Teaching Perspective-Taking to Create a Kinder and More Compassionate World

By Bob Schwalb

Perspective-taking is the ability to see a situation from someone else’s point of view. Research has shown that individuals who take the perspective of another are more likely to experience feelings of empathy toward that person. Since empathy-building is arguably the cornerstone of humane education, incorporating perspective-taking into lessons can be a valuable teaching tool.

Perspective-taking not only helps students navigate their own interpersonal relationships (i.e., those with whom they relate directly); it also helps them make sense of larger societal issues and, just as importantly, builds the foundation for exploring potential solutions to those complex problems. 

Taking the perspective of someone else can be easier for some students than for others, but it is a skill that can be taught to and practiced by anyone. Just like reading and writing, the more opportunities we give our students to practice, the more proficient they will become.

When taking the perspective of someone we relate to directly, we typically look for visual and auditory clues such as body language or speech tone. The task becomes more challenging, though, when we attempt to take the perspective of others whom we have not seen, heard, or met. In humane education, we often focus on issues where we have not-so-apparent relationships with others. One such issue is sweatshops. While it is unlikely we will ever meet a sweatshop worker, we can nevertheless try to empathize with their predicament.

It can be difficult to see the role we in the U.S. play when it comes to the proliferation of sweatshops throughout the world. If we fail to look at the issue critically, we may see the scoring of cheap clothes as simply a well-deserved reward for frugal shopping. But there is a high price associated with cheap clothes. It is often the sweatshop factory workers who toil long hours in unsafe conditions, earning very low wages, who pay the price.

On the surface, this issue may appear simple. However, there are several actors involved and each has different motivations and perspectives. Below are two activities from The Cost of a T-Shirt lesson found in HEART’s Justice for All Secondary Guide. The activities help students explore the sweatshop issue from multiple perspectives.

In the first activity, My Typical Day Poem, we invite two students to take turns reading a poem out loud to the class. There are two voices in the poem – the first voice is that of a privileged teenage girl living in an affluent country; the second is that of a teenage girl working in a sweatshop, living in a poor country. Students quickly discover that the lives of these two young women, while similar in some ways, have many significant differences.

MY TYPICAL DAY*

My typical day is always so hard: all I do is work and I have no time for anything else. 
My typical day is always so hard: my parents nag me about homework and chores.

I wake before sunrise because the factory is four miles away, which is a really long walk. If I’m late, I’ll be fired and replaced. 
I wake up a little after sunrise because my parents won’t give me a car which is totally unfair, so I have to catch the bus. If I’m late, I’ll get a detention.

All I have is hand-me-downs. They are all we can afford. I have to make do. 
All I have is last year’s designs. They are so outdated. I hate it because I have to make sure that I look good.

At work, I do the same thing over and over again. I have to concentrate so I don’t make a mistake. 
At school, it’s always the same, completely lame. I can’t concentrate. I am so bored.

I wish that I could attend school to learn, but I have responsibilities. My parents need my help. 
I wish that I didn’t have to go to school because I don’t care about learning. My parents make me go.

I sit at my machine, making the t-shirts as fast as I can. 
I sit at my desk, hoping for the day to finish as quickly as possible.

I continue to sew until my hands ache, with no water or bathroom break. 
I continue to watch the clock until I can get a break and hang out with my friends.

I have to earn enough to support my family. 
I have to earn enough so I can buy the coolest t-shirts to impress my friends.

The fumes make it difficult to breathe, but I ignore that and keep on working. 
The pressure to fit in makes it difficult to be myself, but I ignore that and keep acting the part.

I work seven days a week, but barely make enough to eat. 
I go to school during the week, just waiting for the weekend when I can find a new outfit at the mall.

For now, I keep working. There are always more t-shirts that need to be made. 
For now, I’ll throw this old t-shirt away. I need to get a new one in the latest style to put on for display.

This will never end. I’m stuck here doing something I don’t want to do. 
It will not always be like this. I’ll leave, get my own place, and do whatever I want.

My typical day will be my future life. 
My typical day will not be my future life. 

Will Anyone Take Responsibility? 

In the second activity, Will Anyone Take Responsibility?, we ask students to look critically at the sweatshop issue from several different perspectives. They start by reviewing the interview transcripts of several people who are impacted by the making of cheap t-shirts. The students determine for themselves whom they think is responsible for the problems and then look for practical solutions.

The first interview is with an Environmental, Animal, and Social Justice Advocate; the second is with a T-shirt Company CEO; the third is with a Bangladeshi Government Leader; the fourth is with a U.S. Cheap T-shirt Consumer; and the fifth is with a Bangladeshi Sweatshop Worker.

Each person interviewed offers a different perspective on this complex problem. Students begin to understand why this particular problem is so intractable.

The students work in groups to complete the readings and brainstorm together potential solutions to the problems caused by the manufacturing of cheap t-shirts. The activity encourages them to look for win-win solutions that will do the most good and least harm for everyone involved. 

Conclusion

Perspective-taking is an important life skill we can teach our students. The skill helps them navigate not only their direct relationships, but just as importantly their indirect ones, helping them to better align their actions with their values. The more practice they have with this in the classroom, the more skilled they become outside the classroom, which hopefully results in them creating a kinder and more compassionate world.

 *Inspired by the poem Two Young Women written by Deirdre Berry, published in “Rethinking Globalization: Teaching Justice in an Unjust World,” edited by Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson, Rethinking Schools LTD, 2002.

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