Perspective-Taking

Introduction for Educators

An old and well-known parable tells the story of a group of blind men and an elephant. Originating in the Indian subcontinent, many versions have evolved over time, but each telling carries the same core element:

A group of blind men encounters an unfamiliar animal – something they are told is called an elephant. Curious about the creature but unable to see its form, they resolve to learn what it is by touch. Reaching out, each man felt a different part of the animal. The first man’s hand fell on the trunk – he proclaimed that the animal must be like a thick snake. The second man’s hand reached out toward a leg, arguing instead that the elephant must be like a pillar – a tree. Another, feeling the wing-like shape of the ear, quibbled that the elephant must be like a bat, to the disagreement of the man touching the tail, who stated the elephant was rope-like. So on and so forth, each man stepped forward, felt another part of the animal, and declared its nature. Lacking knowledge of the whole picture, however, none truly knew the elephant.

The moral of the story is to problematize the truth each man arrives at with their limited perception. While their subjective experiences may be real for them, that does not constitute an objective truth of the elephant itself. To bring the story into focus with the concept of perspective-taking, in some versions, the blind men gather together to share their experiences to create a greater picture of the elephant as a whole, arriving at a shared truth. By understanding what the other participants were doing and their rationale behind it allowed them to incorporate a broader and more creative understanding of the elephant.Perspective-taking, the “active cognitive process of imagining the world from another’s vantage point or imagining oneself in another’s shoes to understand their visual viewpoint, thoughts, motivations, intentions, and/or emotions,” is a process by which we can “try on” another’s perspective. It has important implications for cognitive development, and can broadly benefit social interactions and conflict, yet it also has elements that can be problematic in groups and organizations.[1] This activity, designed for educators working with high school or college students and organizational facilitators, seeks to teach what perspective-taking is and is not, its potential benefits, and its challenges and pitfalls


[1] Ku, G., Wang, C. S., & Galinsky, A. D. (2015). The promise and perversity of perspective-taking in organizations. Research in Organizational Behavior, 35, 79–102. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.riob.2015.07.003

Overview

Learning Goals

The goal of this workshop is to help participants:

  • Practice visual and conceptual perspective-taking to understand how to apply it in their everyday lives.
  • Understand how it can generate shared understanding and creative solutions to problems.
  • Understand some of the pitfalls of perspective-taking, including stereotyping, caricature, and preferential treatment.

Importance in Peace Education

Perspective-taking is an important element in peace education as it can help us to better understand the motivations of others as well as their worldviews on values such as justice, mercy, and equity. At its best, perspective-taking can reduce stereotyping and prejudice, improve the potential for creative solutions to conflict, and evoke empathy between adversaries in conflict. Conversely, in certain contexts, perspective-taking can increase prejudices and stereotyping, lead to preferential treatment, and deepen conflicts. Understanding how perspective-taking works, as well as the elements contributing to its positive and negative outcomes, can help individuals, leaders, and organizations navigate conflict constructively.

Target Audience

This workshop is designed for high-school-aged students and above. Aside from its use as a conceptual skill, perspective-taking is a developmental skill that children learn as they grow into adulthood. Drawing from Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, perspective-taking as a developmental skill takes shape from ages seven to twelve but improves as time goes on. Accordingly, this workshop assumes that the basic skillset of perspective-taking is already present, with the activity exploring that skill and its complexities.

Accessibility Note

Current research notes that some people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, comorbid with conduct disorders, or autism, may have difficulty engaging in perspective-taking[1]. While there is new research exploring teaching perspective-taking these populations[2], those approaches are beyond the scope of this workshop. As such, this exercise may not be suitable for groups with these individuals.


[1] See: Marton, I., Wiener, J., Rogers, M., Moore, C., & Tannock, R. (2009). Empathy and Social Perspective Taking in Children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 37(1), 107–118. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-008-9262-4 or Reed, T., & Peterson, C. (1990). A comparative study of autistic subjects’ performance at two levels of visual and cognitive perspective taking. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 20(4), 555–567. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02216060

[2] Pearson, A., Ropar, D., & Hamilton, A. (2013). A review of visual perspective taking in autism spectrum disorder. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00652

Timing and Phases

This workshop consists of three phases, totaling about 60-90 minutes:

  • Phase 1 (10-15 Minutes): Introduces perspective-taking as an idea through visual perspective-taking, using optical illusions and an image of a dove to bridge the visual and conceptual.
  • Phase 2 (20-30 Minutes): Engages participants in exploring their own responses to a scenario, followed by a discussion on different elements informing their perspectives.
  • Phase 3 (30-45 Minutes): Participants revisit the scenario, role-playing slight modifications to their perspectives. This is followed by discussion questions and reflection.

Recommended Group Size

This exercise can accommodate various group sizes, with more participants requiring more time for each phase. However, a minimum of 4 to 5 participants is recommended to allow for a diversity of answers.

Materials Needed

The optical illusions for the first phase are provided here, though similar interpretive illusions can be utilized for the same effect. For the second and third phases, a whiteboard and sticky notes or a virtual platform with whiteboard and sticky note capacity is ideal so that participants can see responses. However, reading the scenarios aloud and having participants write their answers themselves is also feasible. Additionally, there are two handouts found in this document that are meant to be used in Phase 2 onward.

Potential Modifications

  • Different optical illusions can be employed to give participants increased experience in visual perspective-taking. Additionally, in face-to-face settings, having students engage with a complex physical object in a circle is another way to explore visual perspective-taking.
  • In large groups, Phases 2 and 3 can be done in small groups of 5 or more people.
  • A fourth phase, exploring real-life or historical scenarios and conflicts, can be implemented using the ideas discussed in the prior phases. This can allow educators to incorporate this exercise into existing curriculum.

Additional Resources


Phase 1: Visual Perspective-Taking

The first phase of this activity seeks to ground the process of perspective-taking using a visual approach, which can provide a foundation for what the participants will engage in later in subsequent phases. Visual perspective-taking is thought to emerge before conceptual perspective-taking[1], so its process may be more familiar to participants than its conceptual counterpart.


[1] Gabbe, A., & Marquis, C. (1996). The Emergence of Visual and Conceptual Perspective-Taking Abilities in Three and Four-Year-Old Children. https://doi.org/10.1184/R1/6712607.v1

Process

Have students look at the following images, responding with what they see in each image.

Some possible interpretations:

  • Two fish swimming in the sea
  • A woman looking to the left

Some possible interpretations:

  • An elderly man and woman facing each other
  • A younger man and woman sitting in a landscape scene
  • A candlestick or chalice

Discussion Questions

  • What did you see in each image?
  • Do you see anything else in the image?
  • If you did not see something that someone else saw, can you adjust what you are looking at to find what they identified?
  • Why do you think you saw what you did in the images?

Lecture Notes

  • Perspective-taking is the process by which we try on a different perspective to gain greater information about the world around us.

A common way we engage in perspective-taking is visually, wherein our position in the world determines how we interpret what is there. For example, take a look at this image:

This sculpture by the artist Michael Murphy is made from a series of floating balls. From one angle, all we can see is the cone of balls. However, by standing at the right place in the room, the balls resolve into the image of an eye.

In addition to its visual dimension, perspective-taking also has a conceptual component, where we ascribe ideas, meaning, and motivation to objects and actions. For example, take a look at this sculpture, also created by Michael Murphy:

Reflection Questions

Ask the participants to reflect on the following questions quietly to themselves:

  • What do you see in this image?
  • What does this image mean to you?
  • What do you think the artist was trying to portray in this image?
  • Is there another way this image could be interpreted?

Finishing up Phase 1

  • By taking on a different perspective, we can gain new information about a situation or expand our understanding of possible interpretations.
  • Visually, this can help us make sense of scenes and images.
  • Conceptually, it can allow us to better interpret and understand the actions, motivations, and intentions.
  • In the next phase, we will explore our own interpretations of a series of scenarios, then reflect on those interpretations.

Additional Resource:

Visual Perspective Taking” An article and YouTube video discussing different elements of visual perspective-taking.


Phase 2: Interpreting Conceptual Perspectives

The second phase of this activity explores participants’ responses to three different scenarios. In this phase, the participants are focused on reflecting on their responses, which will be revisited in the third phase as they imagine differences in their own perspectives.

Process

  • Distribute a set of sticky notes and writing utensils to each participant.
  • Prepare a whiteboard space with the scenario and provide space to allow participants to place their sticky notes on each section.
  • For each of the following scenarios, have the participants write their answers to the questions on sticky notes, then place them in the appropriate section.
  • After the participants have finished with the scenario, use the subsequent Guided Conversation sections to reflect on the answers.

Scenario

James is caught stealing from Steve’s store. Steve calls the police, but not before physically assaulting James. When the police arrive, they arrest James and send him to jail.

Have the participants use three sticky notes, writing the name of each actor in the scenario at the top (Emile, Steve, the police). Then, have them answer the following questions for each actor:

  1. Was what they did morally right? What influenced this conclusion?
  2. Why do you think the actor engaged in their particular action?
  3. What do you think was the most important factor influencing the actor’s actions?

Guided Conversation

Take five minutes to allow the participants to reflect on everyone’s responses. Then, open the discussion with the following questions:

  • Was there anything surprising about the responses?
  • Was there anything you anticipated in the responses?
  • Were there any responses you did not understand?
  • Were there any responses you disagreed with, and why?

As you progress through the reflection questions, highlight in the discussion different elements of perspectives that may come up, such as the dimensions found on the handouts found on the following pages:

Lecture and Additional Resources

When the reflection questions have been answered or time constraints require moving on, distribute the handouts to each participant and discuss how each dimension plays a part in affecting perspective-taking. The third phase will allow participants to generate their own interpretations of these handouts, with broader meaning generated in the reflection portion of the exercise. However, here are some additional resources to provide additional information on the subject:


Phase 3: Playing with Perspective

This final phase revisits the scenario in Phase 2, having participants imagine slight alterations to the situation to explore each of the dimensions listed in the first handout.

Process

Like Phase 2, a whiteboard is used alongside sticky notes to collect participants’ answers in this phase. Have participants write their answers and post them to the whiteboard for each of the four alternative scenarios. After the scenarios are explored, there is a second reflective conversation.

Scenarios

For each scenario, have the participants use three sticky notes, writing the name of each actor in the scenario at the top. Then, have them answer the following questions for each actor:

  • Was what they did morally right? What influenced this conclusion?
  • Did the change in the scenario change your previous answer? How and why?
  • What do you think is the most important factor affecting perspective in this new scenario?

Scenario 1

Emily is caught stealing from Steve’s store. Steve calls the police, but not before physically assaulting Emily. When the police arrive, they arrest Emily and send her to jail.

Scenario 2

In this scenario, imagine that you are a law enforcement officer responding to the situation. James is caught stealing from Steve’s store. Steve calls the police, but not before physically assaulting James. When the police arrive, they arrest James and send him to jail.

Scenario 3

James is caught stealing from Steve’s store. This is the fifth time Steve has caught James stealing this month. Steve calls the police, but not before physically assaulting James. When the police arrive, they arrest James and send him to jail.

Scenario 4

James, desperate to feed his family, is caught stealing food from Steve’s grocery store. Steve calls the police, but not before physically assaulting James. When the police arrive, they arrest James and send him to jail.

Reflection and Guided Conversation

After the participants have completed the scenarios and posted their sticky notes, give them five minutes to review the responses. Then, have them reflect on the following questions in a group discussion:

  • How did the answers change in each scenario? Did you notice anything surprising?
  • What dimension of perspective-taking might apply to each scenario?
  • Did you notice any stereotyping, caricature, or preferential treatment in the answers?
  • How might perspective-taking affect how you look at incidents or events in the world?
  • How might perspective-taking benefit you when dealing with conflict?
  • Are there any risks or drawbacks to engaging in perspective-taking?

Materials

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