One feature of our learning community is that it brings together young people from around the world to consider issues that are relevant to all humanity. Although we have a range of ages represented in our pilot study, the majority of participants are in their mid to late teens: an age when young people are developmentally primed to consider big questions about who they are and how they fit into the rest of the world. The late developmental psychologist Erik Erikson wrote that the fundamental existential question for this stage of our lives is “Who am I and what can I be?”.
I do not want to suggest that all teens spend their waking hours worrying about their identities and future roles within society. For a start, Erikson stressed that we do not all develop in exactly the same way and at the same age. His influential theory was also developed within the context of Western society, which highly values individuality: it does not necessarily apply to societies where expectations and roles are more rigidly defined. Furthermore, Jeffrey Arnett’s more recent theory of “emerging adulthood” makes the case that modern living conditions are leading young people to delay making decisions about who they are, what they believe in, and the kinds of lives they want to lead.
Still, it is fair to say that many teens around the world face the prospect of leaving home and making major life decisions: in this context they are likely to be asking questions about who or what they want to be. I have also found in previous research that most young people are extremely interested in thinking deeply about their own identities and lives. In fact, when I was exploring the ways in which young people relate their own lives to the past or history, I found that developmental factors seemed to be driving the ways in which they did so. For example, many young people talked, unprompted, about who or what they admired or despised in history and what that taught them about how they wanted to live their own lives or what they considered to be right or wrong.
One of the exciting aspects of our collaboration with Paul Salopek and the Out of Eden Walk is that we are tapping into young people’s natural inclination to ask big questions about the world and how they fit into it. In this sense we are inviting them to walk together during a particular stage of their journey through life. To continue the metaphor, we believe that by exchanging perspectives on the world with one another, these fellow travelers can help one another to grapple with the “Who am I and what can I be?” question, all the while developing their understanding of the world around them.
We asked students to complete a check-in or survey after they had completed the first four activities (all ones to do with local neighborhoods). This check-in served as a private reflection to allow students to process what they had been learning. It also provided us with invaluable information about what, if anything, they were gaining from being part of the learning community. The first question was open-ended: ‘What do you think you have learned, if anything, from being part of the project so far? For example, have you had any new ideas or insights about yourself, your neighborhood, and/or the world in general? Please explain.’
Students’ responses varied considerably and the theme I have picked out below is necessarily selective: other students focused on the insights they’d had about the nature of our interconnected world or their own agency as individuals. However, the following types of comments suggest that many of our participants are keenly interested to know how they are similar or different to other young people, even if the conclusions they draw are varied:
I think the one thing that has struck me the most after taking part in this project so far has been the fact that though most of the other students live in different countries and on different continents, our daily lives, likes, interests, thought process, etc. are quite similar. One would think that a student in India would have a very different lifestyle than one living in, for example, the USA but after reading the posts about the others’ neighbourhoods, I have realised that we are all quite similar.
So far I have learned lots about the world and the distortion in it. In looking at others responses it has showed me how nothing is the same.
I really have enjoyed getting to hear from people that don’t just live in my country. I think this is the first time talking to anybody from outside my country about their surroundings and really having a chance to hear what they think of their community/neighborhood … in reality a lot of it is similar to my neighborhood/community and I guess that was just really cool to see because in a way I am connected to people I don’t even know, some who live on the other side of the world as me.
If we look back at the previous post PHOTOGRAPHING NEIGHBORHOODS AS A CATALYST FOR LEARNING, we see that Kylie was prompted by the neighborhood walk activity to think about how similar and yet how different her own experience might be to the myriad other people who also live in neighborhoods around the world. One could say that she was trying to situate her own life within a broader canvas of human experience:
Taking the walk made me think about just how big the world is and how little my own neighborhood is … I have always imagined my neighborhood really big but this prompt got me thinking about how big my neighborhood actually is. There are so many other kids out there that each have their own neighborhoods, which helps put in perspective how big the world actually is. It is also crazy to think that no two neighborhoods are the same because different people live in each one and I believe one of the things that makes a neighborhood is the people that live there.
Paul’s walk is built on the premise that as human beings we are fundamentally connected to one another—both by our collective past and by our shared present and future. It has been interesting to see how our learning community serves as a space where young people can explore the ways in which their own life journeys are inherently similar and yet also unique compared to those of other young people growing up in very different contexts.