Teaching perspective-taking (Perspective-taking, part 3)

[Editor's note: Today's post is the third in a series by Dr. Sherri Nevada McCarthy on the topic of perspective-taking].

Children sitting on floor at story time

Photo by Dave Parker; licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. From Wikimedia Commons

Many conflict resolution programs used in schools are built around enhancing children’s ability for perspective-taking. Harvard Graduate School of Education Assistant Professor Hunter Gehlbach notes that perspective taking plays an important role in classroom experiences. Teachers are encouraged to provide activities to help students develop these skills.

Gelbach suggests asking open-ended questions and presenting multiple viewpoints in class. Ask students for multiple right answers. Help them to develop a disposition that says, “Okay, I know what my point of view is, but is this how other people are thinking?”

“I don’t think social perspective taking is something which is currently rewarded in schools,” reflects Gehlbach. “It’s not punished, but it is kind of ignored.”

Social perspective taking depends on the context in which someone is trying to take another person’s perspective. According to Gehlbach, very little is known about how perspective taking happens and how effective different strategies are. “One strategy that people often use,” he explains, “is to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. But this could be a really bad strategy. If I’m very different from you and I project my background and my personal history into your situation, there’s a pretty good chance I would think something different from you.”

Perhaps you can remember some of the ways that you learned perspective-taking–either inside a classroom or outside.  Please comment and share those experiences.

Sherri McCarthy, Professor of Psychology at Northern Arizona University-Yuma

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7 Responses to Teaching perspective-taking (Perspective-taking, part 3)

  1. Barbara says:

    This essay brought me back to my high school years many decades ago. “Slam books” secretly passed around a classroom were an often heartless way of demonstrating perspectives toward fellow students. Since students could be demoralized by unkind anonymous “slams,” teachers confiscated the books whenever one was discovered. I was what was known as a “grind” in those days, so I seldom saw any complimentary adjectives under my name. I recognized the handwriting of a friend who wrote diplomatically, “A good kid when you get to know her.” Some 75 years later, I still clearly remember the comment. No doubt students described unkindly also recalled word for word what was said about them, many years after the event.

  2. Jordan says:

    I learned a lot about forming perspectives in school. I can remember learning that as far back as 5th grade, whenever we talked about history out teacher would talk about issue in that society at that time and ask for our opinions on different issues. Also my mom is a pretty opinionated person and has always thought it important to have your own perspective or view on things, so i learned it a lot from her.

  3. Jenet says:

    I feel that improvement of our prospective-taking skills implies increasing our personal awareness and sensitivity. Developing an understanding of other people’s beliefs and values would indeed help us find peaceful ways for conflict resolution which is critically important to the modern world. I agree that the strategy of putting ourselves “in someone else’s shoes” may result in unexpected consequences. One possible alternative to that could be engaging in active listening and becoming open to other people’s ideas and values. Our ability to accept another person’s point of view without feeling the need of imposing our own beliefs could help us develop perspective-taking skills.
    I feel lucky to have an opportunity to meet people from different cultures and backgrounds. I think that if children were exposed to diversity in values and beliefs at an early age that would allow them to develop tolerance and openness to new perspectives.

    • Erin says:

      I absolutely agree with you, Jenet. Being able to understand the emotions, rationale, and motivations of another person is essential to fostering a peaceful community. I am so glad this educational initiative is being utilized in schools, especially with young students. Teaching children to empathize is extremely beneficial, but teaching adults to empathize can be a lot more challenging. Unfortunately, I do not remember any perspective-taking lessons taught in my elementary school or even if any of these sorts of lessons were even taught/encouraged. I truly hope perspective-taking styles are employed and promoted in all schools, as it is a great step to reach peace in our society.

  4. walensy says:

    Perspective taking may be thought as the process by which kids avoid simply adopting someone else’s ideas and develop instead their own vision about people, characters, and events. Yes, they need basic skills and a good education for sure. But we have defined “good” education too narrowly. If we make it our goal to raise good-hearted, responsible, well-informed citizens who can think critically, solve problems, and use their creativity to understand others and the world we live in, then maybe we can better meet the needs of kids, and also build stronger societies.

  5. Elaine says:

    Many years ago I learned the value of perspective-taking in the work team environment. Different disciplines often forget to consider how one’s actions (or lack thereof) affect the work of another. Decisions were made without those considerations and lead to great difficulties for both sides. Revamping the process required all parties to sit together and learn to see all sides of the problem. Once we could see how our actions affected others we could move ahead and find a solution. Perspective-taking is a skill that can be taught to adults as well as children, in work environments as well as educational ones.

    • kathiemm says:

      Thank you so much, Elaine, for sharing your personal experience working with a team, and highlighting the value of perspective-taking.

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