Thursday, May 26, 2016

In the Forest of Perspectives: Reflection #7 on Perspective-Taking

So already, the good news is that many people are understanding the existence and importance of diverse perspectives. In fact, more and more people understand that our increasingly globalized world is a veritable and unavoidable forest of perspectives. The hope that these perspectives can co-exist and even compromise and/or combine to create and sustain a functional, human-friendly world sends many into the forest to gain a better understanding of what each tree needs from and can contribute to the world forest.

But people don't find these forays easy. What complicates their efforts to understand both the trees and the forest is not only the abundance of perspectives, but the fact that word "perspective" is used to mean different things to different people at different times--different important yet related things to different people at different times.

So why does this language problem matter so much? For two major reasons at least:
    This book* presents the Global Competence Framework.
  • Because the word "perspective" keeps coming up in educational frameworks that seek to help students develop deep, useful understandings of complex phenomena that are understood differently by different people; and
  • Because in order to make change, solve problems, foster creativity, and live and work together peacefully and productively in schools, neighborhoods, or nations, we need to understand one another better, to be able to learn from and with one another, and to be able to work with one another toward goals that respect our various and common needs and rights as inhabitants of a globally interconnected world.
Developing a common understanding of language we use somewhat automatically is a relatively surmountable problem. It may be as simple of recognizing the different ways we use the word "perspective" and being transparent about which kind of "perspective" we mean.

We rub up against the various meanings of "perspective" when we encounter statements beginning with "My perspective is that ____" and "From my perspective, ____."
  • When someone says, "My perspective is that____," s/he is saying, "This is what I think about that." S/he may not be conscious of all that is contributing to her/his stance, but s/he can articulate that stance as a "perspective." And s/he could as easily substitute "opinion," "view," "viewpoint," "point of view," or "understanding" for "perspective."
  • When someone says, "From my perspective, _____," s/he invokes a set of "truths," experiences, and circumstances that shape, or at least contribute to, the way s/he thinks about, feels about, and/or understands something. In this instance, "point of view" and "vantage point" might be possible synonyms for "perspective."
"Vantage point" reminds us that some of our language for talking about differences in perceptions and sense-making reflects physical notions of perspective and seeing. We talk about bird's eye views when we look down on the world below from mountain tops, airplanes, and skyscraper observation floors--but also when we survey institutions from the "top" of the organization. When I and my fellow seventh-graders learned to draw with perspective** in our junior high school art class, we learned that right angles we'd experienced in the three-dimensional world sometimes didn't look like right angles. We had to set aside our notions of what we should see and draw instead what we actually did see from the angles from which we were looking. 

Years later when I was a research-teacher with the Teaching for Understanding Project,*** I came to appreciate academic disciplines as providing distinct vantage points and angles from which to identify and explore generative topics.**** When a complex real-world situation or phenomenon needed not just understanding, but a response or solution, I came to see that many different disciplines often had to contribute their particular ways of creating, using, and assessing knowledge--and that experts in particular disciplines had to be open to the knowledge of experts in other fields if the response or solution was going to work from the perspectives of a number of different stake-holders.

All of that said, I do think that the current "passion for perspectives" is less about disciplinary angles and more about the present-day reality of a world in which technology has significantly increased our virtual and actual contact with people who are often different from us in important ways--and sometimes surprisingly like us. Certain problems and challenges--global warming to name one--require solutions that, in a just world, must involve and take into consideration all nations and all citizens of those nations. Meanwhile, through travel, the internet, art exhibits, and other visiting cultural events, we experience different varieties of human experience, expression, and meaning-making. The comment sections in online newspapers and the callers-in to various radio shows expose us regularly to the developed or still evolving thinking of "other people." In our personal and professional lives, virtual and actual, we are often in contact with people who are striving to understand what they themselves feel and think, and why; what they feel should or must happen; what they personally will or won't do to make it happen; and the degree to which they will be candid with others about they abhor, condone, ignore, approve, champion, etc. And sometimes we ourselves are such striving people.

The Global Competence Framework (p. 12)*
In light of this, it's been interesting to take another look at the overall goal and perspectives-related goal of the Global Competence framework that Veronica Boix Mansilla and Anthony Jackson set forth in their book, Educating for Global Competence: Preparing Our Youth to Engage the World. As the graphic to the right makes clear, the element of the framework related to perspectives is one of four elements that collectively help students to develop global competence, which the authors define as "the capacity and disposition to understand and act on issues of global significance" (xi). 

There's little doubt in my mind that students' enlarged capacities to recognize and describe their own and others' perspectives, paired with their desire to do so, will strengthen community in the classroom and even beyond it. In addition, knowledge of their own and others' perspectives may also lead them to become more engaged citizens. But as desirable as these outcomes are, from the point of view of the Global Competence framework, they most matter because of their potential positive effect on students' abilities to "understand and act on issues of global significance."

The bullet points that specify the indicators of perspectives-related competence denote a combination of discernment, analysis, and reflection. They also reflect both definitions of the word "perspective." The student must notice and identify his/her viewpoint if s/he has one--and must similarly identify other viewpoints that reveal themselves, implicitly or explicitly. In identifying and even describing "influences" on perspective understood as viewpoint, the students must also identify and describe perspective as the "from where I stand" vantage point that is shaped by culture, experience, and "access to knowledge, technology, and resources." 

I refer to this last bullet with some hesitation because I believe perceptions of "quality of life" are so often shaped by perspective of the "vantage point" sort. And, as the designers of the Global Competence framework warn, the realm of perspective is also the potential realm of stereotypes and biases, and therefore of dominant beliefs and ideals that assert themselves as the norm and/or the ideal. I will never forget when, many years ago, one of my students in the M.I.T.-Wellesley Upward Bound Program, in searching for articles about the history of the program, came across the the following direction: "Upward Bound Program--see Culturally Deprived." His immediate response: "We're not culturally deprived. They just don't know our culture." But he brought up the experience up later: the language he'd encountered made him feel invisible, pitied, and judged, even though he'd defended himself from it in the moment. In my opinion, discussions of the "quality of life" must always genuinely invite personal, familial, and cultural perspectives, not just economic and political ones. And care must be taken that all stakeholders participate--that they both speak and listen.

Despite the graphic above's focus on recognizing perspectives--both types-- increasingly Project Zero's work related to perspectives has focused on cultivating students' abilities to take perspectives--so much so that recently, I was surprised to see that the graphic said "Recognize Perspectives" instead of "Take Perspectives." Specifically, through the Global Lens Project, Veronica Boix-Mansilla has been working with Mark Schulte of the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting***** to develop thinking routines and processes for helping students better understand how others feel and think, since this shapes their "viewpoint" perspectives.

I say "better understand" because the degree to which any of us can truly understand another's perspective--especially the "from where I sit" kind of perspective--is never certain. As a sometimes participant in and a frequent reader of the Facebook conversations my former students have about the African-American experience in America--raised again the other day by the acquittal of a second police officer in the death of Freddy Gray--I am aware that I am learning always by listening and sometimes by speaking and asking. But I am simultaneously aware that I don't--I can't--fully understand the "lived experience," as one of my colleagues calls it, of African-American citizens. Still, I can understand something and more--and whatever more I understand can help if I use it responsibly, responsively, and proactively.

That's why I really like the thinking routine that's laid out on the slide***** to the left, which is meant to be used with a journalistic resource. It's reminder that any of the student's speculation, even if it's based on the most careful analysis, will at most be a "best guess," and its requirement that the student think directly and deliberately about what s/he doesn't know and should put some effort into learning, help to ensure that the student recognizes that s/he is for the most part making assumptions, not articulating certainties. Speculation in the absence of any kind of knowledge and sensitivity could easily reinforce particular narratives, stereotypes, and biases and thus be very dangerous. But speculation that follows from respectful attention and some learning and that is fueled by a combination of analysis and imagination can reduce the emotional and cultural distance between the student and the person whose perspective the student is probing, especially when the student is reminded that s/he is speculating.

Interestingly, while Project Zero and the Pulitzer Center have been moving students beyond recognizing perspectives to taking them, the Asia Society has been moving students beyond recognizing perspectives to weighing them. The Global Competence section of the Asia Society web site explains the "Weigh Perspectives" element of the Global Competence framework as follows: 
Globally competent students recognize that they have a particular perspective, and that others may or may not share it. They are able to articulate and explain the perspectives of other people, groups, or schools of thought and identify influences on these perspectives, including how differential access to knowledge, technology, and resources can affect people's views. Their understanding of others' perspectives is deeply informed by historical knowledge about other cultures as well as contemporary events. They can compare and contrast their perspective with others, and integrate their own and others' viewpoints to construct a new one, when needed.******
In addition, students who exhibit global leadership competence are expected to be able to "apply an understanding of different perspectives."******* When "perspective" is understood as viewpoint, I can understand that there are times when students would need to weigh the merits of different viewpoints and either choose one or recommend a thoughtful compromise among several. But according to what criteria?

But what if "perspectives" and "perspective" in the above quotations refer to vantage points rather than viewpoints? In this case, how should an individual's or a group's experience and ways of making sense of the world be weighed against another's?

While "take perspectives" moves us toward greater understanding of other people's lives, values, histories, cultures, and ways of thinking--and perhaps in the process creates a connection between us and others whose perspectives we're trying to understand--"weigh perspectives" moves us toward a more analytical, outcome-oriented assessment of value and attends little to relationship-building.  

Screen Shot of Photo on Steve Locke's Blog
Still, it's important to be able both to take and to weigh perspectives, but the a lack of clarity about the kinds of perspectives we are weighing is an invitation to either deliberate or inadvertent devaluation of others' experiences, needs, rights, beliefs, and feelings. If it's one thing I've learned from watching the angry backlash against Black Lives Matter--even against the slogan itself, it's that everyone wants validation that his/her life matters. No matter that the phrase "Black Lives Matter" and the movement associated with it originated because so many Black lives were being lost in situations created and/or shaped by systemic, entrenched anti-Black racism. Clearly, from some vantage points, the claim that some lives matter is synonymous with saying that other lives don't matter at all or matter less.********

There's no question in my mind that the continuing evolution of the Global Competence framework is all to the good. But in our zeal for memorable graphics and simple language, we sometimes reduce long sentences to short sentences, short sentences to phrases, and phrases to single words. People, and therefore perspectives, are complex things that may be given short shrift by shorthand. We need to be clear about what kinds of perspectives we are talking about if want to strengthen the framework's ability to foster students' global competence, a boon for our troubled, complicated, beautiful world. And we need to be clear that tackling perspectives analytically is just one good approach to understanding them--the approach that our own "vantage point" perspectives might incline us toward because (a) our own educations taught to trust reason and analysis exclusively as routes to understanding, and (b) we prefer not to experience unpleasant feelings, a possible outcome of taking certain perspectives and understanding the emotion that might be part of them.

All of this brings to my mind Kenneth Koch's "One Train May Hide Another," a poem inspired by a sign in Kenya that warned people not to enter a train crossing without first verifying that, though one train had just passed, another train hidden by the first wasn't still passing on the adjacent track. Koch cautions, ". . . It can be important/ To have waited at least a moment to see what was already there." 

One important approach to grasping perspective may hide another, one perspective may hide another, and one kind of perspective may hide another, too. Once we ourselves have learned to see and appreciate what's obvious and what's hiding, perhaps we will be ready to teach our students how to cherish and negotiate the forest of perspectives. We will have to use the language of "perspective" precisely, encourage multiple ways of knowing, and help our students develop their capacities to recognize when their considerable if incomplete understanding of one or more perspectives is nonetheless sufficient to guide their next steps. But if we do that, our students may come to connect more authentically across difference with one another as well as with others near and far. Hopefully, their new experience of difference as interesting, negotiable, informative, and enlightening will make them assets to a world that sorely needs their flexible skills and positive attitudes.

The bottom line is that understanding other perspectives can be transformative but only if it is approached as a moral imperative and a gateway to possibility, not merely as a skill or an exercise. The world needs transforming, given the problems that afflict it--but it can only be transformed by people who embrace rather than begrudge and belittle its diversity. It's time to dig in, care, and relish caring. Life depends on it.

* Screen shot of a photo of the following book: Boix-Mansilla, Veronica., and Anthony Jackson. Educating for Global Competence: Preparing Our Youth to Engage the World. New York, NY: Asia Society, 2011. Print.
** Screen shot of image on a blog post no longer available on the internet: originally labeled as point-perspective.jpg (550×374)
*** This was from 1993-1995; with funding from the Spencer Foundation, Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Educaiton was developing a framework for cultivating students' deep, flexible understandings of important content.
**** There were four critical elements of the Teaching for Understanding framework. Understanding Goals identified what students would come to understand about a unit's Generative Topic. Understanding Performances and Ongoing Assessment helped students work toward those delineated target understandings. 
***** Screen shot of slide from Mark Schulte PowerPoint slide presentation found in the SlideShare section of LinkedIn entitled "The Global lens: Tools to Promote Deep Thinking on Big Issues, from a talk by Mark Schulte at BLC15":
******  Jackson, Anthony. "Global Competence." Asia Society. Asia Society Partnership for Global Learning, n.d. Web. 26 May 2016. <>. 
******* "Global Leadership I Can Statements." Center for Global Education. Asia Society, n.d. Web. 26 May 2016. <>. 
******** The web address of Steve Locke's blog is