Out of Eden Learn as a Site of Civic Agency

Out of Eden Learn’s curricula and platform are explicitly oriented around three broad themes: slowing down, exchanging stories, and making connections. Carried out locally and through online exchanges with youth from different backgrounds, we see our program as a powerful vehicle for a range of potential outcomes – developing new insights about one’s own identity, identifying global forces in the local, developing nuanced understandings of culture, among other goals. But in what ways does Out of Eden Learn also lay the groundwork for civic agency?

The civic potentials of Out of Eden Learn is a theme I’ve been thinking about for some time, looking for ways to trace connections with other lines of my work where the civic is a central and explicit focus. With colleagues at Project Zero and beyond, I’ve been studying youth (specifically teens and young adults) who engage in participatory politics – using digital and social media to voice their ideas and seek influence around civic issues. This work has highlighted an array of positive opportunities and challenges for youth civic agency in digital life. In recent months, I’ve deepened my thinking about civic agency through collaborative work with Ben Mardell, a Project Zero colleague who does inspiring work related to young children as citizens.  As Ben and colleague Mara Krechevksy articulate so well: “Children are not just future or hypothetical citizens, or citizens in training, but rather they are citizens of the here and now, with the right to express their opinions and participate in the civic and cultural life of their communities.”

For Project Zero’s 50th anniversary symposium in October, Ben and I co-designed and led a session on Educating for Civic Agency with Danielle Allen (Project Zero & Harvard University) and Ron Berger (EL Education). For this session, we brought our respective insights about young children and older youth together to distill a set of key ideas and promising approaches to educating for civic agency.


We took as our starting point the idea that civic agency is multi-faceted. Here, we are informed by our colleague Danielle Allen’s conception of civic agency as defined by three core tasks:

  • “disinterested deliberation”: sharing and listening to different perspectives on a public issue in order to understand the problem space
  • “prophetic frame shifting”: imagining new or alternative visions for one’s community or world
  • advocacy: advocating for change in one’s community or world

We then explored several case studies that illustrate how specific pedagogical moves, curricular activities, and intentionally designed online spaces can support young children and/or older youth to practice one or more of these tasks.

I presented Out of Eden Learn as a compelling case study of how thoughtfully designed online spaces can support civic agency in various ways. OOEL’s model of bringing youth from different backgrounds together on our platform to exchange ideas about meaningful issues is notable – especially given the recent launch of our Stories of Human Migration curriculum where the range of themes OOEL students discuss veers more often into more explicitly civic or political territory.

To illustrate how OOEL students are exploring this topic together, I shared the following student work and a dialogue thread sparked by the migration curriculum’s Everyday Borders activity. In this activity, students take a slow walk in their local area and notice borders and boundaries – including invisible ones – and consider how their own or others’ movement is restricted or enabled.

lingcai8_30, an OOEL student from Singapore, shared a lengthy post with a number of thoughtful reflections. Here are some snippets from her post:

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There are many kinds of boundaries, [including] physical and non-physical… Physical boundaries are between and across regions and countries, while non-physical ones are those in our minds… In both cases, boundaries only exist because we, as humans, allow them to. Some reasons could be for the greater good, such as to maintain sovereignty in countries, or to protect us from harm… 

Boundaries may also give us a sense of place and belonging…

Boundaries may also exist due to our selfishness, for example, the hunger to have more territory…Boundaries protect me from harboring dangerous ideas, or exposing myself to greater harm. 

A day or two after lincai8_30 shared these thoughts, students from other classrooms begin posting comments and several short but meaningful conversations unfold. In one exchange, alyss7nicole, a student from Beaverton, Oregon in the U.S., asks lincai8_30 a probing question:

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Do you ever believe that the rich and powerful create boundaries? …

Sometimes boundaries are created by our system based on how much money we have. Not only is it physical and mental but there is a system set up…and I believe that we do not choose that.  So if authority does choose, what do you think about that? Do you like having boundaries or would you rather live in a world without them?

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@alyss7nicole, your idea is very insightful! I do believe that the rich and powerful create boundaries, and they have their reasons. It could be for personal safety, or to prevent leakage of certain documents.

Your last statement got me thinking. Could wars be prevented if there were no political boundaries? If every nation coexisted together peacefully? But humans naturally have disputes (quite often) so it probably would not work out. Boundaries are there for a good reason (sometimes) so I think I would rather live in a world with boundaries.

These short excerpts from just one piece of student work and dialogue thread show how the invitation to explore everyday borders can be an impetus for noticing, discussing and pushing students’ thinking about “invisible” boundaries between different groups in their own and others’ contexts. While not an extended deliberation, this exchange suggests the promise of open-ended and learner-centered activities as a starting point for exploring timely, yet also transhistorical, topics such as migration.

Returning to Allen’s three tasks of civic agents, I would argue that these kinds of activities and exchanges on OOEL approximate – or at least reach toward – deliberative and frame shifting tasks.  The dialogue thread may not meet the ideal type of “disinterested deliberation” – prolonged discussion of a public issue – which Allen traces to “Athenian citizens gathered in the assembly, the town halls of colonial New Hampshire, and public representatives…in the halls of a legislature.” Even so, these young people are clearly voicing their ideas about everyday borders and appear to be engaged in authentic inquiry and listening to the ideas of their online peers in different contexts. They also appear to be using their imaginations to wonder about how the social, political and physical structures that are borders could be rearranged or erased. Finally, although Out of Eden Learn’s curricula are not explicitly aimed toward the civic task of advocacy, we do see our work as laying the groundwork for potential civic or political actions on the part of youth down the road. Indeed, the pedagogic framework behind OOEL’s migration curriculum foregrounds a set of learning outcomes – respectful curiosity, nuanced understandings, and critical awareness (including self-awareness) – that are optimal foundations for all three tasks of civic agency.

In sum, in exploring the problem space of educating for civic agency, I’ve identified what I believe are clear connections between Out of Eden Learn’s model and platform and essential tasks of civic agency today. Going forward, I hope to build on these ideas by listening to OOEL teachers’ and students’ perspectives on both the promises and limitations of OOEL as a site of civic agency.


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