Multiple Perspectives in an International Classroom
The ability to weigh multiple perspectives—from different schools of thought cultures, or individual viewpoints—is one of the most important skills in the global innovation economy. I've asked Susanna Pierce, a teacher in an international school in Spain (and formerly of the International School of the Americas in San Antonio, Texas) to share how she teaches the weighing of perspectives using the most important assets in her classroom: her students. Although an international school setting provides many different cultural perspectives, I think most of you will find perspectives to be just as varied in the American classroom.
by Susanna Pierce
The first day in my U.S. History class, I asked my European, Middle Eastern, and Asian students to draw what an American was to them. In a class full of non-Americans, I was very interested in the responses from students. As I circulated around the class, I was amazed by the proceeding conversations within each group. I heard words like "arrogant," "stupid," "unhealthy," "patriotic," and "selfish."
Although I knew these stereotypes about Americans existed, it wasn't until I heard my class full of teenagers from Japan, Finland, Spain, Pakistan, and Syria say these words that this stereotype seemed real. Wow. The world really does think poorly of Americans.
"Teach with multiple perspectives." I had learned this approach many times in my training and practice as an educator, but my students gave the approach new, personal meaning for me.
This instructional design compels students to analyze the past not through a textbook, but through various primary-source documents. The aim is to integrate the stories of conquered groups with the opinions of the conquerors, thereby enriching the classroom discussion. By incorporating these new perspectives, students develop a clearer understanding of how historical events have shaped society today.
As an American social studies teacher working in an international school in Spain, I fully embrace this philosophy: to me, a strong practice should include the interpretation and evaluation of multiple perspectives, but ultimately, the best teaching practice should also embrace the sharing of students' multiple perspectives within your own classroom.
Teaching with student perspectives refines students' identities and beliefs and serves as a catalyst for contextual learning. In the first week of school, I wanted to learn my students' opinions about several statements related to economics and politics. To do so, I facilitated a four-corners discussion.
The ensuing discussion illustrated how political statements draw upon personal experience to articulate a viewpoint. "Those who make more money should be taxed more money." A large portion of the class migrated to the disagree corner, but one student from South Korea remained in the agree corner, alone. His peers in the opposite corner passionately explained how taxing those who "work hard" punishes strong work ethic. He responded, "There are many citizens in South Korea who work hard in a factory all day. In fact, they work over twelve hour days, and then might even have a second job afterward this shift to support their family. Working hard doesn't guarantee you become rich," he argued.
After he finished explaining his justification, I asked if any students wanted to change their position on the issue. Two students (both from Spain) moved to the corner by my South Korean student. The richness from and within cultures in my own classroom helped students to understand the perspectives of others, and even led them to refine their own beliefs.
Moreover, the integration of student perspective into a classroom also engages all students in a respectful discourse. Before starting the year, I was warned that one student might be a negative influence to my classroom environment due to previous behavioral referrals. Despite these warnings of constant disengagement, this student readily engaged during a discussion about the purpose of schooling. As he defended his belief that schooling should prepare you not only for a job, but also for the ability to function in everyday life, it seemed as if something changed in his attitude. In the tax discussion, his peers intently listened to his response and agreed with his explanation. It was particularly striking for them that this supposedly wayward European student, faced by an extraordinary economic crisis in his own country, was arguing his studies should prepare him to face any challenge in the future—whether it be obtaining a job, raising a family, or overcoming economic hardships. The integration of my "challenging" student's perspective in my classroom not only engaged him in the subsequent classes, it created a sense of respect and understanding between students then and continues to do so today.
Finally, a practice that integrates student perspectives challenges teachers to grow personally and professionally. On my first day, as the exercise about the stereotypical American unfolded, things became even more interesting. The first presenting group stood and explained their image: "We drew a picture of a man standing on top of the globe with an American flag in one hand, and a beer and gun in the other hand." They explained that their image had a man with a six-pack because "he is very concerned with his image and works out. Also, he thinks he is smart, which is why we have a light bulb," concluded the Spanish student. Finally, my student from Finland remarked, "But he is actually extremely ignorant: he thinks that Finland is the same country as Japan, which is why we have this bubble with the flags."
As these groups of ninth graders made their presentations, I made a new commitment. As an American teacher who strives to never match this global stereotype, I would do everything possible not to reflect these characteristics to students or any person I met during my time abroad. Most importantly, I would help break my student stereotypes by teaching not through one lens, but multiple lenses.
The following class, I designed a task that would challenge previous conceptions and stereotypes. Upon reading excerpts from The Devastation of the Indies, my students' views of Columbus changed. Through analysis of the text and the subsequent discussion, several Spanish students began to question the morality of a historical figure they had learned to revere.
Continuing to incorporate these texts into my classroom constructs a new appreciation for a culturally rich society from the past or today. Because the texts decorate Eurocentric perspectives with an intricate fabric of diverse voices from the past, students internalize the depth and diversity within societies.
Most people gain their understanding of a group of people from media—the Internet, the news, or Hollywood. However, in a classroom with students from multiple backgrounds, students can gain a new understanding about a concept, an idea, a culture, or an event from another peer or teacher in their classroom. Thus, the role of a teacher becomes even more crucial: aside from covering course content, she must challenge stereotypes and previous perceptions to create a culture of understanding and mutual respect.
To me, it seems not just important, but truly essential to incorporate all perspectives—those of students from South Korea, Finland, Syria, Malaysia, Turkey, Russia Spain, Guatemala, Pakistan, India, Venezuela, Japan, France, Italy and teachers from America—into a classroom like my own. By doing so, students and teachers constantly learn about how past experiences shape the values and behaviors of society today.
Embracing the perspectives from within the classroom will change the future perceptions and actions outside of the classroom.