North Isn’t Up

One of my favorite classroom wall hangings was a south-side up map. I liked it because it made a scientific point—that space does not have an up/down orientation. I liked it because the map gave me a chance to explain that for most of human history, north seldom appeared at the top of the map. Often east—where the sun appeared every morning—was on top. Europeans, I’d tell students, were doing most of the exploring when modern maps were drawn, so they put themselves at the top.

But mostly, I liked the south-side up map because it was a visual in perspective-taking. I wanted my students to learn to see through others’ eyes.

“Yeah! How would you like to be always at the bottom like Australia?” I heard one student ask another as they stood in front of the map together.

That sentiment, I hoped, would transfer to how they interacted in class, with the kids who wore uncool shoes, who struggled with learning, who couldn’t coordinate their bodies.  Students who were other-oriented, I found, had fewer conflicts and healthier and more varied relationships. They could look beyond their own interests to the interests of others.

But beyond empathy, perspective-taking increases critical thinking. Students who can back up from a geometry proof, an analysis of a short story, or a social studies essay and take another look, see things a new way—these students think deeper and construct concepts more skillfully.

My students loved to correct a teacher or principal who walked into the room and said something about the map being upside down.

“It’s not upside down,” they’d say. “It’s south side up.”

For me, the map was a daily reminder to pause and consider whether I was self- or other-oriented.

And for all of us in the school room the map was an invitation to think. After all, when you put the up side down and the down side up, you see in ways different than you have always visualized.

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