“Wait, so Africa is a continent?”: Teaching 7th Graders to Think Critically and Confront Misconceptions

  • Andy Beutel

I began the unit I teach on Africa by asking my students what words, people, places or ideas they associate with Africa. The majority of the students shared the following: poverty and poor people, starvation, ebola and other diseases, safari animals, hot weather and deserts, and Wakanda and other references to the movie, Black Panther.

One student – out of the more than 100 I teach across five classes – associated Africa with its historic wealth saying, “Didn’t Africa used to have a lot of gold?” Interestingly, all of my students learned about early human development in Africa as well as Ancient Egypt in their sixth grade social studies course but only a handful brought up anything about those topics. They did not consciously connect those early achievements with Africa.

I asked why these were their associations and many shared that this is the information they have seen in movies, on TV and through other media. They’re not wrong. I recall growing up seeing the same commercials featuring starving children from Ethiopia. To further this point, I then played the music video, Africa, by Toto. While many of the students became familiar with the song when it was remade last year, I explained that the original version was released in 1981 and was written in by two white Americans who had never been to Africa.

I instructed the students to critically watch and listen to the music video to identify the messages it sends about Africa and specifically to make connections between the music video and their initial associations. Students noted the tribal figure in the background throwing a spear and the mounted lion head and tribal masks on the wall. We discussed that those were all associations still made with Africa nearly 40 years later.

I then asked students to go further and think about what some of the aspects of the video might symbolize. Some were able to go deeper and suggested that the book burning in the end might be a connection to the idea of Africa in a state of destruction. Another said the book burning symbolized the lack of education in Africa. Another said that the rhythm and melody of the song sounded positive reflecting a hopeful view of Africa.

We also discussed that the video features a book simply titled, Africa, just like the song by the same name. I asked if this leads us to think of Africa as a single place with a single history instead of a continent with many different places and groups of people. That led to this exchange with one of my students (all names of students have been changed to protect privacy):

Marcus: “Wait, so Africa is a continent? And there are countries in it?”

Me: Yes.

Marcus: “Oh, wow.”

Marcus was not alone. There were several in each class who honestly thought that Africa was a country rather than a continent.

To help students move beyond these common associations and misconceptions of Africa, I then showed them the TED Talk by Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, called The Danger of a Single Story.

In it, Adichie describes the negative effect of viewing a place or people through the lens of a single narrative, especially one historically told by people not from that place.

After the video, students wrote brief reflective responses. They had a choice of how to focus their response. The first option was to was to return to their word associations and consider what they left out and why it’s important to get a more complete picture of Africa’s history.

Many students chose this option and were quite honest about their omissions. For example, Ashley wrote, “The similarities of Africa and the US are missing from my word associations. I only wrote things that were foreign about Africa instead of considering how life could be similar in Africa.” While Riya wrote, “The happiness and good is missing about Africa from my word associations because as Adichie says we only see a single story. We only see what we are told.” That last line, we only see what we are told, is really noteworthy. If students are only exposed to sanitized and Western-centric versions of history, they will not develop as complete an understanding of history, especially the history of non-Western peoples.

The second response option was to focus on a specific excerpt from Adichie’s talk. A few lines I highlighted from the talk for the students to consider were:

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that             they are untrue, but they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

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 or that person. The consequence       of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our    human equality difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”

Several students, like Megan, made insightful personal connections to the talk, writing: “Adichie was saying that the stereotypes often heard of Africa, of poverty, war, and disease, may be true, but that they fail to tell the entire story. Telling only the bad stories makes people believe that is the only story. I, while I’m constantly represented, think she is 100% correct. I have only heard negative stories of Africa. In the few good stories I have heard, they are about Americans saving Africans.” I found this response to be really powerful because Megan, like the majority of my students, is white, cisgender, and socioeconomically upper-middle class. She points out that, unlike many Africans, she is constantly represented and therefore is not subjected to the same false and narrow assumptions. Helping non-marginalized students recognize the marginalization of others is the real value of this type of teaching with this population of students.

Some students, like Timothy, recognized their own implicit bias, writing: “Until I watched this, I hadn’t realized how I had been guilty of grouping together all Africans as poor and helpless people. Until now, it hadn’t occurred to me that Africans too could lead a life successfully.” Jonah had a related observation, writing in response to Adichie’s talk, “…how one story is not every story and that people need to think of others as multi-dimensional people.” It’s easy to see a group of people or a place as monolithic but, as Jonah and Timothy point out, doing so would miss the depth and complexity of people. This lens can and should be applied to any underrepresented or misunderstood group in the past or present.

Of course, not all students went as far as the few I highlighted but just about all of them noted the problem with single narratives and the importance of learning multiple perspectives, a point I have emphasized throughout the year. However, one student, Patrick, did question my use of Adichie’s talk and the focus of the lesson more broadly. Patrick claimed that Adichie herself was biased in her talk and therefore not a reliable source. My response to Patrick is really my justification for this lesson and approach to teaching.

I said he was right that Adichie has a bias and in fact that all people have biases but that reinforces the point of the lesson that in order to get a complete understanding as historians we need to look at multiple sources and perspectives. This is not a radical approach to teaching history. Students must be exposed to different perspectives from their own and given opportunities to think critically about how we view people and places in the past and present. They also need to understand how and why we develop certain perceptions and how to gain a more complete and accurate understanding of people and places.

Knowledge should be constructed through the analysis of different texts and accounts reflecting different perspectives. As teachers our responsibility is to facilitate this process by providing students with the resources and support to engage in this analysis. We must facilitate an ongoing, collaborative and critical dialogue in which we are constantly questioning what we accept as true and why we believe it to be true.

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Andy Beutel has been teaching middle school social studies for over ten years. He has presented and written about the challenges and possibilities of critical pedagogy and teaching for social justice in an affluent, suburban public school setting. He can be contacted at andrew.r.beutel@gmail.com.

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