Notable and significant national events occur all the time while we teach about our specific topics of study. Sometimes these events coincide directly with our curriculum and we can bring them into class to provide immediacy and relevance to our material. Other times, the events seem removed or unrelated to what is occurring in our classroom. The national conversation stemming from events in Ferguson, Missouri is a timely example.
There are many different viewpoints on current issues of social justice. Although there are no easy solutions, certainly what is needed at this time is a greater capacity to try and understand each other. Quite simply, we need to do a better job of seeing and hearing each other if we want situations to improve.
The events in Ferguson may not have an obvious or direct relationship to many of our classes, yet the ability to empathize and see things from another person’s point of view is a core component of our often-touted goal of teaching critical thinking. Nearly every college course includes goals related to critical thinking, and one essential element of intellectual and analytical inquiry is perspective taking. Perspective taking is the ability to consider multiple perspectives and their implications. It is the capacity to step outside one’s own worldview and imagine what others may be thinking or feeling.
Perspective taking not only allows us to create a more sophisticated understanding of complex issues or problems, but also to develop more creative options and solutions. Simply preparing to discuss an issue in a diverse settings can provoke more thought, and exploring an issue from a different worldview can lead to new knowledge and discoveries. Scholars who study critical thinking often conclude that in our quest to develop critical thinking in college students, we rarely emphasize perspective taking. When we miss this important aspect, we run the risk of encouraging sophisticated, yet egocentric, thinking.
How do we teach perspective taking?
Unfortunately, perspective taking does not frequently occur on its own. Rather, it requires explicit encouragement and development. When we actively and purposefully engage students in considering different perspectives through our teaching practices, they develop an ability to enter empathetically into opposing arguments and viewpoints, thereby deepening their own thinking and confronting their own biases and misconceptions.
Some ideas for teaching perspective taking:
- Intersperse conflicting ideas into lectures and readings and ask students to compare and contrast.
- Illustrate how a researcher used a unique perspective to make an extraordinary finding or discovery.
- Use writing prompts and question stems which ask students to take on a perspective different from their own.
- Assign students to interview someone with a different worldview. Require students to seek out similarities, not just differences.
- Purposefully arrange students in small groups to maximize a diversity of opinions.
- Ask students to identify the long-term implications of behaviors that result from a limited worldview.
- Ask students to prepare an assignment specifically for a particular audience, not just for the instructor.
- Designate students to play specific devil’s advocate roles to bring up differing viewpoints in a class discussion.
- Use role play, debates, and case studies. Consider asking students to take one position first, than another, or to identify major arguments against their position.
There are many other methods, if you have an idea or example please share it in the comment section below.
In light of the recent events in Ferguson, one practical step we can all take is to encourage students to explore ideas from multiple viewpoints. No matter what we teach, if we expect our students to graduate from DU as intellectually engaged students dedicated to the public good, we should strive to help them develop increased capacity for perspective taking.
Concepts to consider
Resources specific to teaching about Ferguson
Resources about creating an inclusive classroom