The Dangers of a Single Story – The Perpetuation of Multiple Stories

13 Aug

“The Dangers of a Single Story.” For Chimamanda Adichie’s 2009 TED Talk, at least a dozen views of the 7+ million belong to me. Since this auto-ethnographic, culturally-astute TED Talk premiered 2009, I return to it each August in preparation for the coming year of learning and teaching.

Why this ritual? Personally – as learner, teacher, and community member – these words in Adichie’s talk point to the personal reasons for inviting these rich differences into the classroom:

I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.

The yearly 20 minute viewing reminds me to enter the classroom thinking about all the stories, about the presence of social power, and about how students can interact with one another, and me with them, to be learners engaged in powerful thinking.  And that powerful thinking begins with recognizing that learning – meaning making and knowledge creation – is about more than one dominant “winner names the age” story.  

Below the embedded TED Talk, I’ve reflected a bit on its powers for me as a teacher, and then provided a short list of blog posts that provide – some explicitly, some with an easy leap – ideas for assignments students in science, social science, humanities, fine arts, professional and interdisciplinary courses could engage as part of domestic or international coursework, in classrooms or online.

Why recommend this resource to other teachers – and to learners? As teachers and scholars we are positioned to tell – and research, and navigate, and synthesize, and accept the co-existence of – the uncertainties multiple stories reveal. We are also part of a post-secondary learning enterprise that purports to support development of capacities for citizenship, leadership and cultural competency in cognitive and affective realms of learning.  As one blogger reiterates, Adichie’s talk is a reminder that

if we buy into the single story of a person or a country, there is a large risk of misunderstanding occurring. It is vital to listen to the multiple stories of a person or a place, to truly engage and gain an objective and in-depth understanding of the subject being written about.

Expecting – or allowing – students to master [sic] just the mono-narrative serves to limit learners’ intellectual and ethical development.  William Perry, Marcia Baxter- Magolda, and Mary Field Belenky, et alia address this across three decades of literature.  (Find a one-page synthesis here: Perry Belenky Development.)  The single story supports, mainly, two levels of development:  Dualism/Received Knowledge (there are authoritative right and wrong answers) or Multiplicity/Subjective Knowledge (there are known and not yet known solutions so we must work to discover the right solution).  By engaging multiple narratives, learners move into Constructing Knowledge (the integration of knowledge learned from multiple sources with personal experience and reflection).  This is the realm of messy, dissonant knowing that’s central to learning – across disciplines.

And how does hearing Adichie’s words help teachers – and learners – navigate power in a classroom? Whether first year undergraduates or future faculty graduate students are in the classroom, moving into learning is tricky business. As a skilled learner, I tend to be rather more at ease with the uncertainty of learning, which is a powerful position. Most students are “liminal learners” becoming more at ease with disciplinary content and learning practices that require acceptance of ambiguity as part of making meaning.  As a skilled teacher, I am also more deft in see(k)ing the more than two sides of any situation, and more certain that ideas or actions I propose today will need re-shaping tomorrow – and to invite students into these new ways of see(k)ing and thinking requires us – skilled learners and teachers – to understand the powerful narratives we create in setting out curriculums, course designs, reading lists, assignment parameters, and policies guiding behavioral elements of learning.  We craft courses that stand – far too often – as mono-narrative, the curriculum rife with hidden, condensed, flattened, privileged stories.

In Adichie’s words:

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.

The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, “secondly.” Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.

It’s the telling of the “firstly” and “thirdly” that I want students to pursue, whatever that student is exploring.

Secondly is another August event, the US bombs dropped on Hiroshima, and now what about the world-wide science community ethical and strategic debates the years and months before? the political-military-industrial-humanitarian options and reasons these didn’t “win”?

Secondly is the emergence of Coursera as a business-model educational platform for pushing outward carefully developed sets of learning materials, and now what about the community of DIYing academics who inventively shaped a world-wide web platform?  about ways we still use it for developing, sharing, extending, reworking, questioning, and mashing up of ideas? about these narratives and “net neutrality” policy & law?

Secondly is a recent newspaper analysis of thalidomide and effects of this drug on the lives of now-adults born with the effects of thalidomide, and now what about the multiple narratives of trained midwives, big-pharma, academic chemists and medical ethicists framing discussions about gestational, reproductive and neonatal health care? about ways a “medical model of disability” still informs health, social, legislative and cultural discourses? 

Assignment-Building Resources Related to “The Danger of a Single Story”

**  This blogger explores ways that telling a single story about public education impacts public perception.  The essay models an approach to analysis that upper division, professional and graduate students could take in examining emergences of single stories within their own fields of practice – from impact on public perception, to conceptions of/expectation for professional practice, to proposing/framing practices that invite perspective taking and multi-dimensional actions.

** An undergraduate blogger shares her rhetorical analysis of Adichie’s TED Talk as an Open Educational Resource, and in doing so, notes that the talk provides a model for researching, structuring, and presenting their own TED Talks for specific audiences.  Creating spoken presentations from written materials engages students in drawing on source materials for multiple, different audiences.

** An Introduction to Sociology instructor shares the discourse analysis assignment her students worked on across a term, again using the Single Story presentation itself as a framework from which to launch a social science writing assignment.  The assignment is shaped differently for students completing the course with an additional Service Learning Component.

** The teacher writing this post has secondary students in mind, however this perspective shifting/broadening assignment easily links to work first and second year undergraduate students might be asked to complete in unlearning stereotypes.  The overall outline of the assignment can be adapted to a reflective writing format for Study Abroad courses, to a reflective analysis for students in introductory history or cultural studies or policial science courses, and to a career study assignment for students contemplating breaking into fields which have been historically dominated by a particular demographic group(s).

Transcripts for “Dangers of a Single Story”

A printable transcript:

An transcript tagged to video timing:





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: