What’s the Other Story?

At the recent Future of Learning institute at Harvard, Jeffrey Sachs asked, “How can we be so closely connected and so culturally incompetent?” Around the world, our geopolitical and intercultural misunderstandings are profound and we are often inept at understanding other people’s perspectives. Educating for global citizenship has become a pressing need and empathy may well be the key skill for the 21st century. It is vitally important for us to engage with people who are very different from ourselves in order to become aware of the diversity of how people think, to help us to discern our own cultural assumptions, and to learn how to work across cultures. Stereotypes, ethnocentrism, and confirmation bias are significant learning challenges, particularly in an aggressively monolingual country like Australia.

In Chimamanda Adichie’s (2009) extraordinary TED talk, The Danger of a Single Story, she relates how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story. She says, “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person…If you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story.” A single story robs people of dignity and emphasises differences rather than similarities.

What story are we telling our students about Asia? We live in the Asian Century. There are now more people living inside Asia than outside it and the implications for the world are profound. There are many Asias and the differences between, for example, Mongolia and Indonesia are deep. In recent history Australia has had an ambivalent relationship with Asia, from the Chinese on the goldfields, to the White Australia Policy, to the yellow peril of World War II, the red threat of the Vietnam War, and fears of boatloads of illegal Muslim terrorists. Yet I wonder what role Australia could play as a conduit between Eastern and Western knowledge and culture? At the recent ACSA conference in Darwin we were told how the Northern Territory parliament building was modelled on an Asian pagoda and built facing towards Asia.

I try to teach my students about the importance of perspective and the need to consider history from a variety of viewpoints. Was pre-1950 Tibet a hell on earth ravaged by feudal exploitation or was it a land of happy people about to be destroyed by the Chinese? When I teach about Tibet I use a book sent to me by the Chinese embassy in Canberra, The Historical Status of China’s Tibet (Jiawei & Gyaincain, n.d.). It contrasts markedly with the pro-Western material more frequently available to my students.

Why do we only read sources about the Vietnam War from the perspective of the losers? I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to spend considerable time in Southeast Asia, teaching, researching, and collecting culturally appropriate resources. My 2007 Premier’s History Scholarship to interview North Vietnamese veterans, recently morphed into a short TED-Education animation about the Ho Chi Minh Trail (Paterson, 2013). The comments that follow the YouTube version of the TED-Ed clip are fascinating.
There was some nice positive feedback:

“Very interesting. I’d heard of the trail but I had no idea how important it was to the outcome of this shocking war.”

“i <3 pure, unbiased education. thank you TED”

“Glad we're embracing the military might of both sides, not just the battles the west wins.”

“Definitely great to get a new perspective of the Vietnam War!”

“more informative than most of our constipated american documentaries”

But then this was balanced by a comment from Mel:

“I don’t often dislike the ted videos but this one was really biased. Little actual information with factual backup. And a clear one-sidedness on the recollection of the war. (Mel)

Interestingly, the video clip seemed to really strike a chord within Vietnam:

“Nice video, thanks. Greating from Vietnam ” (Minh Ngo)

“Thanks from Vietnam” (Manh Cuong)

“I’m proud to be a Vietnamese. And btw,very interesting video!” (thiendeptrai95)

“Thank TEDEd for making this! Greeting from Vietnam ” (Krone Nguyen)
These comments were followed by a very different view:

“I know this is supposed to be an unbiased history lesson but as a daughter of South Vietnam, who still calls her home Saigon, having lost family through communist re-education camps, and carries the yellow and red striped flag, I will forever have anger and resentment towards this “genius” trail for the painful price my family has had to pay.” (nhabu11)

This is very real, living history and exemplifies the sorts of conversations that are now easily accessible with digital technology.

Classroom Connections

I made my first forays into global educational connections a couple of years ago when I organised Skype calls for our professional learning committee and arranged for a US History professor to answer questions about Ho Chi Minh from my Year 12 students. However the real turning point for me was when I set up a Skype call between my Year 9 History class and a school in Turkey to discuss the 1915 Gallipoli campaign in World War One. My connection with Turkey was inspired upon hearing that academics and high school teachers in France and Germany had collaborated to produce a common history textbook. Just think about the combined histories of France and Germany, and consider what it would have taken for those two countries to agree on a common history. By connecting with Turkey, I hoped to expose my Australian students to a different perspective about World War One.

As a teacher I lamented the lack of a clear Turkish perspective of the war and I decided that a Skype call with Turkish students might provide the perspective that I was seeking. I found a Turkish class who were keen to practice speaking English, and most of my class volunteered to spend an afternoon after school asking and answering questions via a Skype call. My students were astounded by the Turkish students’ descriptions of the starvation on the Turkish homefront and the chilling winter conditions in 1916 and 1917. “Why isn’t that in our textbook?”, they wanted to know.

Following this initial success, I advertised a similar project on ‘Skype for Educators’ and sent a message out on Twitter. In next to no time I had three Turkish schools eager to work with my class. A Turkish primary class researched Ataturk and translated their research into English for my class.

“In 1915, when the Dardanelles campaign was launched, Colonel Mustafa Kemal became a national hero by winning successive victories and finally repelling the invaders. In our schools, in each class we have his photo to remember our hero.”

“How come we have never heard of Ataturk?” my class inquired.
Then, to avoid the nine hours’ time difference, I decided that the best way for two Turkish high school classes to communicate with us was via video posted to YouTube. My class prepared a video introducing themselves and asking some historical questions. The Turkish students did the same in response.

My students were keen to know about Turkey’s role in World War One, what it was like for Turkish women and children who stayed home during the war, how Turkish soldiers are remembered, and what Turkish students knew about the Gallipoli campaign and the Australian involvement in it. The Turkish students were able to explain to my students the geo-strategic importance of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish belief that Germany would most likely win the First World War. They also explained the very active role played by Turkish women on the homefront because “they knew it was a life and death situation.” In response to my students’ question about how Turkish soldiers are remembered, they wrote, “They were heroes because they fought for our independence and glory.” In a particularly powerful exchange the Turkish students explained to my students the role of imperialism and the place of Australian colonial troops in relation to Britain at the time, assuring my students that Australians had little choice about their involvement at Gallipoli. The connection concluded with the Turkish students photographing a war memorial and providing the text for my students:

“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives…You are now living in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours…You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace, after having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.” (Ataturk, 1934)

My students responded,

“You have helped us understand the Turkish side to World War One, which we had no idea about. We learned how the Ottoman Empire shrank to being the size of Turkey. We learned how the Turkish people really want to remember the men and women who died in the war fighting for their country, and we also learned about Mustafa Kemal becoming president of the republic and creating a new political system and giving power to women. We are proud that Turkey and Australia are now such good friends.”

Following this project, my class then engaged in a project with a US class. Students wrote and edited responses to historical inquiry questions on a wiki in global teams, they interviewed grandparents about their recollections of World War Two and posted the videos online, and then, at the end of the year, they reflected:

“We have worked with people worldwide”

“We have seen different points of view”

“We have seen what other countries think about history”

“We have thought about stuff differently”

“We have found unseen truths”

“We have learned about both sides and views of wars”

“We have used our grandparents as primary sources”

“We have gone beyond the textbook”

“We have made global connections”

“We have learned about how we glorify Australian soldiers”

“We have learned that we only study history from an Australian point of view”

“The Anzacs might not have been the legends that history makes out”

“We have looked at different perspectives”

“The Anzacs were not perfect”

Out of Eden Walk to Learn

In January 2013, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek set off on foot from the Rift Valley of Ethiopia to walk for seven years along the pathways of the first human migration out of Africa. This journey, called Out of Eden, spans 2,500 generations of human history. Here is one snippet of Paul’s journalism from the National Geographic website:

“Footwear is a hallmark of modern identity. How best to glimpse an individual’s core values at the start of the 21st century? Look down at their feet—not into their eyes. In the affluent global north, where fashion caters to every whim and vanity, shoes announce their wearer’s class, hipness, career choice, sexual availability, even politics (the clog versus the cowboy boot). It is disorienting, then, to be walking through a place where human beings—millions upon millions of women, men, and children—slip on identical-style footwear every morning: the cheap, democratic, versatile, plastic sandal of Ethiopia. Poverty drives demand. The only brand is necessity” (Salopek, 2013).

Last year my Year 9 History class was involved in piloting the Out of Eden ‘Walk to Learn’ global project with Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Walk to Learn is an online learning community anchored in Salopek’s walk, for students to learn about history and each other. Students follow his progress and his journalism is incorporated into the Walk to Learn activities.

In the pilot project, my students sketched their own neighbourhoods, analysed photos about globalisation, produced ‘identity maps’ showing how history is connected to their lives, and responded to online contributions from students in India, Kenya, England, Canada and the USA. My students compared their own stories with other young people growing up in very different contexts. The project tapped into students’ penchants to ask big questions about their place in the world, while all the time building their understanding of the world around them. The Walk to Learn learning community provided a secure structure for students to reflect together about their world.

In a video message to the students, Paul commented:

“I may be the guy who’s burning through most of the walking boots, but I want to thank you for working so hard in these prompts and I’m delighted to have you along on the walk. And I want to thank you too for allowing me to join in, for a little while, along your own trails. Onward.”

Here are some of the students’ comments:

“I think the one thing that has struck me the most after taking part in this project so far has been the fact that though most of the other students live in different countries and on different continents, our daily lives, likes, interests, thought process, etc. are quite similar. One would think that a student in India would have a very different lifestyle than one living in, for example, the USA but after reading the posts about the others’ neighbourhoods, I have realised that we are all quite similar.”

“I really have enjoyed getting to hear from people that don’t just live in my country. I think this is the first time talking to anybody from outside my country about their surroundings and really having a chance to hear what they think of their community/neighborhood … in reality a lot of it is similar to my neighborhood/community and I guess that was just really cool to see because in a way I am connected to people I don’t even know, some who live on the other side of the world as me.”

“I have definitely learned a lot about the other countries that the participants of this project are from. Through the text and pictures that others have shared, the stereotypes that I previously had of certain countries were broken. I have also learned a lot about how the world is all connected. Whether or not we are aware of it, our actions can affect other people on the other side of the world. This project really highlights that, and I have definitely gained new insight on how we are all part of a global community.”


The global projects referred to above seem to have important curriculum implications. The Australian Curriculum asks students to:
• Discuss positive and negative consequences of contact between an Asian society and European powers (History)
• Analyse how the construction and interpretation of texts, including media texts, can be influenced by cultural perspectives and other texts (English)
• Investigate how people in different cultures in the past have applied their knowledge of the properties of elements and compounds to their use in everyday life eg. Utensils, weapons and tools (Science)
• Identify and investigate relevant issues involving at least one numerical and at least one categorical variable using information gained from secondary sources eg. the annual rainfall in various parts of Australia compared with that of other countries in the Asia-Pacific region (Mathematics).

I suugest that these curriculum requirements would be considerably enhanced by having Australian students communicate directly with students in Asia and elsewhere in the world. Many possibilities now exist for exploring these sorts of connections and great places to start are:

ePal Global Community
Skype in the Classroom
Taking IT Global
Out of Eden Learn
Flat Classroom Project


Al Gore (2013) claims that, “We are witnessing the birth of the world’s first truly global civilization” (p.92). Rather than being places where students learn about the world, schools are now places where students can learn with the world. We are taking a huge leap at my school and hosting the 2014 Flat Classroom Conference. Previous conferences have been held in China, Japan, and India. The title of the conference comes from Tom Friedman’s book The World is Flat (2005) and the concept is for educators and students from across the globe to come together to learn how to lower classroom walls and connect with the world.

The theme of the conference is ‘What’s the other story?’ The theme emphasises the importance of everyone’s stories and suggests that the way we are defined by our historical contexts of culture, migration and identity might no longer be an appropriate way to understand the complexities and interconnectedness of our world. The conference will explore alternative learning approaches, and share stories that break stereotypes and generate new thinking towards more interactive and collaborative approaches across the globe.

Please follow the Flat Classroom Conference 2014 link: http://www.flatconnections.com/sydney-2014.html

We hope to see you and your students in Sydney in June 2014.


Adichie, C. (2009). The danger of a single story

Friedman, T. (2005). The world is flat: A brief history of the twenty-first century. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Gore, A. (2013). The future. New York: Random House.

Jiawei, W. & Gyaincain, N. (n.d.). The Historical Status of China’s Tibet, China Intercontinental Press.

Paterson, C. (2013). The infamous and ingenious Ho Chi Minh Trail, TED-Ed

Salopek, P. (2013). Out of Eden Walk, National Geographic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *