Research to design and back again Part 2: Iterating on our Stories of Human Migration curriculum

This piece stems from research carried out by Liz Dawes Duraisingh, Emi Kane, and Sarah Sheya, with contributions from the rest of the Out of Eden Learn team.

In a recent post we outlined how we have developed a framework for engaging young people around the topic of human migration, as informed by our design-based research. In this post we focus, in turn, on the ways in which the development of the framework has informed and is informing changes to our Stories of Human Migration curriculum. To remind readers, our research agenda has involved looking closely at student work, comments, and reflections – as well as interviews with educators – to try to understand the possibilities and limitations of peer-to-peer programs like Out of Eden Learn for fostering nuanced understanding and engagement regarding the topic of human migration.

As we’ve developed our framework, we have naturally looked at the big picture of what students are doing and saying on our platform to determine what is working well and where there is room for improvement in terms of our own curriculum design. We ask: How could we help as many students as possible to develop the most sophisticated or thoughtful kinds of work that we’ve encountered during our analysis? In this post we outline several specific changes we have made or are making to our curriculum to promote the three major dimensions of our framework – curiosity and engagement, nuanced understanding, and critical awareness – as well as to mitigate “the three O’s” of overgeneralizations, overconfidence, and othering.

First, to what extent does the Stories of Human Migration curriculum embody the pedagogic framework we developed? In broad brushstrokes we found that the majority of students exhibited curiosity and engagement on our platform. Consistent with our findings since the inception of Out of Eden Learn, most students reported enjoying connecting with peers and finding out about their lives and perspectives. We saw this enthusiasm playing out in their comments and interactions: many students readily made connections to one another’s posts and made affirming or validating comments in response to what they read. Many students also indicated that they felt more actively engaged in the topic of human migration after completing the curriculum. For example, 84 students responded as follows to this private reflection question:

Are you doing anything differently now as a result of participating in this learning journey? Differences could include the ways in which you interpret news media, select which news media to look at, interact with people around you, interact on social media, talk about migration, think about the world, or something else. Please explain in detail.

Following migration and what is going on in the world more closely 36*
Reading the news media’s portrayal of migration and other news stories more critically and/or attentively 23
Behaving more considerately or respectfully towards migrants and/or feeling more invested in their wellbeing 17
Discussing the topic of human migration with family and friends, perhaps to alert them to the issue 9
Asking people more questions to find out more about their individual migration stories 6
Planning to get involved with organizations that help refugees 3
No change (4 saying because they were engaged and/or actively involved already) 18

*Some students mentioned more than one effect.

While we would like as many students as possible to have a learning experience that leaves them motivated to learn more about or engage with the topic of migration, we would not want to be overly prescriptive in this regard or expect all students to respond to our curriculum in the same way. Overall, while we felt that we were fulfilling this aspect of the pedagogic framework relatively well, we saw opportunities to facilitate more sustained engagement among students on the actual platform: promising conversations had a tendency to taper off and some rich posts were left without comments.

We found it more difficult to discern the extent to which we were promoting nuanced understanding of migration. We certainly saw examples of rich stories that interwove individual narratives with bigger structural forces and/or which captured the complexity of individual migration experiences. And some students in their reflections or posts commented in thoughtful ways on similarities or differences they were noticing across different migration experiences. But we felt that we had not designed the learning experience such that students were likely to distill or reflect on important substantive understandings about migration they might be developing, at least not in visible ways.

Likewise, with critical awareness. One of the key strengths of the Out of Eden Learn model is that students are invited to slow down to consider the issue of human migration in new ways at the same time that other young people – many of whom they would not ordinarily encounter – are doing likewise. The platform structure provides them with an opportunity to develop an understanding of the nuance and complexity of the topic by taking into account the range of stories and perspectives that have been shared; situate their own observations and insights relative to those of other people; and perhaps gain insights into how their own contexts and lived experiences help shape their own perspectives on the topic. We certainly saw encouraging and even exciting indicators that such understandings were being developed but we felt that too much was being left to students’ own initiative. We did see some students grappling in critical ways with media representations of migration and migrants during the activity that invited them to do just that (Footstep 3); however, we felt that there was room to make the instructions more supportive of critical thinking.

Here are some concrete changes we have made:

Promoting reflection

First, we decided to put reflection front and center of the concluding activity of the curriculum rather than rely on individual post-curriculum surveys that we in any case knew not all students would complete. Indeed, the previous version of our concluding activity – which asked students to create a piece of media that could be helpful to migrants seeking to navigate their communities – had proved somewhat problematic. Students worked with unspoken assumptions about the needs of migrants to whom they were pitching their media: many students in the US assumed poverty (hence focusing on food banks and volunteer organizations offering resources) while students in Singapore, for example, assumed affluence (hence referencing to touristic sites and expensive restaurants). The activity was effectively encouraging overgeneralizations, overconfidence, and othering – the three O’s we are now seeking to avoid. Here are the reflection activity instructions:

This footstep is an opportunity to reflect on your learning experience and share your learning with your walking partners.

We invite you to create something that demonstrates what you’ve learned from this learning journey so far. What would you most like to share with your walking partners? Consider how your ideas about migration have changed or developed from reading the resources, doing the activities, and/or interacting with other students.

We encourage you to share your learning in creative ways, ideally in a way that combines text and images. Formats to consider: a slideshow of images or a collage; an illustration, painting or cartoon; a blog post or short essay; a piece of spoken-word or written poetry; a short video.

You might want to consider sharing:

  • New things you learned about migration
  • Similarities and differences across migration stories, and why those similarities and differences exist
  • Things you learned about your own perspective or your own identity
  • Things you learned about how the media helps shape your own and other people’s perspectives
  • Things you are doing differently or would like to do differently
  • Things you’d like to learn more about

The suggested prompts nudge students towards reflecting on and developing aspects of the nuanced understanding and critical awareness dimensions of our framework. Meanwhile, ‘things you’d like to learn more about’ is designed to help students consider what they don’t yet know in a bid to mitigate overconfidence and sow the seeds for future engagement. While most students have opted to share written reflections rather than use more creative formats, this change in the curriculum has helped students to articulate what they’ve learned and enabled them to compare their takeaways and insights.

Promoting critical engagement with news media

The third activity or “footstep” of our curriculum asks students to interrogate and compare two media portrayals of migration or migrants. We have honed the instructions to foster critical awareness, in ways that we hope will help students to actively interrogate all kinds of media.

Consider the following questions as you compare the two reports:

  • What is the date of publication? Has this report been written or produced in response to a particular event related to migration and if so, what?
  • Who is likely to be the intended audience?
  • What do you think the attitude of the author is towards modern day migration and/or migrants? Pay careful attention to the author’s word choices.
  • What is the headline or title of the report and why do you think that is?
  • If there is an image, look closely at it. Why do you think it was chosen?
  • Whose voices are represented and whose are missing? What’s been left out and why do you think that is?
  • What questions or wonders do you have?

Promoting engagement and dialogue

We are currently piloting a new version of our dialogue toolkit with a learning group following the Stories of Human Migration curriculum. The goal is to foster more critical dialogue among young people and to help them name the particular perspectives they are bringing to the topic. Look out for a future blog post on the findings from this pilot, which for the moment are highly encouraging. We also just rolled out design changes to our platform in order to facilitate and sustain student engagement on the platform and with one another. For instance, students can now bookmark and retrieve posts they find interesting, search for the work of particular students, and enjoy a continuous scroll functionality when they browse through posts. More on that is coming soon to this blog too.

The process of iterating our curriculum is far from over. Here are some puzzles we are currently grappling with. How do we find the appropriate balance between inviting young people to engage in authentic story telling and encouraging them to develop specific understandings about migration? Should we explicitly ask students to consider the complexity and diversity of human migration experiences upfront in the activity instructions rather than leaving such insights to emerge through the structure of the platform? To what degree should explicit language be embedded in the instructions so that students are mindful of avoiding making overgeneralizations, sounding overconfident in their assertions, and/or making statements that risk othering?

I will close this post by emphasizing that while it’s incumbent on the Out of Eden Learn team to develop the most thoughtful and empowering curriculum design that we can, at the end of the day the success or otherwise of our program rests with dedicated educators on the ground. They are the ones who interpret, adapt, and bring to life the curriculum. We have been humbled – and continue to be so – by the expertise, dedication, and sheer brilliance of many of the educators with whom we work. Design-based research is about working with practitioners rather than working in isolation in our university offices. That is what helps us to do research that, we hope, is relevant to educators and yields what our home institution likes to call Usable Knowledge: implementable ideas and resources that can help change the way we are preparing young people for the complex and dynamic world in which we live.

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