“Resolve to reflect.” On New Year’s Day 2014, I tweeted these words along with a link to a thoughtful article by civic entrepreneur Eric Liu about meaningful questions worth reflecting on in the New Year and beyond. Liu worked with Lynn Barendsen and Howard Gardner of Project Zero’s Good Project to craft a set of rich questions, including: What and whom do you love? To whom or what do you feel responsible? Who do you admire and why? Who do you consider to be part of your community? What kind of person do you want to be? Certainly, questions such as these are not meant to be answered once and for all. Rather, they are best considered touchstones to which one should return perpetually.
Long before my involvement with Out of Eden Learn, I joined Project Zero’s Good Project, a research and educational initiative focused on exploring the nature of “the good” in personal, professional, and civic spheres of life. The Good Project began in 1995 when psychologists William Damon, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and Howard Gardner began to investigate what it means to do “good work” – work that is excellent, engaging, and ethical – in an era marked by rapid social and technological changes and powerful market forces. After the research team studied nine different fields of work, Lynn Barendsen and Wendy Fischman developed a Good Work Toolkit of stories and exercises aimed at prompting reflection about themes such as one’s sense of purpose and responsibility in one’s work. The New Year questions mentioned above are directly inspired by the Toolkit.
Over the years, the Good Project’s efforts have broadened beyond the initial focus on work to other spheres. Case in point: my recent work on what we call the Good Play Project has examined how young people navigate big questions and dilemmas that surface in digital life – when they communicate with one another via smart phones, post photos and videos on Facebook, share their opinions on Twitter, and so on. Certain qualities and affordances of online life suggest a special need for reflection about the impacts of the things we say and do. For instance, the fact that we operate from behind a screen – at “arms-length” from one another – may make it easy to post whatever comes to mind without due reflection about how it might be received. In short, new modes of participation granted by digital life imply new responsibilities. In my forthcoming book on these themes – The Digital Disconnect (2014, The MIT Press) – I write about the need for “conscientious connectivity”: a disposition to reflect on the responsibilities associated with the interconnected lives we now lead.
How does all of this relate to Out of Eden? As I see it, Out of Eden (OOE) Learn and the Good Project have a shared interest in encouraging reflection about big questions. At its heart, Out of Eden Learn is about asking youth to reflect on their identities and the ways in which their lives fit into a bigger, global picture. These questions are close friends of the kinds of questions that are central to the Good Project. For example, when we ask OOE Learn youth to draw a diagram that places their lives in a larger human story, we are asking them to probe their identities, to explore how and why they hold certain beliefs, values, and world views. Prompts such as these are arguably pathways to reflection about Good Project questions, such as one’s sense of purpose in the world and responsibility to others, near and far.
Indeed, OOE Learn is about more than reflection about one’s own identity and life. It’s also about surfacing and considering connections between our lives and those of others. Paul’s walk is about revealing the hidden stories and struggles of the lives of people he meets on his journey. His journalism is an invitation to connect with and care about them, and hopefully to perceive connections between their lives and our own. In turn, our OOE Learn platform and “learning journey” are designed with the explicit goal of encouraging deep and meaningful connection-making and perspective-taking, along with global consciousness, as Veronica Boix-Mansilla describes. Ideally, the reflection and connection-making embedded in the OOE Learn experience leads to a deeper understanding of ourselves and others.
Both Out of Eden and the Good Project initiatives are about creating the time, space, and a disposition to contemplate big, meaningful questions about our lives and our globally interconnected world. At root, they are about resolving to reflect, today and tomorrow.