The blind men and the elephant

Six men touching different parts of an elephant
Have a listen or read below
Parable of ‘The blind men and the elephant’

I tweeted about a conversation I had with a Professor here at Boston College about cognitive overload, the challenge for some students to ‘get the whole picture’, the energy it takes just to be present, and the parable of ‘the blind men and the elephant’. This conversation was specific to students with special education needs but as I thought about it more the parable of ‘The blind men and the elephant’ is applicable to so many of our students.

The parable goes, there were six blind men in a village who constantly debated what an elephant looks like. One day they got the opportunity to ‘see’ an elephant. But none of them that day ‘saw’ the elephant. According to the part of the elephant they had access to, each blind man came to his own understanding of what the elephant was like, a wall, giant snake, spear, cow, fan, rope. The argument intensified, each not understanding why the others didn’t ‘see’ what he saw. And then a wise man interceded. “The elephant is a large animal and you each only touched one part of it”, he said. “Perhaps if you put the parts together you will see the truth.”

My immediate thoughts were on the barriers faced by students for a variety of reasons ,SEN, EAL, race, culture, socio-economic backgrounds, bereavement, hormones, anxiety, had a fight at home before school-you get what I’m saying. The added burden of getting around the barriers, to seeing the full picture is immense, exhausting, and discouraging to put it mildly. But then I started thinking about access and more importantly equity of access and engagement.  And, I thought about multiple means of representation. If we as teachers only give students, regardless of where they are coming from, one access point, one representation of the information to support their knowledge and understanding of the content then we can be sure that some of our students will not see the real elephant. If we only grant access to the trunk and the tail, how will the students know what is in between. How will they know that there is more, to explore the whole elephant? And what if we give different cohorts of students access to different parts of the elephant based on, say their level of blindness, then we limit their options, and the options of all the other students who may gain a better understanding of the elephant if they could choose the parts to explore that best help inform their understanding.

Now, how can we provide this equitable access to the whole elephant? We can describe the elephant in text and orally, we can display pictures of the elephant, have small sculptures of the elephant, use tactile objects, have maps representing where elephants originate from and many more creative ways that I can’t think of. And by doing so we can reduce barriers, provide equity of access, provide opportunities for challenge, and enable our students to see the full picture.

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