Nothing Is What It First Seems

Charlot Cassar*

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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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