On Tuesday April 29, participating teachers in Out of Eden Learn enjoyed a Google+ Hangout conversation with Paul. The technology was shaky at times – both for Paul in Israel and two of our teachers joining us from the Northwest Territories of Canada and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, it was a rich conversation. Paul updated us on his emergent plans for Year Two of the walk and discussed how he might engage with educators and students moving forward. Teachers asked him thoughtful questions and some excellent ideas came up in conversation. I invite you to watch the Youtube video or to read a transcript of the dialogue.
Here I would like to offer a personal response to the Hangout by drawing attention to three ideas: the value of (1) sustaining one’s own and others’ attention, (2) being prepared for serendipity, and (3) turning obstacles into learning opportunities.
(1) Sustaining one’s own and others’ attention: A key theme of Out of Eden is “slowing down”, a concept that we have returned to several times in this blog. Relatedly, Paul talks about his desire to lengthen his own and his audience’s attention span as a means of countering the prevailing trend for fleeting, bite-size news segments that fail to grapple with key existential issues about who we are and where we might be headed: “It’s about holding a vision of where we’re sort of all going more than just for seven seconds or for seven minutes but for seven years.” In this sense his walk is a vehicle for taking on big questions and sticking with them for a sustained period of time.
I worry about attention spans. So I’m using the notion of a quest, this very old storytelling trope, probably one of the oldest in the world, going back into stories we told around campfires, to basically see how I can hold people’s attentions, and in particular students’ attentions, so that they’re not overwhelmed with this tsunami of information that is bombarding them incessantly from all sides now more than ever before in the history of our species. So the walk’s narrative, a seven-year-long kind of long way of thinking, long way narrative, is an attempt to try to hold their attentions through stories so that they know, so that they themselves can construct stories about their own lives that have beginnings, middles, and ends. I think we all tell ourselves stories about who we are – whether questions about identity, questions about origins, questions about where we are all going. I think the walk is a vehicle – a storytelling vehicle primarily – for all of these questions.
Paul hopes that his journey will serve as an overarching story – or meta-narrative – to enable other kinds of story listening and telling. In response, we’re trying to create opportunities on Out of Eden Learn for students to reflect on how their lives fit into bigger stories and to construct their own stories or accounts of the world.
Paul’s use of social media could be viewed as paradoxical. However, he views the walk’s Twitter and Instagram accounts as a means to entice people – particularly young people – into reading his longer form writing. In his view, the photos he posts provide “a visual heartbeat” or “the beadwork … that keeps readers engaged in the linear events of the walk through time and space”. We have been hearing from students that they love Paul’s photographs. They also want to carry on following his walk even after their school-based participation in Out of Eden Learn is over: Paul seems to have captured their attention. Similarly, at Project Zero, we are keen to leverage social media in ways that actually promote and deepen students’ learning.
2. Being prepared for serendipity. Paul notes that the best stories are often ones that “are serendipitous, that happen by accident on the side”. With this in mind, he is careful not to over-research or over-plan his route so that he doesn’t “get locked into it”. However, this doesn’t mean that anything goes or that he is unprepared:
So it’s being supple. I think having a good grounding, doing lots of reading, lots of reading about history, about current events, about science, and then using that as a launch pad to see where the trail takes you. And it can take you deeper into those issues or take you to completely new ones. Often it’s a mix.
Paul also builds in reasons to interact with people along the way, notably by constantly asking for directions. As I mentioned in my previous blog post about the learning goals of Out of Eden Learn, we too are keen to engineer moments of serendipity within our community so that young people from diverse backgrounds can gain insights from one another and follow their own interests. Moving forward, I think we could do more to promote the kind of background reading or “grounding” that Paul describes to help participants make the most of opportunities to learn, for example, about other cultures from the walk.
3. Turning obstacles into learning opportunities. Paul’s views on serendipity are somewhat borne of necessity: “the world throws curveballs at you every single day, especially when you are on foot – rivers are too high, or, a border closes, or your camel goes lame or what have you. And so you can’t make an iron clad schedule or follow a line on a map.” But such setbacks become fodder for Paul’s storytelling and create learning moments both for him and us his readers.
The map that documents the police stops Paul has encountered, for example, reminds us of the daily restrictions on human movement around the world. Furthermore, the challenges of plotting a viable overall route for his walk echo the challenges our ancestors faced as they migrated out of Africa: “when human beings moved out of the African continent in the Pleistocene they encountered all sorts of physical obstacles. And I’m sort of matching that experience in a small way, in a micro way, by running into the political obstacles such as wars.” One teacher suggested that students could help Paul navigate some of these challenges by doing research for him – and Paul is certainly interested in developing opportunities for community problem-solving of this kind. Indeed, Paul is currently in conversation with us and other partners about strategically increasing the participatory elements of Out of Eden – so that it can more visibly become “our walk” and a profound learning experience for us all.
The ideas of sustaining one’s own and others’ attention, being prepared for serendipity, and turning obstacles into learning opportunities apply, I think, to Paul as an individual, the growing community that surrounds his walk, including Out of Eden Learn, and – ultimately – a broader collective humanity. I invite you to think about how these ideas apply to your own lives as you follow Paul along his trail.