Many readers of this blog will know that Out of Eden Learn is an initiative of Project Zero, a research organization based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Given that we’re a research organization, how would we characterize our research agenda for Out of Eden Learn and what’s our vision moving forward?
First of all, it’s important to note that Out of Eden Learn is not your “traditional” educational research project, even taking away our unusual partnership with a journalist embarked on an epic walk around the world. Rather than working with a closed group of educators and students ahead of publishing our findings or results, we’ve created an online project that is open to everyone and which is unfolding in real-time in a highly public way – as evidenced by this blog and the accessibility of our curriculum and other resources.
Last year, most of our research was aimed at making this the best possible learning experience and platform for our participants. To that end, we used surveys and interviews to find out what people thought they were learning on Out of Eden Learn, what they liked and didn’t like, and what suggestions they had for improving the design. We also examined student work and online interactions to consider examples of student insight and understanding, as well as potential misconceptions and room for student engagement to be deepened or pushed further. Given the experimental nature of our project, we used these data to inform a clarification and revision of our project learning goals. What potential were we seeing in the space for learning? What were participants valuing? How did what we were seeing relate to existing literature and online practices? Right now, for instance, as many of you know, we’re piloting a “dialogue toolkit” in a bid to support young people to have deeper online interactions than we saw last year in our community.
This kind of research is really akin to program evaluation – and this strand is still very much alive as we continually develop and grow our community. This year we’re trying to be more strategic in attempting to grasp what kind of learning is taking place in Out of Eden Learn: we’re not trying to prove that X causes Y but we are hoping to discern some general patterns in terms of how students’ thinking shifts or develops over the course of their participation in Out of Eden Learn. Our evidence will come in large part from students’ self-reports via surveys and interviews. We’ve also incorporated a pre and post activity into our learning journey, which involves asking students to respond to two open-ended questions about one of Paul’s dispatches. While we do not have any preconceived ideas about what differences we may find, we’re interested to see if there are broad shifts in what students notice about the dispatches and/or the kinds of language they use to refer to the content of Paul’s writing.
But our research agenda is also broader – especially given the richness and uniqueness of the data we’re collecting online from students from around the world. For example, how do young people connect their own lives to bigger human stories across different times and places? How do they think about “culture”? What are the potential pitfalls and opportunities associated with inviting young people from different backgrounds to engage in intercultural dialogue online? Increasingly, we hope to collaborate more closely with our Out of Eden Learn participants – for example, by piloting small-scale, youth-led research projects that will connect different classes interested in investigating and eventually taking action on or drawing attention to an issue of their choice. We also plan to collaborate with a group of educators who would like to get more involved in our research, the idea being that they will help shape our research agenda and then carry out some of this research in their local contexts.
I think that three qualities in particular characterize our unfurling research agenda: it is action-oriented, collaborative, and learning-centric.
Action-oriented: We are focused on creating “live” real-world curriculum and cross cultural exchanges that we hope make a lasting difference to young people’s understandings of the world and their place in it. We are not using Out of Eden Learn merely as a means to collect interesting data: the development of our curriculum and learning community is our highest priority because we are eager to use this opportunity to impact young people’s perspectives on themselves and the world.
Collaborative: We view ourselves as working very much hand in hand with our participating educators and students: the revisions to our latest learning journey were directly informed by their suggestions and the community is ultimately shaped by the way in which our participants choose to use it. As I mentioned, we plan to create opportunities for our research to become increasingly participatory – that is, with educators and students actively shaping aspects of our research agenda and conducting some of the research themselves, ideally using their newly honed skills at looking carefully at the world and listening attentively to other people.
Learning-centric: Student-centered and constructivist learning principles underpin our curriculum and we are careful that the research we do is compatible with what we’re trying to achieve pedagogically. To that end, we shy away from trying to standardize or prescribe what we hope young people will learn from Out of Eden Learn: we do not want to stifle their voices or creativity. Where possible, we incorporate data collection strategies into our actual curriculum design. For instance, our final survey invites students to reflect on and process their learning experiences in their own words – something we believe to be vital for their learning as well as valuable information for us.
I would like to close by saying that in a world which places a premium on testing and measurement (which, for the record, I do think has its time and place), it’s both refreshing and a privilege to work on an educational research project that allows us to experiment in creative ways and to forge our own path forward, just as Paul has been doing in his own way through the Rift Valley, the Levant, the Caucasus, and on. I thank the Abundance Foundation for their boldness of vision that makes this exciting and unique work possible.