Education Blog

The Danger of a Single Story in a Classroom

Row of books

Jordan Nielsen,

As teachers, we know that the educational system is filled with personal biases, assumptions, and even stereotypes. None of these things is beneficial to bettering the quality of teaching and learning that takes place in our classrooms. The stories told in the world or seen in the media can be hurtful, but more importantly the stories told in the classroom can have a greater impact on our children.

In the TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” Chimamanda Adichie shares her personal story of growing up in Nigeria and moving to the United States for college. She calls attention to “the danger of a single story.” She believes that defining an experience based on a single account gives us incomplete, potentially damaging understandings of other people.

Adichie’s words of caution are an important reminder of the responsibility we have as teachers to tell stories well and to teach our students how to read and understand others’ stories. Adichie is especially sensitive to how power shapes which stories we tell and how we tell them, defining power as “the ability not to just tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.” Adichie sees stereotypes as a main factor in telling a single story. “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Adichie also reminds us of “how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children.”

Looking back at Adichie’s story, it reminds us that as teachers we are responsible for telling multiple stories or risk feeding into stereotypes and limited knowledge. Her story also reminds us that we should move away from guilt about having single stories and forward to an activist stance of open-mindedness and receptivity to multiple stories.

Jennie Magiera, Chief Innovation Officer at Des Plaines Public Schools in Chicago, was the keynote speaker at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference 2017 and her message was simply that- a single story could be harmful to the students in our classrooms. Katrina Schwartz of KQED News covered Magiera’s speech at the conference.

Magiera said, “What I truly believe is technology should enhance our connection to each other. That could mean teachers forming professional learning communities and sharing insights and struggles, but it could also mean letting students tell their own stories. Chicago is often portrayed as a dangerous city, making the news only for the number of shootings each year. A Chicago colleague, Linsey Rose, used technology to help her students share their version of Chicago. In the process, they reached a much bigger audience with a powerful lesson about what kids hear and feel when the same single story is repeated over and over.”

It can be easy for some of us to repeat stereotypes about why there are not enough women or people of color in science, technology, engineering, and math fields. It can also be easy to point fingers at colleagues who resist change or to assume a life story about students coming from specific backgrounds. Magiera helps us to realize that one role of a teacher is to fight against those single stories because while they can sometimes be true, those stories hardly ever provide the whole picture.