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Robert Selman

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Video: Learning to stand in someone else's shoes
HGSE Professor Robert Selman

Video (Part 1): In the first video clip, Robert Selman describes the evolution of his approach to promoting social awareness in the classroom: linking children's literature with instruction around perspective-taking.

Recently we have been focusing on these skills, social skills, social awareness history at the elementary school level and at the high school level we're studying civic learning and the history – and history. And what we're really interested in is how you can integrate social competence skills and social awareness skills into the regular curriculum. So let's start there.

What is our approach for promoting social awareness? Our original research basis was a hypothesis that the promotion of children's capacity to coordinate points of view, to express or at least be aware of their own point of view, and to be able to listen to those of others is a protective factor against negative social outcomes, for example, in a language of risk and prevention researchers against antisocial behavior and against depression.

We found that this skill of coordinating social perspectives was a core developing capacity that was necessary for getting along with others. But we also found, it is not the only skill that's necessary.

In the 1970s and '80s, we theorized the model describing levels of perspective coordination which students developed through, and we studied how and where and why children with different levels of this capacity used it. We found that with the right experience, this capacity could help promote children's social awareness, and therefore reduce stereotypical and prejudicial thinking, teasing and bullying.

Our initial idea from practice was to select really engaging children's books with strong social themes. Often these were themes around issues of social justice, for example, desegregation. But they could also be things simply about everyday respect, the effect of teasing or bullying on kids who were victims of perpetrators.

The real challenge 15 years ago when we started this work was to find books with characters and plots which students from different backgrounds could relate to and identify with. There are a lot more books like that around now, but back then, books with high quality writing, engaging themes, and diverse characters were not so easy to come by.

So we drew back then on a book called Crow Boy. Some of you may know it. It's a classic. It was written in the 1950s. And it's a book set in the 1920s about a rural Japanese first-grader who is nicknamed Chibi by his classmates. Now Chibi means in Japanese "small guy". And the reason the kids called this boy Chibi was not only because of his small stature, but also because his interests were very different from the other kids in the class. He was not conforming.

However, when the teacher demonstrates to the class that the boy really has some talents, calling out all the variations in crow sounds, they re-nickname him "crow boy" as a form of appreciation, rather than teasing, and learn an important lesson about how to understand differences among people.

Using a book like Crow Boy in the hands of a skilled teacher can promote the kind of discussion in a second grade classroom, for example, where sometimes the teasing could be merciless. Many, many teachers do use books like this to promote the social skills and sensitivities of their students.

But as you might expect, some discussions are better than others, especially the kind that connects the readings to the everyday life of the school. But there's some obstacles to this practice. One obstacle is that up to now, there has been very little basic research about how to use this approach. So there have been as many approaches as there are teachers, and no way to know whether it is doing any good or having an impact.

For the span of our research, we have worked on the research applicable to practice. But also we have worked on the tools that could be used to evaluate development in the skills the practice wants to improve. I often hear the assertion that one can't measure values without considering moral behavior, or that reasoning about values cannot be measured, because everyone's values are different.

But I think you can. And that's one reason why I wrote the book The Promotion of Social Awareness. It's a book that makes that case that one can measure social awareness, values, ethical reasoning in ways that are considerate of the ethical and social beliefs of students from families with diverse backgrounds, that fits, I think, within the mission of the schools.

As I said earlier, if one can assess how well a student is taking all perspectives into account, then we're really on the road to the assessment of the development of social awareness. It's not all the way down the road, but it is a start. That is why my book spells out and what we continue to research – how far down that road can we really get?

Video Part 2: In the second video clip, we watch one teacher implement Selman's approach to perspective-taking in a fifth-grade classroom.

ROBERT SELMAN: So how do we use perspective taking in the classroom? Here's a videoclip that demonstrates how we use techniques like partner interviewing and role playing to help students communicate about difficult issues, especially when these issues lead to feelings running high.

In the first clip, we see two fifth grade girls interviewing each other about what they might do if they were in the shoes of characters in a book called Felita. Here's what's happening in the book. The characters – Felita, the protagonist, and Gigi, her friend – are competing for the lead part in a class play. The leading role is "Priscilla" in The Courtship of Miles Standish, which was a classic in my elementary school days.

The play itself is taken from a fictional narrative poem about the life in New England at the time of the Pilgrims written in 1858 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose house, by the way, is just up the block from this School of Education.

One student, Elizabeth, is taking the perspective of Felita. And her classmate, Raisa, plays the part of Felita's friend, Gigi. Let's watch the first part of the clip, the partner interview. We can first hear what the teacher, Angela Burgos, has to say about weaving this kind of activity into her literacy and language arts block of time with her fifth grade students.

ANGELA BURGOS: I think it's important that students are given the opportunity to do role playing, putting themselves in the shoes of the characters. And that's how you start to develop that higher thinking skill, where-- You know, kids are being asked to do something and it empowers them to take that character with the information that they have already. So they have to work from their prior knowledge, what they've learned through the story, and be prepared to take it in a direction and demonstrate what they've-- they think the character -- the author or believe within themselves, what's appropriate within a setting.

So it's a challenge for them to come up with their perspective. But to do it through the eyes of the other characters, it just sort of solidifies the experience of perspective taking and critical thinking.

RAISA: Felita, what do you think the problem is?

ELIZABETH: I think the problem is that you didn't tell me that you wanted to be Priscilla. And you caused all this problem. Gigi, what do you think the problem is?

RAISA: I think the problem is that you are jealous because you think I'm the part of Priscilla and I didn't.

ELIZABETH: That's not true. Can we both agree on what the problem is?

RAISA: No, we cannot agree on what the problem is.

ELIZABETH: What are different ways to solve the problem? List what the different ways to solve the problem.

RAISA: Okay. By calming down and talking it over we could ...(inaudible).

ELIZABETH: Okay. What do we think is the best solution?

RAISA: Talking it over.

ROBERT SELMAN: In this partner interview, you've just seen Elizabeth and Raisa demonstrate that they can take the points of view of each of the characters they are representing, but not the perspectives of the other character.

In our observations across classrooms, we find that most teachers stop here with this exercise. Many are content with talking it over as the best solution. They may either be afraid of or lack the skills to push further. In reality, Elizabeth and Raisa can't really talk it over. Each has a different explanation for the conflict, and each is entrenched in her own position.

Although they seem to know the process for resolving the conflict and the right surface answer, as they said, by calming down and talking it over, at this point, they don't seem to have the insight regarding what "talk it over" really means, and how the process of discussing the problem would truly unfold.

This assignment, filling out the worksheet, does not by itself seem to be enough to deepen their understanding of the conflict resolution process.

In the second clip, we will see Angela push the educational experience to the next emotional level. We will watch Raisa and Elizabeth go deeper into the roles and so go deeper into the real feelings. The move is from desk work on their own to students doing role playing in front of the whole class under the teacher's able direction.

BURGOS: Felita, what do you think the problem is?

ELIZABETH: I think the problem is that Gigi did not tell me that she wanted to be Priscilla, and she caused this problem.

BURGOS: Okay, and Gigi, what do you think the problem is?

RAISA: I think the problem is that Felita is jealous because she couldn't get the part that she wanted to get.

BURGOS: And can you both agree on what the problem is?


ELIZABETH: We cannot agree on what the problem is.

BURGOS: You cannot agree? Why not? That's interesting. Why can't you agree?

ELIZABETH: We can't agree, why, because she's saying that I'm jealous and I'm not jealous.

BURGOS: Okay, so you say you're not jealous, and you say she is?

RAISA: Yeah, she's jealous.

BURGOS: Why do you say she's jealous?

RAISA: Because when I told her that I wasn't going to get the part, she was happy. And when I told her that, yes, I was going to get the part, she got mad at me and she didn't want to talk to me.

BURGOS: So you think she's jealous because you got the part?


BURGOS: And you're saying no, it's not. Why is not?

ELIZABETH: Is not-- Is not because I'm-- because I could have another opportunity on another play.

BURGOS: Yeah, but what's the-- but what really bothered you? What was the problem that you felt? Is it that the part-- that she got the part in the play, or that she didn't tell you?

ELIZABETH: That she didn't tell me.

BURGOS: So can both agree on what the problem really is?


BURGOS: You can't, still? Okay, we need to work on that. It would be interesting to see since you can't really define what the problem is what-- you're brainstorming for ways of solving it. What did you come up with?

ELIZABETH: We could solve this problem by talking it over.

BURGOS: Okay, and then talk...

ROBERT SELMAN: Some people might feel satisfied if they can get their students to be able to articulate this message: "Don't fight. Just talk it over." Angela is not. She knows that communication involves listening to others as well as expressing oneself. Talking at someone without listening can harden positions.

Angela also knows that as a teacher, she may need to push her students to go to a place that may not feel so comfortable to them. In conflict situations, listening and speaking evokes strong feelings. Angela supports students in safely going where their feeling are not so easy to control.

BURGOS: Okay. And in talking it over, what would you accomplish? What would you get out of it? By doing that, what would happen?

RAISA: We could just calm down and talk it over--

BURGOS: Okay, pretend you have that opportunity to do right now without a script. You haven't written it down. Use your-- what you know, information. I know I'm putting you on the spot right now, but this is an opportunity to do improvisation. Improvisation is, given information that you already know from the book, you pretend that you are talking it over without a script. What would you say, Felita, to her?

RAISA: I think that you're just jealous because I got the best part and you couldn't get the part that you wanted to get.

ELIZABETH: That's not true. I'm not jealous. I'm just mad at you because you didn't tell me.

RAISA: I just changed my mind when I went home, and I thought of-- it over.

ELIZABETH: Yeah, but best friends is for to share and tell secrets.

RAISA: When I went to look for you, you didn't want to talk to me or nothing.

ELIZABETH: Because I was mad at you.

BURGOS: Let's give 'em a hand, because that was hard to do, but they did it.

ROBERT SELMAN: Even a short clip like this one can give one an idea of how skillful a teacher has to be to help students go beyond pat answers to social conflicts, like, "We can talk it out." Ms. Burgos probes more deeply each of the students' positions. She paraphrases each of their responses, not taking one side or another. Her 'why' questions get to a deeper inquiry. She is curious about how the students think, make sense of, and understand the characters and their positions. She challenges them to elaborate on their answers, and is not satisfied with the first thing that comes to mind. They have to back up their answers with a reason. She's not letting them fake their way through. This forces them to be more authentic.

If one is familiar with the theory behind the practice, one can begin to see development of the two girls' social awareness start to emerge. They move from blaming each other to understanding how each of their own actions affected the other. What I'm suggesting is that there are not just different ways to relate to each other around social and ethical issues, but that some ways are actually better than others, that some ways of relating reflect developing levels of social awareness, and that it is possible to teach and measure development around values in systematic ways.

Copyright © 2009 The President and Fellows of Harvard College