Recently, the Out of Eden Learn team held a retreat to discuss our strategic vision and work priorities. Increasingly, we feel the need to distill key lessons we’ve learned – and continue to learn – from the experience of developing Out of Eden Learn. How can we crystallize for others what lies at the heart of our multifaceted online learning community? What are the most important contributions we can make to educational theory and practice?
Various groups, organizations, and even entire school systems are interested in opening up their classrooms to the wider world and preparing today’s young people to be “global citizens” as well as savvy consumers and producers of digital media. The work we do on Out of Eden Learn arguably reflects this growing trend in education – although in a follow-up blog post I’ll discuss why we think the work we’re doing is in many ways unique. For now, I’ll discuss how Out of Eden Learn relates to some key concepts or labels that are currently in circulation: while we see resonance with many of these terms, we’re still searching for language to more adequately capture what it is we’re doing. I loosely organize my comments around the key words “global”, “digital” and “cultural”, recognizing that in doing so I’m leaving out other relevant terms such as “slow” or “mindful”.
Let’s start with “global” and in particular global citizenship. While global citizenship can mean different things in different contexts, it generally invokes the idea of young people developing a sense of belonging and responsibility to a larger world community in ways that extend beyond more local affiliations. Global citizenship education typically combines studying issues that are playing out on a global scale – such as climate change, poverty, public health, and migration issues – with taking positive action to address such issues. While Out of Eden Learn certainly encourages young people to make connections between their own lives and the wider world, so far our work hasn’t fit squarely in this camp: we’ve promoted a more general exploration of the world and created opportunities for young people to interact with one another on their own terms rather than around specific issues. Furthermore, we haven’t expected our participants to take tangible or measurable collective action to improve the world around them. Nevertheless, we believe that our model can be seen as laying essential groundwork for civic and political participation – for example, by brokering fundamental understandings of people living in different cultures and circumstances, as well as providing tools for promoting thoughtful dialogue across cultures.
A related concept is global competence – which focuses on the sensitivities, capacities, and dispositions that young people arguably need to become effective, responsible citizens in today’s world. Our Project Zero colleague Veronica Boix Mansilla, along with Tony Jackson, has developed an influential framework for conceptualizing global competence. We hope that educators seeking to promote global competence find our project compatible and indeed helpful for advancing their goals. However, our curriculum was not designed to purposefully foster these particular competences. Instead, we have sought to build a diverse community of young people who are learning together about the world and one another in ways that emphasize the three key features of our curriculum: looking slowly at the world and listening attentively to others; exchanging stories and perspectives about people, place, and identity; and reflecting on how our own lives connect to bigger human stories. Global exchange, another term in use, is probably closer to what we do, even if it only captures part of the Out of Eden Learn experience and diverts attention from the local exchanges and connections we also wish to encourage. Meanwhile, global belonging points to the sense of connectedness that we at some level seek to promote, although “belonging” maybe lacks the spirit of inquiry and interaction that characterizes Out of Eden Learn.
Let’s now turn to “digital.” Clearly we are an online initiative so whatever we call ourselves likely merits the appendage “in the digital age.” Digital citizenship, for example, is an important concept that is broadly concerned with preparing young people to behave appropriately, responsibly, and ethically in digital spaces; our own Carrie James is in many ways immersed in this field, as indicated by her recent book. We have certainly tried to develop an online learning community that promotes best practices, with our dialogue toolkit and community guidelines exemplifying our commitment to promote respectful and thoughtful online exchange. However, digital citizenship feels like only a part of what we do rather than what lies at the heart of Out of Eden Learn. Likewise, digital literacy – which broadly refers to an ability to consume, create and interact in versatile and effective ways across a variety of digital media – is best viewed as a byproduct rather than the central goal of Out of Eden Learn. We note, however, that many educators have incorporated Out of Eden Learn into their curricula as a way of fulfilling the kinds of digital (and non-digital) literacy skills they are nowadays mandated to teach.
What about digital storytelling? Sharing stories and perspectives lies at the very heart of Out of Eden Learn and is clearly a core mission for our colleague Paul Salopek. However, digital storytelling represents only one facet of our project. Further, it disguises the fact that much of our curriculum involves offline learning – for example, listening carefully to others talk about their lives, taking walks in our communities, or looking closely at everyday physical objects. We see ourselves as being in the business of promoting storytelling and human-to-human exchange in ways that are not confined to the digital sphere: the kind of storytelling we value implicates the very ways in which we experience and behave in the world, not just what we choose to share online.
Finally, let’s turn to the tricky and potentially loaded term “cultural”. Lots of people are concerned about the heightened need to prepare young people for cross-cultural encounters given the hyper-connected world in which we now live and the growing mistrust and fear that characterizes the ways in which different groups perceive one another, particularly at this 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 promoting a sensitivity toward and interest in others’ perspectives is a key motivation behind Out of Eden Learn, even if not the be all and end all. Empathy, a related concept, is also relevant, although it can be a potentially risky venture if the inherent challenges aren’t taken fully into account. We don’t explicitly invite young people to “step into someone else’s shoes” but we do hope that our activities lay some groundwork for helping young people develop empathy toward people living in cultures and circumstances that are different to their own. What we’re less keen on fostering is uncritical sympathy or, worse, misdirected pity.
Early on in the project, we distanced ourselves from the term cultural competence, which seemed to us to be somewhat problematic. Our flexible vision of culture, as exemplified by Paul’s short audio The River of Culture, doesn’t tally well with the idea that we can develop a definable repertoire or set of skills that will enable us to understand and communicate effectively with people from specific cultures: the world and the people in it are arguably too fluid and complicated for that. Cultural humility sits better with our stance toward culture, even though we don’t want young people to be shy at reaching out to one another. Meanwhile, cultural awareness, while certainly not discordant with Out of Eden Learn, somehow fails to capture the experiential nature of the learning experiences we offer.
Words we’re currently batting around that feel more on point include the following: cultural engagement, cultural exchange, cultural dialogue, and cultural inquiry. Yet with all of these terms we worry that that they don’t capture the many kinds of differences and boundaries that participants in Out of Eden Learn are crossing. How to communicate that Out of Eden Learn is about having young people investigate their own cultures as much as it is about exploring those of others – or that the interesting differences they encounter could be located a desk or a mile away rather than on a different continent? And how might we encapsulate the many facets of Out of Eden Learn – global, digital, cultural, and beyond – in a term or phrase that would help people to situate us within a broader educational landscape? We look forward to elaborating on our thinking in future blog posts; meanwhile we welcome our readers’ feedback and suggestions.