Out of Eden Learn and the Project Zero Family

Some readers of this blog may know that Out of Eden Learn is one of several projects housed at Project Zero, a research group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Project Zero has been around for a long time – 47 years, to be exact – and over the years it has been the home of many, many research initiatives. We thought it might be of interest to share some thoughts about connections between Out of Eden Learn and other Project Zero projects, past and present.

The first thing to know about Project Zero is that it’s a collection of loosely related projects rather than a strictly mission-driven organization. As with any loose confederation, it’s not always easy to describe how its members are related. Here the metaphor of family is helpful. As in a family, not all members have the exact same characteristics, and there is no particular characteristic – physical or otherwise – that every member shares. And yet every member has a few characteristics, drawn from a larger set, that distinguish them as part of the family.

So here are three family characteristics that Out of Eden Learn shares with other Project Zero projects.

The first is a belief in the power of active learning. This is the view that learning happens best when people have the opportunity to actively engage with what’s around them in order to generate new ideas and make new connections. Virtually all of the Out of Eden Learn footsteps reflect this view: Each one begins by asking students to do something themselves – take a neighborhood walk, notice the global in their everyday environments, interview someone in their community – and then actively build on what they learn by reflecting on it and making new connections. We designed the footsteps to be resonant with what Paul himself does as he’s walking, and indeed Paul’s own Out of Eden Walk can be viewed as an example of active learning par excellence.

The theme of active learning has a long history at Project Zero. In the 1990s we developed the Teaching for Understanding framework, now widely used around the world, that provides a template for curriculum design based on a performative conception of understanding – a view that defines understanding as a dynamic and evolving activity – as something you do rather than something you have. Many current Project Zero frameworks – Visible Thinking, Making Learning Visible, Studio Habits of Mind, Interdisciplinary and Global Studies – similarly emphasize the active nature of thinking and understanding.

A second theme Out of Eden Learn shares with other Project Zero projects is a belief in the importance of helping young people to engage with complexity. Often, educational programs aim to simplify topics in order to make them more accessible to students. But most things worth understanding in the world happen to be complex, and in their complexity lies their richness. Consider the intricate complexity of the physical world, the multi-perspectival complexity of history, the causal complexity of global economic forces. Paul’s journalism often engages complexity. For instance he writes about the complicated braiding of ancient trade routes and contemporary migrations, about the global forces that link paleoanthropology and piracy. In a similar spirit, Out of Eden Learn urges students to engage the complexity of their own worlds, for example by making and sharing neighborhood maps, by exploring and diagramming the connections between everyday objects and global forces, by considering and reconsidering their own relationship to history.

The theme of engaging complexity flows through several Project Zero projects. For example, the Understandings of Consequence project aims to help students understand and reason about causal complexity in science; its findings indicate that young learners are far better able to do this than earlier research suggests. The Agency by Design project is exploring the complex understandings students develop about design and systems in the context of the maker movement. The Making Learning Visible project emphasizes the dynamic, evolving documentation of student learning as it unfolds in complex contexts. The Visible Thinking framework offers thinking routines that help students unpack the complexity of things and ideas. The Global Competence framework helps students explore complex global issues within and across disciplines. The initiatives that fall under the umbrella of the Good Project offer tools for engaging with the complex ethical dilemmas that arise in contemporary professional and online life.

A third theme that connects Out of Eden Learn to other Project Zero frameworks is an emphasis on close looking. By close looking we mean the practice of holding one’s attention steadily on something, resisting easy interpretation in favor of prolonged and careful observation. Several of the footsteps are specifically designed with this goal in mind. For example, students look closely at their own neighborhoods and at each other’s neighborhood maps. They interview community members and listen carefully to their stories. They examine photos from around the world, looking closely for signs of global forces and sharing their observations with one another.

It’s worth noting that close looking as we define it here is a form of active learning because it involves capturing first impressions but also intentionally going beyond them. For example, in Footstep 6, students use a simple “thinking routine” to help them push beyond surface impressions and look closely at an everyday object in new ways. In other Project Zero projects, frameworks such as Studio Thinking help educators teach close observation as a “habit of mind .” The Visible Thinking and Artful Thinking frameworks offer thinking routines to help students look closely at art and other interesting things. The Making Learning Visible project focuses on documentation (a form of close looking) as a way to observe and represent the complexity of student learning.

Paul likes to call his mode of reporting “slow journalism,” and if you’ve read his dispatches, you know that his journalism is full of close observations beautifully described. Of course Paul writes about big ideas, too, and indeed he says that one of the purposes of the Out of Eden walk is to “connect the dots” between contemporary life and the deep past in which our forebears migrated across the globe. But first and foremost Paul’s journalism is anchored in the close and respectful observation of what’s immediately around him. So, for example, over the last year he has evocatively described for us such things as the ancient grooved trail of the pilgrim’s highway in Syria, the astonishing site of footprints in a boundless desert, the soft-as-a-pot holder pad of a camel’s hoof (and the soothing ruminant sound of it chewing), the calloused fingers of a Bedouin fire healer, the spectacularly beautiful ugliness of a truck stop outside Djibouti City.

In Footstep 12, which is currently the last activity students do in Out of Eden Learn, students are invited to devise an activity of their own that is inspired by Paul’s walk. In the spirit of Paul’s “slow journalism,” one student chooses to describe her Sunday neighborhood walk. We close this blog entry with an excerpt from her dispatch.

The first few snowflakes start to fall on the quiet street sticking to the leaves. A few minutes later a thin layer of snow has covered parts of the sidewalks. I start to head home noticing a few more cars and a woman walking her baby. A driveway is missing a patch of snow where a car once was. It smells fresh, clean; it’s good to be outside despite the fact that it’s growing colder. I near my house noticing the little girl playing in her front yard. I climb up my front steps and turn around — the trail I left behind me along with the tracks of an animal.

One comment

  1. […] our project, like Paul’s, builds off pre-existing strands of work. As Shari Tishman explained in Out of Eden Learn and the Project Zero Family our collaboration with Paul coheres with a lot of other Project Zero research and curriculum […]

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