Last week was Project Zero’s enormously generative 5th annual Future of Learning Conference held at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The conference was organized around the following ‘throughlines’:
- What do we know about globalization, the digital revolution, and mind/brain research and their influence on learning and education?
- How do we need to rethink the what, who and how of learning as a result of these changes or forces?
- What should we do differently to meet the demands of the future of learning in practice?
- What consequences may such educational changes have for learners and societies? What is our role as responsible 21st century educators?
Coming into the conference I viewed our Out of Eden learning community as timely and relevant and highly engaging for young people. I now view it as offering the kinds of learning opportunities that are not just desirable but in fact essential for young people at this juncture in our human history.
The economist Jeffrey Sachs posed this provocative question in conversation with Howard Gardner: How can we be so economically and technologically interconnected in today’s world and yet so stupid at an intercultural level? Citing numerous foreign and monetary policy examples, he lamented our seeming incapacity as humans to understand other people’s perspectives or to engage in honest empathetic exchanges. He called on teachers to create opportunities for their students to engage with other young people living in different parts of the world, to enable them to find out firsthand about other people’s lives and points of view.
Neuroscientist and human developmental psychologist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and linguist Bruno della Chiesa similarly agreed on the importance of engaging in social interactions with people who are very different to ourselves. They stressed that such interactions can help us to discern our own cultural assumptions—that is, they help us to perceive the proverbial water in which we swim. While Immordino-Yang and della Chiesa focused on the importance of learning more than one language and directly experiencing different cultures, our Out of Eden learning community offers young people an alternative – and perhaps more accessible – way to develop new perspectives on their own lives and cultural identities. Furthermore, the kinds of exchanges our learning community supports go beyond the “cultural tip of the iceberg” described by intercultural competence expert Darla Deardorff. In other words, students learn far more about one another’s cultural perspectives than merely about differences involving food, clothing, or celebrated holidays, for example.
At Project Zero we did not explicitly design our on-line learning community to be a vehicle for promoting intercultural competence or perspective taking: our goals were (and still are) broader. But the Future of Learning Conference has sharpened my focus on some of the value and relevance of what we are doing – and how we might build on this work moving forward. I will close with a selection of responses to a question students were asked as part of a private reflection during our pilot study: What, if anything, have you learned from interacting with students from around the world?
From interacting with the other students, I learned more about different perspectives and how where you come from and the different conditions that you were raised in can strongly affect your values and opinions. It is important for people and studies to gain varied perspectives because our world is diverse and we must represent not only the majorities but also the minorities. (Raphael, Vancouver, Canada)
We have our differences obviously, but we are very similar in ways too. They are kids just like me that are eager to be involved in the global community and to learn about the world. (Aurora, Massachusetts, USA)
Though oceans and mountains may separate us, I have grown a strong bond with many of [the students]. Many of the things they wrote about have touched my heart and left me with a desire to know more. I have lived bits and pieces of their lives through their words. They have shown me the world through several different perspectives. I have learnt the meaning of being a true global citizen. (Destiny, Mumbai, India)
Students from different parts of the world can’t be applied to stereotypes … Out of Eden enabled us to be able to see for ourselves what other students from different parts of the world are like. (Rob, Massachusetts, USA)