The Blind Men and the Elephant

Overview | Featured Reading(s) | Procedures | Extensions

• Subject(s): Cross-Cultural Understanding
• Region / Country: Asia & Pacific Islands / Republic of India
• Grade Level(s): 3 - 5
• Related Publication: Looking at Ourselves and Others
• Duration: 20 minutes

Students will examine the importance of perspective in how people perceive things.

ElephantImage source: Word

Background Information
"Once upon a time there was a certain raja who called to his servant and said, 'Come, good fellow, go and gather together in one place all the men of Savatthi who were born blind... and show them an elephant.' 'Very good, sire,' replied the servant, and he did as he was told.
He said to the blind men assembled there, 'Here is an elephant,' and to one man he presented the head of the elephant, to another its ears, to another a tusk, to another the trunk, the foot, back, tail, and tuft of the tail, saying to each one that that was the elephant.
"When the blind men had felt the elephant, the raja went to each of them and said to each, 'Well, blind man, have you seen the elephant? Tell me, what sort of thing is an elephant? - The original version from the Buddhist canon.
This Peace Corps World Wise School's lesson illustrates how different people can have distinctly different perceptions of the same thing.
Students will develop sensitivity to others' points of view.
Students will understand the importance of having as much information as possible before coming to conclusions.
Featured Reading(s)

Since "The Blind Men and the Elephant" is a folk tale from oral tradition, you may want to rehearse the story several times and tell it rather than read it to your class.
Before you present the story, ask students to give their interpretations of the word "see."
Reinforce the idea that to see can mean to perceive something visually or to understand an idea.
Ask students to listen to the story for examples of both definitions.
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.
  1. How does it feel when another person doesn't "see" something the same way you do?
  2. 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?
  3. What did the blind men learn from the Rajah? What does the storyteller want us to learn from this tale?
  4. 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.
  5. What if the men in this story were not blind? Would they still have different ideas about elephants?
  6. 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?
  1. Ask students to write an extension of the story that includes the conversation the six men might have had as they journeyed home.
  2. Have students write original stories that illustrate the importance of perspective-awareness.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. If your class is corresponding with a Peace Corps Volunteer, ask him or her to provide some examples of differences in how people in the host country view the world and the way Americans "see" things. What has the Volunteer learned from these differences?

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