Saturday, 14 July 2012

"It's the Politics Stupid"

This week I've was invited to be a keynote 'speaker' for an online UK education conference organised by Ann Finlayson and the wonderful SE-ED sustainability and environmental organisation

Amongst other questions, I was asked why I thought we are so reluctant to promote child centred participatory learning, even when we know this style of teaching and learning is essential for effective citizenship and environmental education.

I've been thinking about this quite a lot, and I share some of these thoughts here if it is helpful to others.

As Paulo Freire reminded us years ago, part of the problem is that participatory learning is very challenging to authority. It can be incredibly threatening to teach children that 'resistance is fertile' (to use the contemporary political theorist John Barry's lovely line).

We also pay startlingly little attention to the complexity of the political, economic, social and environmental challenges that now face children and young people. In the book Children, Citizenship and Environment, I've argued we are suffering from an 'adult attention deficit disorder', but it has all kinds of symptoms and consequences.

We have been so busy defining sustainability and setting worthy agendas for children that we have forgotten to stop and take the time to listen to what is troubling young people and what really matters in the ecology of childhood. Worse still as adults we often don't really care what kids think.

The UK achieves some of the lowest rankings in European surveys of adult respect for young people's opinions.

In the USA, the generations appear to be literally 'talking past each other', as poll research by the Pew Institute reveals the biggest divergence of opinion in thirty years, between young millennials and older voters.

But most shamefully, here in New Zealand we appear to have simply stopped listening to our children. As a nation we have badly failed many of our children and their families. New Zealand the highest rates of youth suicide in the OECD and some of the highest rates of youth unemployment and ill health and high rates of child poverty. New Zealand is also the country, along with Sweden which has experienced the highest growth of income inequality  in the OECD over the past twenty years, but unlike Sweden, we have not sought to address our growing gap between rich and poor through strategic use of tax and education policies. As a result our inequality is generational. We can be proud that poverty amongst New Zealand's elderly is comparatively low, only 2 percent of those over 65 years live on less than half the medium income compared to an OECD average of 14 percent. However by comparison, 15 percent of our children live in families struggling on half the medium income compared to an OECD average of 12 percent.

Yet as a nation we ignore the harsh realities that confront our children, and continue instead to repeat the mantra that New Zealand is 'a great place to raise children'.

Viewed in this light, much of our environmental and citizenship education is simply missing the point. What is so great about encouraging our children to play outdoors, or teaching kids to recycle and reduce waste, if many New Zealand children simply go on to become unemployed or out of education, more so than any other country in the OECD?

What is moral about encouraging young people to take personal responsibility for the future of their planet, while their parents and grandparents gamble with their futures, passing the costs of escalating carbon emissions, superannuation and unsustainable resource use onto this generation and the ones that follow through a series of short term investment decisions that exacerbate long term vulnerability in a rapidly changing world?

Young citizens are growing up facing complex challenges. But as adults we can make a difference. As a terrific Maori language teacher, Tosh Ruwhitu once reminded me, "when you teach you touch the future"

I argue we not only need to give young people a stake in their future, we need to teach young citizens to 'think what it is we do' (to use Hannah Arendt's wonderful phrase) as they learn to effect change.

At the moment however many citizens young and old are feeling very cynical about the future and disgrunted and disenaged about politics and politicians. Everywhere our political leaders seem to be failing us.

Yet to transform our future, and improve our democracies, we need more democracy not less. Citizens need opportunities to engage in political life, and more support as they challenge illegitimate decision making, and think critically about the causes of injustice and environmental degradation and act creatively and collectively for change.

These democratic learning experiences are particularly important for young citizens. Without them we risk stripping our children of their rights to a democratic future as well as a sustainable planet.
As teachers, parents and community groups we can and must support young citizens to develop the citizenship capabilities and skills they will need to bring about significant change.

Nurturing a democratic imagination really is a vital legacy for a more just and sustainable future.