Adding nuance to our perspectives

Vincent Chunhao Qian recently graduated from the Human Development and Psychology master’s program from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is currently working as a research assistant on Out of Eden Learn.

At the beginning of our current learning journey, we ask students to respond to a short survey after reading one of Paul’s dispatches – either Sole Brothers or Electronic Oasis. We ask them “What caught your attention or interested you about Paul’s article? What questions or wonders do you now have? Here at Project Zero we have been looking at these survey responses and I would like to share some initial thoughts with you.

First, a lot of students zoomed in on the factual details in Paul’s writing. Those who read Sole Brothers were struck by the plastic material and simple design of the shoes in addition to its ubiquity as local footwear. Many students also picked up on Paul’s comment about how shoes express our identities. In comparison, students who read Electronic Oasis were drawn to the engineering aspect of the mobile phone charging station and the increasing popularity of mobile phones among the locals in Ethiopia. Overall, students expressed a strong desire to learn more about details of the story as well as the general “outside” world. Here are some quotes from the survey:

May_Seal_Moon, age 11: “I wanted to find out more about places around the world instead of just relying on my general knowledge and the opinions of others around me.”

Londonmaple, age 9: “I would like to know how different people’s lifestyles can be and I am prepared for them to be extremely different.”

On the other hand, I noticed potential stereotyping in some of the students’ responses. For example, in response to Electronic Oasis, some students commented on their sense of surprise that people in Ethiopia have electricity let alone cellphones; some generalized the situation in Ethiopia to the entire continent of Africa, with the underlying assumption that as an African country, Ethiopia is expected to be poor and technologically deprived and that all African countries are similar.

Additionally, some respondents misconceived the purpose of Paul’s journey as being to help the local people, expressing a wish to “help countries who are less fortunate than us”, even though Paul himself does not frame his walk as an act of charity. These assumptions perhaps reflect the stereotype of Africa being a continent of people who are incapable of self-help and are waiting for rescue from the outside – an echo of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Danger of the Single Story TED Talk.

When humans lived in largely homogenous societies certain perspectives were rarely challenged. However, in today’s world of “six billion strangers” (Appiah, K.A., 2010) we are likely to encounter perspectives that are different to our own far more frequently. We need to be able to see things from different perspectives and transcend the potential divisions caused by stereotypes. This need does not only apply to cosmopolitan world travelers but is relevant to everyone living in societies where stereotypes still exist. In the recent Ferguson incident, stereotypical racial profiling against African Americans arguably has led to an empty seat at the Thanksgiving table of Michael Brown’s family.

As Liz asked in her previous blog post: What is Out of Eden Learn’s stake in all of this? What do we want to teach young people about stereotypes? I would suggest that we start small. The answer perhaps lies in those responses where students showed appreciation of Paul’s perspective in his storytelling.

“-My-“, age 13: “he wasn’t just walking up and down streets, then going to a hotel room to write about how poor or poverty strickened the people were… Also, he was not only writing about why they need more money but about what they were doing with what they had…”

“kaliforniagrace”, age 17:Today, Africa is depicted as very much behind and having no advances. However, I enjoyed reading about the fact that they are beginning to catch up”

Just as these two students have indicated, we could all learn from the way in which Paul pays attention to people who are normally underrepresented and seeks to “look at the world at a human pace”. Paul’s dispatches can introduce students to a variety of perspectives, from the stories of Syrian refugees who have lost their homes, for example, to the Afar people who are embracing modern technologies. Through engaging with Paul’s stories and the Out of Eden Learn community, hopefully students could see both their own lives and the lives of others with more nuance, and as a result, navigate better in our increasingly interconnected world. These are some preliminary thoughts based on the responses we have received so far. Once students finish their learning journey, we plan to probe further into their thoughts and the influence of Out of Eden Learn on them. I look forward to sharing more with you by then.


Appiah, K. A. (2010). Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (Issues of Our Time). WW Norton & Company. Chicago.

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