Perspective and the Digital Age


Alan November is a prominent educator who travels the world to give speeches on the future of education. He also talks with a lot of people. One question he regularly asks leaders at the top of their field is: what is the most important skill you need to possess to be successful?

“Empathy,” said the CEO of HSBC, the world’s largest bank.

“Empathy,” said Michael Wesch, a specialist on youth culture and the Internet.

“Empathy,” said General David Patraeus.

Americans, it turns out, are very smart, but too often think that if the world does not operate as it does in the United States, the logical conclusion is that somethingis broken.

The HSBC banker said that Europeans and Africans are pretty good at empathy, and the Chinese are getting better. Americans, however, get hired and too often get fired because they lack the ability to weigh perspectives.

Case in Point

November started his teaching career in Lexington, Massachusetts. The town is famous for “the shot heard around the world,” which was the gun fire that started the American Revolution. This bit of American history most people know. November himself passed this knowledge on for years without thinking much about it, or thinking about other perspectives.

What people do not agree on is why the American Revolution started. Ask an American, and he or she will cite unfair tariffs. Why didn’t the Canadians join the Revolution? The answer may be found in the British version of the cause of war: slavery.

Watch the video to learn more about this––and why the Americans were not able to shoot even one British soldier, dressed in red, marching in formation.

Whatever the true reason(s), this much is clear: how students investigate the world is critically important in the Internet age.

“Connect kids to global information,” urged November.

Simple enough, right? Not so.

The Internet: Another Cautionary Tale

Internet searches are subjective. Search engines have complex algorithms based on a number of criteria, including one’s previous search history and paid advertising. If, for example, you tend to read liberal-leaning news media, your Internet search engine will remember your preferences and deliver new search results with more of the same type of content. Consider, too, the impact of paid search engine placement. For example, in the United States, if one searches Google for “global warming,” the American Petroleum Institute will likely have sponsored a top search result. Two people—whether on opposite sides of the room or the globe—will have different responses to an identical keyword search.

What results is that singular points of view are reinforced, but only because of a filtering of information that is presented. “The real result of the Internet is the narrowing of perspectives,” cautioned November. “What worries me is that the information we’re giving to students to do their work is all American information.”

Google Globally (Easier Done than Said)

One thing educators can do to encourage students to broaden their perspectives is to get them to do comparative searches by country.

To specify results from other countries, in the Google search bar, type “site:” followed by the code for the country site you wish to search. For example, if you want to search for news of the riots in England, type “site:uk riots.” A search for earthquake news in Japan would be “site:jp earthquake.” A list of country codes can be found here.

“Assessment systems have been based on one’s ability to function well on paper,” said November. “In the next three years, this will change. Hopefully.”

This is just one small example of how educators can teach perspectives and develop a sense of empathy among students.