Taking on the challenges of cultural perspective taking in Out of Eden Learn

This blog is a direct response to Veronica’s beautiful and extremely rich piece FINDING OUR WAY INTO EACH OTHER’S WORLDS: MUSINGS ON CULTURAL PERSPECTIVE TAKING. I’d like to contribute some additional thoughts and explore how cultural perspective taking relates to what we are doing with Out of Eden Learn.

As Veronica explained in her piece, attempting to take on the perspectives of other human beings is fraught with challenges and pitfalls; at the same time it appears to be a uniquely human impulse and an important capacity that educators need to nurture – particularly as cross cultural encounters are increasingly the norm. I would add that even if cultural perspective taking is cognitively difficult and at times risks causing offence, it would be a far more troubling scenario if we decided that it was not worth even trying to understand other people’s perspectives.

Here’s a comparison case that draws on my background in history education. To promote historical understanding in a disciplinary sense it’s important that students grasp that historical knowledge is not something set in stone: even if textbook narratives about the past are often presented as authoritative and “true” they are really only a particular version of history. The danger of students developing this insight is that it can lead to a reductionist and relativistic “Well if we can’t really know what happened why should we even bother?” That is not really a place where we would want to leave students: I for one would want them to understand that while there can be multiple historical interpretations of the past, valid and plausible interpretations must be based on available historical evidence. We otherwise risk going down the rabbit hole of blatant manipulations and misappropriations of the past.

In Out of Eden Learn, we have not been finding that young people reject or shy away from the opportunity to encounter different cultural perspectives: in fact, we have heard from both students and educators that this aspect of Out of Eden Learn is one of the things they most value. We have, however, been grappling with the phenomenon of “a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing”. Younger students in particular can be rather quick to tell us in private reflections after a few weeks of engaging with Out of Eden Learn that they are now “very open minded about the world” or that they understand everything about China, for instance, when they have only been exposed to one tiny and partial glimpse of life there. We don’t want to leave students in a space where they think they know everything they need to know about other people when they have only just begun to scratch the surface. Perspective taking is difficult – and if it feels easy to slip into the shoes of the Syrian refugees whom Paul writes about in Tomatoes, for example, or even those of another student participating in Out of Eden Learn, then that should raise some red flags. If perspective taking is difficult for adults then imagine how much more difficult it is for middle school students who are still developing the cognitive capacity to take on other perspectives. How do we start them down a journey of exploration of the world and other cultures while making it clear to them that they are only at the beginning of an ongoing and hopefully life long process? We are still trying to figure that puzzle out.

In the meantime, I do believe that several features of Out of Eden Learn actively foster the kind of “dialogical and inquiry-oriented disposition” that Veronica advocates in her blog piece. In particular, we are encouraging students to:

  1. Slow down to observe the world carefully and to listen attentively to others. Veronica shared a poignant example of a Portland teacher reaching out to listen to her new Somali student in order to work out how to connect with her. By promoting slow looking and careful listening, Out of Eden Learn places a huge emphasis on taking the time to avoid cursory or stereotypical interpretations of the world and other people.
  1. Document the everyday. The Out of Eden Learn footsteps ask students to make maps of their own neighborhoods, take pictures of their communities, and conduct interviews with family members and neighbors. These activities help students understand that it is not just other people who have culture, nor is culture something exotic. Rather, it’s part of students’ own and others’ everyday lives.
  1. Generate questions about the world. We incorporate various Project Zero thinking routines into our activities and Dialogue Toolkit. In general, our thinking routines help learners to notice new things and to ask questions about the world rather than to arrive at any definitive answers. We want students to realize what they don’t know as much as what they do know, and then to aspire to find out more.
  1. Reflect on how their own lives relate to the lives of others. A special power of Out of Eden Learn is that students experience inductively and in the company of others similarities and differences between their own perspectives and those of other young people. By posting responses to activities that invite them to observe the world carefully and in new ways – and then by looking at the array of observations and stories that other students have posted – students can start to situate their own perspectives within a broader context.

Notwithstanding, we still have a lot to learn with regards to promoting the capacity and disposition among Out of Eden Learn participants to engage in and then develop their capacity for sensitive cultural perspective taking. We welcome feedback and suggestions from our readers.

3 comments

  1. […] To add my own commentary, I found it heartening to hear from the Wisconsin team that students are increasingly interested in their own cultures and communities as well as in those of other people living far away – an important dynamic to which I allude in Taking on the challenges of cultural perspective taking in Out of Eden Learn. […]

  2. […] time of mass migration and upheaval. Veronica Boix Mansilla and I have written blog posts (here and here) about the challenges and possibilities of promoting cultural perspective taking. Certainly […]

  3. […] su mundo (toma de perspectiva), los riesgos posibles en este camino y su posible abordaje; y otra acerca del desafío que conlleva que los estudiantes que están transitando un camino para […]

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