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Beyond Compassion: Deepening Learning Through Perspective Shifting

In a teachable moment in To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch provides his daughter Scout with these words of wisdom: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.” This passage is quoted often in the context of teaching empathy, as is the adage “standing in someone else’s shoes.”

Indeed, both frames of mind can help your students understand and sympathize with others. They are also at the root of a deep-thinking strategy called perspective shifting.

Perspective shifting involves intentionally shifting out of your normal point of view to discover new ways of thinking and understanding. You can apply perspective shifting as an empathy-building strategy as well as a strategy for strengthening arguments, deepening historical understanding, and cultivating creative thinking.

How can I introduce perspective shifting with students?

To begin, ask students to divide a writing space into two columns. In the first column, have students list qualities or traits about themselves, moving from the very broad to the very specific. In the second column, have them change one or more aspects of their list and think about themselves again, but this time from the new perspective.

Students can change as many traits as they wish in the second column, but encourage them to target their shift based on a specific person, topic, or point of view they’d like to better understand.

The shift in perspective in this example could help a student connect with a new student in your school or community.

I am (a/an) What if I were (a/an)
Boy Girl
American Japanese
Monolingual (English) Bilingual (Japanese and English)
Born and raised in Walla Walla New to Walla Walla from Osaka, Japan
Age 14 Age 14
Fan of music and dancing Fan of music and dancing
Outgoing Shy

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How can the strategy improve writing?

By using perspective shifting during prewriting, students can gain valuable insights about potential readers. This strategy is particularly effective in writing to persuade, when insights about potential readers may influence the content and structure of the argument.

In this example, a student intentionally shifts her perspective to imagine the point of view of an important reader.

Topic: Our school gym needs a face-lift

I am (a/an) What if I were (a/an)
Student School board member
13 years old 43 years old
Not happy about the gym Not thinking about the gym
In favor of improving the gym Someone who receives many requests
Not in charge of the school budget In charge of the school budget

The shift in perspective reveals potential objections the student writer will need to overcome when building her argument.

View Minilesson for Class Presentation

How can the strategy bring history to life?

Perspective shifting can connect your students to history, too. Here’s how you might apply the strategy to a discussion about Native American history. In this example, a student is asked to consider the perspective of a Cherokee Indian of a similar age during the tragic Trail of Tears.

Topic: American Indian Studies

I am (a/an) What if I were (a/an)
Boy Boy
American citizen Cherokee Indian in America
From Tennessee From Tennessee
11 years old 11 years old
Living in 2015 Living in the 1800s
Learning multiplication Learning to set animal traps
Responsible for cleaning my room Responsible for hunting and fishing
Living at home Forced to leave my home

Perspective shifting can help you illuminate historical subjects for your students in a number of ways:

  • Perspective shifing connects students to the past.
  • Key differences highlight cultural and lifestyle changes at different points in time.
  • “What if . . .” items force students to consider the topic from a historical frame of reference.
  • New perspectives humanize the event, encouraging students to consider the consequences of past actions.

View Minilesson for Class Presentation

How else can I use perspective shifting in the classroom?

You might also have students complete perspective shifts when . . .

  • Examining characters in a book or other piece of literature.
  • Thinking about how a current event impacts different demographics.
  • Considering why a parent, teacher, friend, or foe acts in a certain way.

Now and in the Future

Part of education is challenging your students to embrace differences, to expand their worldviews, to show compassion and understanding for others, and to conduct deeper analysis of actions and relationships. And as a lifelong learner, you embrace those same challenges. Perspective shifting arms you and your students with a practical strategy for meeting these challenges.