Bridging Divides? Some Reflections on a Recent Symposium at the Harvard Graduate School of Education

Anastasia Aguiar is an Out of Eden Learn team member and doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

What do meaningful cross-cultural engagement and interaction look like? And what might be some of the limitations or unintended consequences, as well as some of the promises, of cross-cultural digital exchange programs? These were the two central questions addressed at “Bridging divides? The promises and limitations of cross-cultural digital exchange programs,” an event hosted by the Civic and Moral Education Initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) on April 13.

Liz Dawes Duraisingh and Shari Tishman spoke from the perspective of Out of Eden Learn. They were joined by Paul Mihailidis, associate professor at Emerson College and director of the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change, and Aaliyah El-Amin, an HGSE lecturer who teaches courses on critical pedagogy and emancipatory teaching. Paul discussed the Salzburg Academy’s model of bringing young people from around the world together to critically explore the role of media and to engage in developing media for social change. Aaliyah commented on the two programs from the lens of critical pedagogy, which she described as way of thinking about education that attends to and seeks to transform people’s sociopolitical realities.

Below, I share two important themes that emerged from the conversation, and that Aaliyah highlighted in her commentary. As I discuss these themes, I focus on some questions they provoke for Out of Eden Learn.

Attending to positionality

The discussion highlighted the importance of helping students to think critically about how their own identity and social position shape their perspectives on the world, while also raising questions about how best to support them to engage in such critical thinking. Liz and Shari explained how Out of Eden Learn emphasizes a reciprocal approach to cross-cultural inquiry, in that students learn about cultures that aren’t familiar to them while at the same time looking closely at their own. Examining their own cultures can help students become aware of their own perspectives and ways in which they are shaped by their environment; it can also help mitigate the potential misconception that culture is only something that other people have.

In response to Liz’s and Shari’s broader presentation of Out of Eden Learn, Aaliyah spoke about the importance of recognizing that listening, looking, and curiosity—important elements of our program—are not neutral. She pointed out that a person can, for example, be curious in harmful ways. She asked: How do we engage young people in thinking about how their looking, listening, and curiosity interact with their identities?

Liz shared that the structure of the platform is designed to help students think about these questions by inviting them to compare their own perspectives and experiences with those of other students, including students in their own neighborhoods. At the same time, she wondered if Out of Eden Learn could be leaving too much to chance, given the program’s emphasis on emergent student-driven learning. Could the curriculum be refined to help ensure that students are actively thinking about their positionality?

Paul also suggested that there could be a tension between a focus on positionality and the concept of global citizenship. The Salzburg Academy focuses on identity, perspective, and social location and emphasizes the development of students’ critical consciousness. Global citizenship is often defined in a way that is at odds with these priorities. He proposed an alternative definition of global citizenship that foregrounds learning how to listen, recognizing your social position and the resources you have, developing a vision of your place and efficacy in the world, and valuing local identities. Storytelling, he said, is a way into this kind of global citizenship – an idea that resonates with a central theme of both Out of Eden Walk and Out of Eden Learn.

Considering civic outcomes

The event also raised larger questions about the extent to which we should be directing students towards specific civic outcomes. Shari and Liz reflected that there could be a tension between Out of Eden Learn’s commitment to emergent student-driven learning and the pursuit of explicit civic goals. Aaliyah noted the absence of a civic action component in Out of Eden Learn’s program and asked what the implications of this absence might be for students’ understandings of citizenship. In this respect, Out of Eden Learn differs from the Salzburg Academy, where the pedagogy focuses on engaging students in a process of collective action by having them work together on developing media resources aimed at solving social problems.

Personally, I view Out of Eden Learn as contributing to students’ civic development by helping them to build dispositions and skills that lay a foundation for thoughtful and engaged citizenship. Indeed, this belief is part of what drew me to the program. However, Aaliyah’s question focused my attention on the possible risk of students seeing our program as a comprehensive model for citizenship, and therefore undervaluing civic action – even though Out of Eden Learn does not explicitly position itself as citizenship education. Furthermore, if we conceive of our program as laying a foundation for civic action, what obligations and potential options do we have to support students in getting to this next step of taking action? Indeed, to what extent does it even make sense to think about civic development in these stages, with action coming second? Paul’s comments were thought provoking for me in challenging this linear conception of civic development. He shared that in the Salzburg Academy’s experience, the process of working together to solve a social problem has been critical to helping students think about their own identities.

Liz voiced similar reflections at the symposium. She explained that while Out of Eden Learn has taken a more student-led approach and focused on trying to shift young people’s overall perceptions and consciousness, the team has wrestled with how much to target and measure civic action as a direct outcome of the program, particularly given the shifting political landscape. It might not be enough for students to come away from the program feeling as if they have thought carefully about their own culture and had a meaningful interaction with a student they would not have otherwise met. Liz also pointed out the importance of taking students’ ages into account as we think about appropriate outcomes.

The panel also discussed the extent to which Out of Eden Learn does and should ensure that students wrestle with challenging political questions and develop certain understandings. Liz and Shari shared an example of student dialogue from the Stories of Human Migration curriculum, where one student began by talking about borders as things that protect people, and another student responded in a way that helped to complicate this understanding, bringing attention to the harm that borders can cause. Aaliyah asked what would have happened if the second student hadn’t replied and how we think about the possibility of students not having the knowledge to get to this deeper understanding on their own. This is an issue that raises structural, pedagogical, and ethical issues for Out of Eden Learn, as Liz and Shari said in the presentation. Given the program’s diffuse structure and focus on student-driven learning, as well as concerns about over-promoting a particular worldview, how should Out of Eden Learn grapple with questions concerning the feasibility and desirability of ensuring that students develop specific content understandings?

As I reflect on the discussion as a whole, I am particularly struck by the cross-cutting issue regarding how we think about our commitment to emergent student-driven learning in relation to other goals. While it is important to grapple with the possible tensions between a commitment to emergent, student-driven learning and understanding goals related to positionality and civic action, are there also ways to see these goals as mutually reinforcing? Along with this question, I came away from the event with a deepened appreciation for the value of inviting critical discussion of our work.

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