"The Blind Men and the Elephant" Lesson
In this lesson, educators use a retelling of a traditional folk tale from India that illustrates how different people can have distinctly different perceptions of the same thing. Students discuss how each blind man's argument differs when understanding an elephant. Even when presented with a real elephant, each man could "see" only what he already believed to be true. The story and this lesson is intended to encourage students to develop perspective awareness—awareness that each of us creates a unique view of the world based on personal experience, language, and culture.
- Students will describe different perspectives and how those perspectives impact an individual's point of view.
- Students will articulate their own perspectives and how those perspectives may impact their perceptions of others and situations.
Read The Blind Men and the Elephant, a folk tale from India. "The Blind Men and the Elephant" is a story from oral tradition. You may want to rehearse the story several times and tell it or have students act it out rather than read it aloud or alone. Before you present the story, ask students to give their interpretations of the word "see." Reinforce the idea that "seeing" can mean perceiving something visually or understanding an idea. Ask students to listen to the story for examples of both definitions.
Debrief with students using the questions below.
After students have heard the story, use the following questions to guide discussion of how differences in perspective can make it difficult for people to communicate. Students should be encouraged to apply the moral of the folk tale to real-life situations.
- What happens in the story when each blind man "sees" the elephant? Why were there six different ideas about the elephant? Were any of the men right about the elephant? Were any of them completely wrong?
- What did the blind men learn from the Rajah? What does the storyteller want us to learn from this tale?
- Do problems like this happen in real life? Think of times when arguments or misunderstandings have occurred because people saw situations from different points of view. Describe what happened.
- How does it feel when another person doesn't "see" something the way you do? How can you address those differences in perceptions?
- What if the men in this story were not blind? Would they still have different perceptions about elephants? Why or why not?
- Does the story give you any ideas about how these problems can be solved? What are some steps you can take to understand why another person doesn't see things the way you do?
- Ask students to write an extension of the story that includes the conversation the six men might have had as they journeyed home.
- Have students write original stories or skits that illustrate the importance of perspective-awareness.
- Ask students to write and perform a skit based on the story. The skit could be performed for other classes, and the performers could guide a debriefing with their audience.
- Have students work in groups of six to create group illustrations of the story. Alternatively, have them use recycled materials to create a sculpture of the elephant combining the perspectives of the six blind men.
- Encourage students to talk about misunderstandings they experience or observe that seem to be the result of clashes between points of view. Work with students to role-play behavior that resolves the misunderstanding.
- If your class is corresponding with a Peace Corps Volunteer through the Global Connections program, ask him or her to provide some examples of differences in how people in the host country view the world and the way U.S. Americans "see" things. What has the Volunteer learned from these differences? How has (s)he addressed them?