Situating Out of Eden Learn Within a Shifting Landscape: Takeaways from the Association of Moral Education Conference

For those new to this blog, Out of Eden Learn is an online learning community developed by Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education to foster thoughtful cross-cultural learning and exchange. It involves a collaboration with Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek, who is currently walking around the world, following the migratory pathways of our ancient human ancestors. Out of Eden Learn clusters diverse classes of students to engage in “learning journeys” that emulate Salopek’s “slow journalism”: students post work and leave comments for one another on a custom-built, social media-type platform. Over 15,000 students aged 3-18 from 52 countries have so far taken part.

The Out of Eden Learn team recently participated in the annual Association of Moral Education conference, held this year at our home institution, the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The theme of this year’s conference was “Civic Engagement: A Cultural Revolution?” – and it is fair to say that recent seismic shifts in US politics were especially on people’s minds. A couple of plenary sessions in particular – Youth Politics in the Digital Age and The Future of the Field – provided food for thought, as did some thoughtful questions from audience members during our symposium on Out of Eden Learn.

Some of the points we heard affirmed the importance and timeliness of Out of Eden Learn. According to various speakers at the conference, today’s young people need:

Opportunities to engage with people who have different perspectives to their own

In the United States in particular, students are increasingly likely to go to school and socialize with people whose families are very much like their own in terms of socio-economic, racial/ethnic, political, and religious backgrounds. Furthermore, as patterns of voting in the recent US election revealed, there is a growing political and ideological divide between different communities. As we have previously written in this blog (Cultivating cosmopolitanism in a world of echo chambers and Out of Eden Learn in the Age of Brexit and Donald Trump), creating opportunities for young people to listen to one another across real and perceived differences appears to be an increasingly urgent intervention – both for the benefit of individual students as well for as society as a whole.

Safe spaces and adult support to practice engaging with the world

Elyse Eidman-Aadahl from the National Writing Project, an organization that engages students in online writing projects from across the United States, reported on an initiative that invited students to write letters to US President Barack Obama. She noted that many letters were not shared online because teachers did not feel comfortable having children’s work posted publicly, even though their students were eager to express their opinions and engage with what they deemed to be real issues. Other speakers noted that young people benefit from having educators or adult mentors support their burgeoning civic engagement. While Out of Eden Learn is a protected, adult-mediated online space because of IRB regulations at Harvard University, we have seen the benefits of limiting public access to the platform and preventing students from revealing their true identities. Many young people have said, for example, that they enjoyed being able to express themselves freely on the platform without fear of being judged. We wouldn’t advocate that all young people’s online interactions or engagement remain hidden from view. However, Out of Eden Learn arguably offers an important training ground for youth to develop skills at cross-cultural engagement in ways that avoid leaving them potentially vulnerable or exposed.

Support for developing a better sense of time and place

Ernest Morrell, from Teacher’s College, Colombia University, argued that young people need help situating their own civic engagement within a broader historical and geographic context so that they can see how their actions fit into a larger picture of political or social action and potentially connect their work to that of other groups or individuals. Morrell was speaking specifically about action-oriented projects in local communities but his comment could, I believe, be applied more broadly. While there is definitely room for us to infuse more substantive history and geography content into our learning journeys, the very structure of Out of Eden Learn, alongside some of our curriculum activities and Paul Salopek’s reporting, is designed to give young people a feel for how their lives are connected to stories that are bigger than their own – both across time and across places.

The conference also raised some interesting questions or puzzles for Out of Eden Learn:

Are we transparent (or self aware) enough about our own in-built biases?

There was a strong contingent of Chinese scholars at the conference, as well as researchers who are interested in comparing Western and Eastern approaches toward moral and civic education. To summarize, in Western education there is a focus on individual cognition – that is, on thinking, analysis, and inquiry processes that intrinsically motivate and develop the individual learner. In contrast, the Eastern/Confucian virtue model of learning prizes sincerity, diligence, perseverance, humility, and respect for authority. Brown University’s Jin Li is a leading scholar in this regard – see her book Cultural Foundations of Learning: East and West.

Out of Eden Learn is a product of the Western paradigm. In fact, actively encouraging young people to find their own voice, be creative, and actively question the world around them are hallmarks of Project Zero’s learner-centered curriculum design. Meanwhile, Out of Eden Learn purports to be an international online learning community that welcomes everyone on the same footing. It is not molded to the requirements and prevailing practices of the American education system and students have participated very positively from a variety of contexts, including a small number of students from China as well as many other students from non-Western backgrounds. But as a team are we sufficiently aware of our own pedagogical biases and assumptions? Do we perhaps underestimate the degree to which we expect some young people and their teachers or parents to step out of their comfort zone to participate in Out of Eden Learn? We’ve long been aware of the limitations of a mono-lingual model, which places children who are fluent in English or Spanish at a relative advantage in their interactions with other youth – but these kinds of philosophical differences arguably run even deeper. As we look to broaden access to Out of Eden Learn, can the program avoid imposing a Westernized world view – however unwittingly – on the rest of the world?

Is Out of Eden Learn too “nice”? Does the project evade important, real-world issues?

An attendee of our symposium on Out of Eden Learn said she deeply appreciated the project, but wondered where the “dark side” to it was. In other words, given the current state of the world, is getting young people to connect with one another online and look at their surroundings in new ways effectively glossing over more important issues and potentially giving them too rosy a view of the world? Shouldn’t they be encouraged to debate issues with one another more robustly, to take action on things that are wrong in their communities, and/or to critique the underlying structures that promote inequity and injustice? Furthermore, is the kindness and civility that characterizes dialogue on Out of Eden Learn adequately preparing them for more challenging spaces on the Internet? And are students from all backgrounds being given adequate and equitable voice on our platform?

I do think that we need to ask ourselves hard questions about the purpose and role of Out of Eden Learn given the state of the world – and in fact, the project is starting to tilt more in the direction of issues-based curricula with the new Stories of Human Migration Curriculum for older students. But we would suggest that young people need an array of educational experiences and there is arguably room for ones that are driven by young people’s own curiosity and exploration in ways that may or may not lead them to rush out to change the world (notwithstanding the questions I just raised about our Western philosophical assumptions). Further, I would argue that creating a respectful online environment is a potentially radical act in and of itself – and one that engages the world head-on rather than shirks it. As Whitney Phillips argues in This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things and our colleague Carrie James explains in Disconnected: Youth, New Media and the Ethics Gap, the default patterns of Internet engagement are such that urgent interventions are required to harness the power of social media in ways that tap into the best of our human propensity for connection-making and actively avoid creating social misery. Furthermore, building trust and sharing human stories can be viewed as a necessary precursor for more difficult conversations where different stances on public issues can be put on the table.

Is Out of Eden Learn a form of civic education or something else?

Which leads to another question: is Out of Eden Learn a form of civic education or something else? Diana Hess, Dean of the University of Madison-Wisconsin, noted at the conference that the field of civic and moral education as such is amorphous and ill-defined; she herself frames her work as political education to gain more precision about what she is trying to achieve. As our white paper explains, Out of Eden Learn began as an experimental project that developed into a more intentional effort to promote cross-cultural inquiry and exchange among diverse youth. During presentations, I have sometimes called Out of Eden Learn “civic education light” in that the project was conceived as a way to subtly shift young people’s perceptions about their relationship to the world and other people in an inductive fashion. The program has never sought to promote tightly prescribed understandings, dispositions, or behaviors among its participants in the way that other civic education programs might. Furthermore, the exact manner in which Out of Eden Learn is framed or used lies a great deal in the hands of individual teachers and the ways in which they adapt the program to suit their particular teaching contexts.

That said, we may be moving more toward the center of the ill-defined field of civic education. First, we have become clearer about the potential strengths of the platform and are interested in responding to the civic needs of the day. Second, civic education is defined far more expansively than it was in the past: at least in the United States, practitioners are as likely to associate civic education with the kind of dynamic, peer-to-peer interactions that Out of Eden Learn facilitates as they are stolid textbooks on the American constitution. As Out of Eden Learn evolves as a project, so does the broader landscape of which it is a part.

Out of Eden Learn is particularly seeking high school classes to participate in the Stories of Human Migration Curriculum starting late January. Please email if you are interested!




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