Nothing Is What It First Seems

Charlot Cassar*


I am a keen advocate of ice-breaking and team-building activities that allow people to get to know each other better and serve to set the scene while sending a clear and powerful message. For a staff development session which I facilitated at school recently, I wanted to find something that would do just that – get people in the mood but at the same time reflect on how individual actions affect the whole. Not the easiest of activities to find I have to say. So as I often do, I scoured the internet with an open mind looking for possibilities.

It was then that I came across ZOOM,  a wordless book that takes you from a farm to a ship to a city street to a desert island through a series of drawings. But it doesn’t stop there for István Bányai‘s intriguing landscapes of pictures within pictures will have anyone hooked on a fascinating journey of discovery. The book lends itself brilliantly to a team-building activity. You will need to sacrifice the actual book for the sake of the pictures but it is well worth it. Separate the picture pages of the book. Use as many pictures as there are participants but make sure a continuous sequence is used. Hand out one picture to each participant. Without showing the pictures to each other, the participants must try to put the pictures (and themselves) in sequence. Of course some participants will cheat and actually look at the pictures but that does not take away from the power of the activity, with plenty of ohs and giggles. I will not go into any more detail about the activity per se – it is well documented elsewhere. It is however an extremely powerful way of having participants reflect on the fact that very often, nothing is as straightforward as it may seem at first glance, and that there is usually more to a story… Likewise, there is always more to our actions in the classroom or school in general. Our actions, no matter how insignificant they may seem at the time, always have implications. In what is becoming an ever more demanding environment, the most insignificant of actions may turn out to have serious consequences if not given due consideration.

But I digress. Nothing is quite as straightforward as it looks and without detracting from Bányai’s brilliance, there’s a particular sequence within this book that may seem insignificant but which has had me thinking about the way in which stereotypes may be subtly reinforced. So the first picture in the book is a close up of the crest of a cockerel, and through a series of pictures, often unexpected, you end up looking at planet Earth from outer space. There you go I have given away the secret – sorry! At one point in the picture story there is a scene in which an explorer is flying his aircraft over some remote island. My initial reaction, probably fueled by my own implicit stereotypes, biases and cultural lens, was that this was a sign of covert racism. So, there were these “savages” looking up in wonder while pointing at the aircraft. And guess what? Apart from the pilot inexorably being a man, the savages are (roll of drums)… black! What else could they be? Middle class bourgeois gentlemen reading the morning paper? Wait, I should perhaps have said, white middle class bourgeois gentlemen reading the morning paper in threadbare loincloths scantily put together from fig leaves to cover the essential bits just to ensure that they are recognised as “savages”! For all I know they could have been Golding’s children from the Lord of the Flies but then of course, they would not have been savages. They would have been lost at sea.

As educators we must be careful not to ignore messages artfully embedded in our hidden curricula.

The irony is that my own interpretation was biased. The remote island is, as can be clearly seen from an earlier picture in the sequence, part of the Solomon Islands. The “black  savages” are the inhabitants of said islands, who have just received mail. It seems like I missed the whole point, and hastily jumped to a biased conclusion, a witch hunt, which had me thinking and reflecting for days.    

I will definitely use the activity again, and for good measure I have bought a second copy of the book and its sequel, REZOOM. The point though is exactly what the books set out to do – nothing is what it first seems and in our role as educators we must be careful not to ignore our own biases, or any message that may artfully be embedded in our hidden curricula. We have the responsibility to constantly question what we do and to make our learners do the same. We must not only recognise the hidden messages implicit in the curriculum and in our course books but also be aware of our own biases. We should promote debates and discussions to bring these issues to the forefront. We must address stereotypes, generalisations and their limitations. We must reflect on our very own habits and classroom rituals and make sure that our actions are in line with our values. The series of pictures I used for this team-building activity reinforced the importance of and need to check for personal bias and potentially hidden messages that contradict what I stand for.

*With special thanks to Josef Huber.


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  1. pascalemompoint May 19, 2018 at 6:26 am

    Hi Charlot and L2C editors, interesting take on the hidden curricula which is a crucial issue for social justice in education (so much so in fact in my opinion that I actually made it a whole section the last time I was asked to design materials for educators on education for democracy). I wonder what your options are: leave the racist content in to then debrief on it (does anyone notice something on the cards? how are people depicted on the cards? if you were to use these images in your teaching, would you feel comfortable with each and all of them? etc.) until some debunking and revealing of covert racism occurs or do you just take the image out?
    Then, what do you do if a teacher/trainee in your group says ‘OH, come on! we have to stop with this over sensibility! No one can say anything anymore! Now you have to think so much before saying anything not to be racist, misogynistic, antisemitic, anti LGBTQ etc… I’m tired of this. There is no more spontaneity and trust in people iintention not being harmful…” ? I’m hearing this more and more and I’d love to know your input.

  2. Charlot Cassar May 20, 2018 at 6:37 pm

    Hi Pascale! Thank you for your comment. I think you touch upon some very important points there. What do you do? How do you react? To what extent do you pursue each and every possible aspect of something for the sake of being politically correct? How do we strike a balance? I think on the one hand, as educators, we really need to be aware of these hidden messages. Only yesterday I came across a children’s book called “I want a boyfriend” by Tony Ross. I cringed at the blatant gender stereotyping in which girls like flowers and hate football and boys like football and hate flowers. It is a book I would not have anywhere close to any child… in spite of it being lauded as a bestseller for children… All it does in my opinion is reinforce gender stereotyping from beginning to end. So, in some cases as this one, the answer/s to your question/s would be fairly clear cut. The only way I could use this book is to explicitly show the stereotyping. In the case of ZOOM, I am not sure I would dismiss it as quickly. It is a wonderful feat of the imagination and sheer artistic ability and rather than dismissing it, I would prefer using it to create conversation and discussion without necessarily creating controversy. Working with educators, I think it is crucial that at some point this issue comes across. In practice, what would determine my focus during a session is my ultimate objective and the time available. I realise it is impossible to touch upon all the aspects that an activity or resource offers. At best, I would refer to something like this in the debriefing to spark the conversation, which could possibly continue beyond the activity.

    I also think there is an element to this “over-sensibility” which we are taking to an extreme. I think it is also important to look at building resilience rather than supporting a culture of being constantly offended. There will always be something which I do not necessarily like or approve of. So? Should I throw a tantrum because I don’t like it? At the end of the day it is “my” interpretation and I realise I not necessarily immune to stereotyping either. I think that István Bányai did an excellent job in his books. Am I over-sensitive? Could be! I believe the crucial thing is to be aware… to bring the issues to the limelight. The conversation itself is, I believe, more important than the content and if the content served to spark this conversation, then it has served a good purpose! We also need to learn (or perhaps re-learn) to have a good laugh, at ourselves to start with, so that rather then being offended, a situation may be dismissed with a good laugh!

  3. josefhuber May 20, 2018 at 9:49 pm

    Hi, thanks for bringing these wonderful images and their journeys back to my, to our, attention. They offer interesting journeys.
    Of course, images, pictures always can contain stereotypes: the way a farm looks, the kind of animals which are there, the way a boat looks, what sort of people travel on that boat, the explorer flying in his aircraft and so on. The list is endless. And opens avenues for exploration and talk and learning.

    However, I could not and still cannot see the hidden curricula message of racism in this series of images. The fact that inhabitants of the Solomon islands are shown is not racism for me. They are not “savages”for me, and not shown as such.

    I would be interested to understand what makes it so for you.

  4. Charlot Cassar May 26, 2018 at 6:12 pm

    Hi Josef. Thank you for your comment, which I have been thinking about and discussing with colleagues over the past days. My intention here was not to split hairs – anything but. Quite honestly I do not see the point in doing that and I appreciate calling a spade a spade.

    One way in which I could explain my reference to covert racism is perhaps due to the fact that I (we) are not immune to the effects of stereotyping ourselves and in some ways, the images brought this to the surface, at least for me. Analysed carefully, and within the entire sequence, then I absolutely agree with you that there is possibly no hidden message related to racism. In isolation however, that was the feeling that some of the pictures evoked. As I said, I discussed this with a few people and the interpretations were wide and varied, ranging from a “people on a deserted island” to “people on holiday”. Do we read too much in situations? Have we become over-sensitive? Could very well be.

    As you say, images can and will contain stereotypes. What I take from this is that we operate on different levels, bringing different biases to bear on any situation. My concern would be the extent to which the different nuances, levels and meta-levels are understood.

    That said, I have edited the original article to better reflect my position on this.