Different Perspectives Game
I believe that one of the important things that the study of philosophy teaches us is how to examine the world from a variety of different perspectives. When we read and study the writings of classic and contemporary philosophers, we are given new ways of looking at the world that broaden our own perspectives on reality. Consequently, I believe it’s important to emphasize, with young people, the value of looking at the world through a variety of lenses. If we are to encourage them to examine their own views fairly and objectively, it will be good practice for them to take perspectives that are different than their own and think about them, too.
This simple exercise encourages students to look at the world in ways they usually don’t. It’s also an excellent ice-breaker and an effective way to begin a class. I often use it as a way to illustrate to students the way in which philosophy encourages us to examine the world from a variety of perspectives.
I break the class up into groups of three or four. At each group, one student is designated to be the “scribe;” he or she will write down the answer that the group as a whole comes up with.
I then hold up some common everyday household item. (My favorite item to use is a rotary cheese grater, but I have also used things like an eyeglasses case, a blackboard eraser, a pencil sharpener, and even a shoe.)
The groups are then given 3 minutes to think up and write down everything they can imagine using the item for—besides its originally intended function. I encourage them to imagine themselves in different settings: For instance, what could they use the item for if they were out in the wood? If they were 3 feet tall? If they were an ant? If they lived in prehistoric times? If they were with their siblings?
At the conclusion of the three minutes, we go around the room and students discuss a selection of their favorite answers. Typically, if appropriate, I will ask them to demonstrate how they would use the item in the way they have indicated.
For example, with the cheese grater, it’s not uncommon for kids to answer that it would make a good fishing rod. I ask them to show how they’d do this and to say a bit about how effective they think it would be. Another common answer is that the cheese grater could be used to grind up bugs. This often leads to an interesting discussion of whether—just because we could use it for that—we should use it for that. Do bugs, in other words, have some sort of qualities that make it wrong for us to wantonly grind them up. Depending on how students answer, the discussion may move into an opportunity to wonder whether we could or should use the grater to grind higher animals, primates, for instance, even little brothers and sisters. (This last option is, not surprisingly, given serious consideration by many students.)
What tends to happen, in the ensuring discussion, is that the exercise enables us to overiew the traditional sub-disciplines of philosophy.
Because students have come up with so many different possibilities for what the cheese grater can be, we are able to wonder what, in fact, it really is—and what it is about it that makes it that thing. For example, students often say that it could be a paperweight. And I point out that it would be a better paperweight than a cheese grater. (It’s not a particularly effective grater; it tends to smoosh the cheese rather than grate it.) We wonder together whether, therefore we ought to consider it a cheese grater, and if so, why? This enables students to begin thinking about metaphysics.
We wonder together how might know what it is—this provides an entry into discussion epistemology. We wonder, as mentioned above, what we should use it for—here is our entry into ethics. Questions about whether the grater is beautiful lead into discussion of aesthetics, and so on.
I think students take away several benefits that are consistent with moral education from this exercise. First, they get practice in working together on a small, fast-paced project. They have to do a bit of negotiating and shared creativity in coming up with their answers. Second, they have the opportunity to consider something in a manner that they wouldn’t normally do. This encourages them to be more expansive in their thinking; I believe it primes them for a willingness to entertain views that are different than their own and also to take more objective perspectives on their own positions.