The iterative relationship between practice and research on Out of Eden Learn

In December, 2014, I wrote a blog post called Research and Out of Eden Learn: Forging Our Own Path. Re-reading this piece, much of what I wrote then still resonates: we continue to strive to do research that is action-oriented, collaborative, and learning-centric, even if we ended up going down slightly different paths than we envisaged at the time of writing. This post reprises my discussion of the relationship between practice and research on Out of Eden Learn. It offers an overview of some of our current research interests and the ways in which research and practice iteratively inform one another in our collective work.

What kind of research do we do? We spend a lot of time developing, pilot-testing, and refining our curriculum materials and platform design. We also consider more broadly what we can learn from students about their understandings of the world, and the possibilities and limitations of online spaces to help them build on and develop those understandings. We implement pre- and post- student surveys, conduct interviews with educators and students, and look slowly and carefully at student work and the comments they leave for one another. The goal of such activities is both to improve the Out of Eden Learn program and to contribute to the field of education more broadly. Ultimately, our aim is to distill what we’re learning in ways that will help educators working in very different contexts (both online and offline) to design authentic, relevant, and engaging learning experiences for their students.

We are currently focused on the following themes, each of which we will expand upon in future posts.

Young people’s understandings of culture(s) and the affordances and limitations of online exchanges to promote those understandings. This research interest arose because we heard repeatedly from students that they were learning a lot about other cultures by participating in Out of Eden Learn – even though we did not use the word culture in our materials or stated aims. We wanted to find out how young people were thinking about the general concept of culture, as well as specific cultures, and what exactly they thought they were learning about them through our program. We subsequently articulated the kinds of nuanced and thoughtful understandings about culture we wanted to promote and have since continued to modify our materials to try to support the development of those kinds of understandings. For example, based on our finding that relatively few students spontaneously reflect on their own cultural perspectives, we are currently piloting some private reflection questions designed to help them synthesize what they have learned from being exposed to different students’ perspectives and to consider how their own social and geographic contexts influence how they view the world.

Young people’s online exchanges and their use of our dialogue toolkit. This research strand involves looking closely at how young people interact on our platform. We developed our dialogue toolkit because of the relative thinness of the comments students initially left for one another, which contrasted with the thoughtfulness of what they had to say to us in interviews. While our research shows that student dialogue has become richer and more extensive since we introduced the toolkit, we have also noticed that many students seem wary of challenging one another’s ideas or engaging in critical conversations. We are now developing and piloting three new tools designed to support students to forthrightly yet respectfully discuss differences in perspective or opinion. In turn, we will conduct further research to see what we can learn from student responses to these new tools.

Ways in which students can develop their understanding of human migration through intercultural exchange. As presented in a blog post this past fall, we are developing a pedagogic framework for thinking about how to engage young people in thoughtful ways around the topic of human migration. The initial version of the Stories of Human Migration curriculum represented an effort on our part to take the principles we established in our white paper for fostering thoughtful online cross-cultural inquiry and exchange, and apply them to engagement around a substantive, timely, yet potentially sensitive topic. We are truly excited by the thoughtfulness and quality of much of the student work. However, we have already modified the curriculum to encourage more students to develop nuanced understanding of, for example, the diverse structural forces and motivations involved in different migration stories, and a greater self-awareness of their own perspective and relationship to the topic – including how and why their thinking may have shifted by participating in Out of Eden Learn. Our findings have and will continue to inform the pedagogic model we are developing and future curriculum designs.

The piloting of a new learning journey on planetary health. This curriculum-in-development is a response to students’ interest in the natural environment and their relationship to it, as described in this recent post, which built on our research into what young people do when invited to engage in slow looking. The curriculum, which involves a collaboration between Out of Eden Learn and the Planetary Health Alliance, supports young people to look at the world through a planetary health lens—that is, to notice and appreciate complex interactions between environmental change and human health in their own neighborhoods as well as the wider world. As the pilot phase unfolds, we will examine the kinds of ideas and understandings that students develop – as well as things they seem to find challenging to understand – in order to further develop the curriculum and glean broader insights into how to engage young people in thinking about complex systems.

Looking ahead, we intend to maintain an iterative relationship between the research we do and the vibrant community, platform, and resources we have built up over the past several years. Indeed, the two aspects of our work are mutually dependent. Our research would not be possible without the real-world practice that is Out of Eden Learn. And Out of Eden Learn would likely be less effective at providing powerful learning experiences for young people without the contributions of our research. By thoughtfully enmeshing practice and research, we believe that we are well-positioned to make an original and substantial contribution to the field of education, particularly with regards to promoting intercultural digital exchange, helping young people to understand complex global issues, and developing effective pedagogic practices for today’s world.


  1. I wonder how much quicker education, as a while, might change if all educational institutions were forced to consider the implications of the curriculum and instruction with as much thoughtful detail and intention as your work. Thank you!

  2. […] understandings about culture and to engage in thoughtful intercultural inquiry and exchange? A recent post describes how our interest in this question arose because numerous students reported appreciating […]

  3. […] we explained in a recent blog post, the research agenda of Out of Eden Learn is intimately connected to the real-world implementation […]

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