This work is co-authored by Anastasia Aguiar, Susie Blair and Liz Dawes Duraisingh.
Over the past year, our team has gained some clarity in terms of articulating the Out of Eden Learn model for fostering thoughtful cross-cultural inquiry and exchange among diverse youth. We have avoided using the term “culture” explicitly in our curriculum, in no small part because it is an ambiguous and often loaded term. Yet we have found that many students and educators say they are drawn to Out of Eden Learn to learn about cultures that are different from their own. Furthermore, we believe that our learning community holds great promise for challenging our participants’ stereotypes and diminishing their tendency to latch on to “a single story” about various communities, identities and cultures – and even for helping them rethink what the term culture means itself.
To advance our work in this regard, we have embarked on a research strand that looks more closely at the ways in which young people talk about cultures – including ones to which they feel they belong – and what they think they learn about various cultures through participating in Out of Eden Learn. Our objectives are threefold:
- To inform future iterations of Out of Eden Learn so that we can more effectively support young people to develop the kinds of insights or understandings about culture that are consistent with our values as educators and the principles of Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk.
- To investigate the apparent influence of our curriculum design on young people’s thinking about cultures – and to learn more about the affordances and/or challenges associated with our approach to cross-cultural inquiry and exchange.
- To contribute to existing literature on cross-cultural inquiry and exchange, including examining some of the various ways in which young people talk about culture and how some of the ways in which they talk about culture might become more nuanced or sensitive over time.
The text below, which we have posted on our website, is intended to make our ideas about culture more explicit to educators, to students and even to ourselves. It is informed by preliminary research we carried out this past spring and summer. We examined the final survey responses of 467 students (aged 10-18) to Learning Journey 1, as well as the transcripts of 11 semi-structured interviews we conducted with individual teenage students on the general topic of cross-cultural inquiry and exchange. Did students say they were learning about other cultures and if so, what did they say they learned? How did students refer to communities or cultures they perceived to be different to their own? How did they talk about their own cultures or communities? How did they approach communicating with young people from different cultural backgrounds?
It has become clear that we need to do more targeted research to satisfactorily answer such questions. However, this initial round of analysis helped us to clarify the kinds of understandings we are ideally seeking to promote within our learning community. For example, we aspire to support students to be respectfully curious about unfamiliar cultures and aware of their own particular vantage point on the world; we would also like to see them actively and sensitively listening to other students when they engage in cross-cultural dialogue. Conversely, we are keen to nudge students away from, for example, over-generalizing about cultures from a very limited knowledge base, rushing to pity people in cultures who might not have the same assets, traditions, or fashions as themselves, or viewing their own culture as the default by which to compare or measure others. At the same time, we recognize that engaging sensitively and effectively in cross-cultural inquiry and exchange can be very difficult for us all, regardless of age. The Out of Eden Learn team has a lot to learn about how to help young people cultivate relevant understandings, skills, and dispositions, including what kinds of understandings should be considered appropriate for young people of different ages.
In the coming months we’ll be seeking to advance our understanding of students’ experiences of cross-cultural inquiry and exchange by gathering new data about what our older students have to say about the concept of culture and how their ideas may or may not develop during their participation in Out of Eden Learn. Some students will be asked to complete a survey at the beginning and end of their learning journeys, and we will invite some of those students to also participate in follow-up interviews. We thank their educators in advance for helping us with this work. In the meantime, we hope that all our educators will find the following document helpful as they seek to support their students to develop their thinking about different cultures—ones that are both close to and seemingly very far from home.
Some Suggestions for Encouraging Thoughtful Cross-Cultural Inquiry and Exchange
Out of Eden Learn promotes cross-cultural inquiry and exchange by inviting young people to learn about and from other people’s stories and perspectives. These people may live halfway around the world or just down the street. Our model also emphasizes exploring one’s own culture and seeing the familiar with new eyes. As we undertake this work, we are guided by the understanding that cultures are fluid, hybrid, and complex. We see cultures as extending far beyond, though certainly including, topics such as flags, food dishes, or attire. Paul Salopek’s The River of Culture illuminates this view.
According to many students and educators, the opportunity for cross-cultural inquiry and exchange is a large part of what makes Out of Eden Learn so engaging. Further, we believe that offering young people opportunities to engage in thoughtful cross-cultural inquiry and exchange is particularly important today. We collectively face a range of issues that will require a capacity and inclination to engage critically and collaboratively with other people to address them, even at a time of increasingly intolerant and divisive public discourse in many parts of the world. Our aspirations are that Out of Eden Learn will help young people to develop:
- Respectful curiosity about their own and other people’s lives, identities, and values
- Enhanced understanding of cultural complexity and human diversity
- The capacity and inclination to respectfully reach out to other human beings and to communicate sensitively and effectively across real and perceived differences
- Self-awareness of their own perspectives and how they might be similar or different to those of other people
- Ability to probe and critically examine their own taken-for-granted assumptions, preconceptions, and stereotypes
Meeting these aspirations can be challenging for all of us and should be considered a lifelong endeavor. In an attempt to support students, we have designed Out of Eden Learn activities in ways that encourage students to slow down and consider the world from multiple viewpoints. We seek to help students avoid generalizations and simplifications and to be reflective about their understandings of their own and others’ cultures.
Our community guidelines highlight principles that we see as important for building a respectful and safe space for cross-cultural inquiry and exchange. We also imagine that you have many strategies or resources of your own that you can use to help guide students, particularly ones that encourage your students to engage in critical thinking and reflection. Below are a few additional resources that may be helpful.
- Circle of Viewpoints: This modified thinking routine asks students to consider a topic from multiple perspectives. It could be used to help students imagine the variety of ways in which people experience the world, even within one local community, and to share their stories in a way that is attuned to this complexity. The routine could also be used when students are reading dispatches from Paul or work from other students to help them consider how people might experience the same event or piece of work differently.
- What Makes You Say That?: This thinking routine asks students to make explicit their process of interpretation. It could be used when looking at a post by Paul Salopek or from a peer. By asking students to reflect on how they are building understanding, you can help them to avoid making ungrounded or hasty assumptions about others or what they have posted.
- The Danger of a Single Story: In this TED Talk (available in 44 languages), author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explores the tendency to interpret the dominant story of a culture as its only story and how this can lead to harmful overgeneralizations and misunderstandings. Both a video file and text transcript are available to share with your students. Watching or reading this talk could be a powerful entry point into a class-wide conversation about dominant narratives, media portrayals, and stereotyping.
As we continue to engage in this important work together, we look forward to hearing about other approaches you are using to support your students’ cross-cultural learning. Let us know what you find helpful!