The story of The Blind Men and the Elephant is a simple one: a group of unsighted men have their first encounter with an elephant. Since they approach the beast from different perspectives, they all end up with different impressions of the elephant. The man who feels the elephant’s side thinks that the animal is a big, flat thing. The one who feels the elephant’s leg thinks the elephant is like a column. Another feels only the elephant’s trunk, and describes the animal as being very like a snake. After sharing their perceptions, the men begin to quarrel, each of them convinced that he is right and all the others are wrong.
None of the men is wrong, exactly. All are faithfully reporting their honest, first-hand impressions. And yet each of them has gotten a false impression because his experience has been limited to just a part of the whole of the elephant.
This story is often used to make the point that there can be more than one right answer, or that it is essential to get full information before making a decision.
- John Godfrey Saxe’s poem based on the folk tale.
- The poem with some philosophical notes
- The story, set in India.
- A play with the story set in the Middle East.
- A Wikimedia image that could make a good coloring page.
- An ESL lesson, also suited to native speakers in early grades.
- The link to Saxe’s poem includes more than one version. Compare the versions of the poem and decide which is better, for an exercise that will let students improve their proofreading skills painlessly.
- This is a great story to start off a study of the senses. Would the men have differed as much in their ideas of the elephant if they had used more different senses to observe the elephant?
- National Geographic has some great multimedia resources on elephants. Bring elephants into lessons on mammals, classification of animals, threatened and endangered species, and habitats.
- An article on frame of reference brings the blind men and the elephant into the context of physics. You can also pull out paragraphs for math and geography connections.
- A worksheet connecting the story with the scientific method.
- The Elephant Chart on global income inequality should interest secondary students. Here’s another discussion of the Elephant Chart, with video and photos. There are plenty more, and they all fit into a discussion of how the same information can look different to different people.
- The story of the blind men and the elephant is being used frequently in editorials and essays on the current economic issues in the U.S. Have students search for such essays and chart all the different “blind men” and “elephants” being discussed.
- A Worldwise lesson plan with discussion questions focusing on respecting others’ viewpoints.
- “The Blind Men and the Elephant” can be found as a teaching tale in several different religious traditions. Use it as a writing prompt for an essay on religious tolerance or religious pluralism. Review the constitution’s statement on religion, the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
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