then went through the article clarifying the strange habits of the people.  The boys were amazed.  It was pretty awesome.  We ended the class with a discussion about what this activity reminds us that we need to remember when learning about a new culture or group of people?  The students seemed to have a grasp of how important being flexible and open to new ideas is when learning new information.

Tomorrow we will jump into our Africa unit with an activity that will allow us to gather some prior knowledge from the boys based on what they think they know about Africa.  Then, we’ll begin the mapping component of our unit.  Hopefully, today’s various activities regarding perspective provided the students with the correct frame of mind for which to learn about new cultures and people.  We’ll see tomorrow.


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