During our recent trip to Tbilisi I had time to sit down with Paul and interview him. I want to pick up in this blog post on one particular theme he talked about during our conversation: how the Out of Eden Walk has given his writing a new coherence. I’ll explain what he means by that but also reflect on the ways in which his walk contributes to the coherence to Out of Eden Learn. I’ll also share some thoughts about the importance of coherence in teaching and learning more generally, drawing from the work of colleagues here at Project Zero.
Let’s start with Paul. First, he emphasizes that the walk is a natural extension of what he was doing previously in his life: “People have this misconception that this light bulb went on two years ago when I was working like a bee in a beehive somewhere in some office and I just wanted to walk away. But I tell them that the walk is not a departure. It’s a destination. It’s an arrival rather, an arriving at the walk. The walk has been waiting. I’ve been doing the walk for my entire life and I’ve just given it a label and a structure now.” In fact, Paul sees Out of Eden as bringing together the physical skills and endurance he developed doing years of manual labor and his vocation as a writer: “As I walk across Turkey, I am using the farm skills that I acquired as a young man to learn how to handle animals while at the same time … writing about it”. In other words, if we look at the trajectory of Paul’s life, Out of Eden can be viewed as part of a coherent thread.
Second, the overarching narrative of actually doing the walk lends a fundamental coherence to his writing. “Everything that I’m doing now has a conscious narrative that knits it together which it never really did before. I would get interested in gun running in Africa and spend a year following a Russian gun runner around and that would be my universe and I would do a good job. And then when it was over I would sit in Johannesburg and say what do I do next and it would – it might be you know an environmental series or it might be something about the Congo. That kind of directionless, rudderless reporting, as good as it was, as interesting as it was and as grateful as I am, has now been unified with a sense of purpose that it never had before and it has a clarity and a direction … And it can go in any way but it’s always linked.”
Perhaps any walk on this scale would lend a sense of purpose and narrative direction to a reporter’s writing. But the fact that Paul is retracing the migratory pathways of our ancient human ancestors arguably infuses it with a special cohering power. As I commented over a year ago in “To Walk the World”: Paul Salopek’s Epic Reporting, Out of Eden “weaves together many stories and timeframes: the overarching and unfolding story of our human species; the stories of individual humans whom Paul encounters along his way; and the story of Paul’s own physical, intellectual, and spiritual Out of Eden Walk journey.” Paul’s commitment to develop his own writing and promote “slow journalism” as a counterpoint to contemporary news media further imbues Out of Eden with a sense of internal logic or coherence.
So what of coherence and Out of Eden Learn? I’ll start by noting that 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 development. It’s also true that the unfolding narrative of Paul’s journey gives Out of Eden Learn a sense of ongoing momentum or a strong backbone – if you will – that would be lacking in a more general project to do with slow looking and intercultural exchange.
However, I think the coherence of Out of Eden Learn, as in any good curriculum design, stems primarily from our core learning goals – that is our focus on promoting slow looking and attentive listening; exchanging stories and perspectives; and reflecting on how our lives connect to bigger human stories across both time and place. As I previously described, we have tried to “articulate the kinds of understandings we hope participants will develop by taking part in Out of Eden Learn – albeit in a non-prescriptive, non-reductive way that allows for serendipity and a variety of learning experiences and teacher adaptations.” In other words, we try to strike a balance between offering direction and structure – or coherence – and giving educators and students the space to make Out of Eden Learn work in their own teaching and learning contexts.
In any case, we cannot fully control how Out of Eden Learn is enacted and experienced on the ground. We know that some educators have had the luxury and inclination to make Out of Eden Learn central to their curriculum, while others are doing it more as an add-on or enrichment activity for their students. While we love to hear about classes spending a lot of time with our materials, we can also think about the underlying principles of Out of Eden Learn in broader terms than our actual “footsteps”. For example, how might slow looking or learning from others’ perspectives find resonance across other aspects of the curriculum, both within and across subject areas? How might the principles of Out of Eden Learn help teachers guard against what our colleague David Perkins calls “aboutitis” – that is, a focus on teaching lots of “stuff” that doesn’t add up to anything coherent and which will in any case be readily forgotten by students?
Coherence can mean lots of things in many different contexts and to different individuals. But I do think coherence is something we pay special attention to at Project Zero – perhaps an echo of the fact that our organization was founded almost 50 years ago by philosopher, Nelson Goodman. Our Teaching for Understanding framework, for instance, pares down curriculum design to focus on what is worth learning and understanding. And in Making Learning Whole, David Perkins makes the case, among other things, for “playing the whole game” rather than breaking up learning into lots of fragmented parts.
Here are some questions that I’m currently puzzling over to do with coherence and Out of Eden Learn:
- Do individual students experience Out of Eden Learn as a coherent learning experience or is Out of Eden Learn just one more item in a “patchwork” or list of things they’re being asked to do at school? If it is just experienced as a “tag-on”, how can we mitigate that situation?
- Relatedly, to what extent does Out of Eden Learn offer a coherent educational approach to educators, especially given that their attention and efforts are pulled in myriad different directions? How might Out of Eden Learn explicitly draw on other Project Zero frameworks and practices to help educators think about the implications of Out of Eden Learn for their practice as a whole?
- How do we communicate that the coherence of our learning goals rests not only on the partnership between us and Paul but also, and more importantly, with deep themes that resonate across the work of both journalists and educators?