This paper argues the
importance not only of actively listening to young people's voices
on the twenty-first century but for quality responses by teachers
and teacher educators. Drawing
upon new research in Australian schools, this article, which is a
revised version of a paper presented at the European-Australian
Invitational Seminar on Research in Environmental Education at the
Binna Burra Rainforest Lodge and Griffith University in 1995,
addresses such critical questions as: What are our children's fears
about the twenty-first century? What are their dreams? As
environmental educators, what can we learn from what our children
have to say about the future? A
strong case is put for an explicit futures dimension, both in
environmental education programs and the school curriculum
generally, if we are to better meet our children's needs and the
needs of successive generations
to live in more ecologically sustainable ways.
Listening to Our Children
our efforts as environmental educators are to be empowering rather
than disempowering in what we do in our schools, in our classes and
in the field, then we need to actively listen to what our children
are saying about the environment and the future.
In his book, Tools for
Transformation, veteran non-violent activist and distinguished
scholar Adam Curle humourously deflates the pretensions of those who
feel nothing of real importance may be learnt from school students
even in the case of a child just starting school.
Curle mischievously comments,
any PhD who thinks s/he has nothing to learn from
should go back to school" (1990, p.166).
What we may learn ourselves as environmental educators is
explored in the remainder of this article.
The intention is to invite dialogue on the implications for
our classes, schools and teacher education programs.
Rather than resignation to a feared environmental future or
the passive hopes of technofixes for complex, systemic,
environmental problems, major issues are raised about whether our
schools are sites of possibility for negotiating broadened forms of
literacy that actively respond to our children's voices on the
Importance of Dialogue
learn about the environment and for less violent and more
sustainable futures implies dialogue, not monologue:
school should try to give its students optimal possibilities to
experience themselves as having co-influence and responsibility in
real situations. The
goal is to have students develop a desire and ability not only to
meet the future but also contribute to its shaping
Learning, if it is to be empowering and creative, is not
about one-way communication, linear modes of reasoning and dogmatic
closure. Whether in
relation to environmental education or other educations, the
conventional mug-and-jug model of teaching, in which the jug's
contents of 'expert
knowledge' are poured
into the mug, denies reflexivity.
The potential for co-learning is greatly undervalued.
With the conventional model, there is a likely foreclosure in
what is meant by 'literacy' or the educational 'basics' and in what
are interpreted as valuable, worthwhile or valid knowledge sources
about times past, times present and times future.
In terms of the sociology of knowledge, or as some feminist
critics have preferred to describe it as 'the sociology of the lack
of knowledge,' certain sources
are likely to be strongly privileged in conventional pedagogies.
Other sources, such as voices from the low-income or the
two-thirds world, from women and children, are likely to find more
difficulties in getting a serious hearing for their views on the
environment and the future.
Critique with Hope: An Important Challenge?
in some radical critiques, schools are projected as an unreflexive
part of a broader systemic problem.
They are depicted as little more than cogs in a big machine.
Rather than seeing schools as multilayered and contradictory
sites of cultural politics, in which our children's voices on the
future may be heard, the images are more homogenous and pessimistic.
Among the most dispirited voices of the older generation are
leftist critiques that offer a secular apocalyptism but without any
real sense of hope for our schools or other social organisations as
we enter a new millennium (Kumar, 1995. Hutchinson, 1996).
Together with the new R or ROM of computer literacy, the
three Rs of the traditional school curriculum are seen in such
narratives as powerfully underwritten by the R of Relations in which
there is a highly probable resignation to a tightly determined
schools are relegated to the mechanistic function of social
reproduction, with trends extrapolated as destiny.
Yet, how adequate are such mechanistic metaphors in
understanding educational and other social change processes?
How adequately do they respond to what our children are
saying about their world and the future?
Do we need new metaphors and new approaches that get beyond
hard determinist assumptions about potential reality for our
schools, our societies or as a species in our interactions with
other life-forms on planet Earth?
Especially as environmental educators, how well do we combine
the language of critique with the language of hope?
Do our schools have, at least, a potentially constructive
role in building action competence and socially critical and
imaginative literacies? Should
our schools have an explicit
futures dimension that encourages social imagination about
alternatives and skills of democratic participation?
(Boulding, 1988; Beare and Slaughter, 1993; Fien, 1993;
Jensen, 1994; Hicks, 1996; Hutchinson, 1996).
from Our Children's Voices on the Future
us listen to some young people's voices on the future.
Whqt do they suggest to us as environmental educators?
Are there significant implications for the ways we teach
about our local environments, about our global environments and for
our future environments?
The evidence presented in this article draws upon both
quantitative and qualitative data.
A multi-stage cluster sample of nearly 650 Australian upper
secondary school students from various socio-economic backgrounds in
metropolitan and non-metropolitan schools formed the basis for the
study. The small group
dialogue findings are derived from the data gathered through a one
in four systematic sample of the original sample of student
respondents. In each
case, the sampled student populations were stratified in terms of
governmental and Catholic schools (Hutchinson, 1992, 1993).
For the small-group dialogues, it was seen as particularly
important that, as far as possible, a relaxed and trusting
atmosphere be developed. Participants
were encouraged to converse openly.
They were asked not to censor their thoughts and feelings.
Through non-judgemental listening, they were invited to
explore their hopes, their dreams and their fears about the future.
Each dialogue session involved around eight students and took
about two hours.
Subject to the participants agreement the small-group
dialogues were tape recorded. Again
subject to appropriate consultation with group members, each
person's activity sheet was kept for later analysis.
Coupled with around 50 hours of tape-recorded dialogues,
these sheets have provided an invaluable source of written and
visual information about young people's feared and preferable
The processes have been used, also, successfully in
professional development programs with groups of primary and
secondary teachers. They
suggest how practical such resources!are in introducing creative
futures work in the classroom.
An adapted version has been taken up with some enthusiasm by
high school students in organising workshops at a conference on
'Inventing Futures'. Examples
of these and other futures teaching techniques are provided in
Environmentally Unsustainable World
the students surveyed the most commonly occurring responses to the
open question, 'list up to three local or global problems that most
concern you', were, in order of frequency, within the following
broad categories: environmental or ecological violence-related
problems, war and other direct violence-related problems, and
economic security or structural violence-related problems.
Less than 10 per cent of the sample considered that the
problems of environmental degradation will be seriously tackled over
the next five or so years. With
a shift to a longer term perspective, only a little over 20 per cent
believed that much progress will be made in lessening the problems
of ecological violence, such as habitat destruction
and polluted environments, by the year 2020.
Even in cases of 'I'
optimism about personal futures, there were often inconsistencies.
Such a sense of 'I' optimism might be combined with 'we'
pessimism about the world's future.
Here are some young people's voices.
They speak both eloquently and disturbingly about an
environmentally insecure and unsustainable future.
Craig, who goes to a government school in a low-income area
of outer western Sydney, had this to say:
I saw a dry and dead environment
The beaches and the air were
destroyed by pollution and people were dying fast
guns and fighting going on all over the world.
Most people were poverty stricken and were forced to live on
The world to me wouldn't be worth living in
Trudi, a sixteen year old who attends a Catholic school in
the same municipality, voiced the following anxieties:
I hope for a fresh, clean environment but I am very scared that the
world will be dirty and violent and sick
I want life to be
happy, not having to worry about bombs, wars and dying
me but the world dying
I can't imagine life 30 years from now
For Michelle, a year 11 student living in a more affluent
area and attending a northern suburbs girls' school, the images that
came to mind were of a fragmented and fragmenting global future,
even if her personal future was seen by her in much less foreclosed
Discontent between families
Very rich people
Famine takes hold of unlucky poor people
water and air
Pure water and oxygen for sale
Anthony, a sixteen year old who attends a non-metropolitan
school in a region of major forest die back and land degradation,
anticipates a sham world. He
was angered at what he sees as the likely increasing disenchantment
from nature in the twenty-first century:
see the environment in the future as a false representation of the
Forests that have been knocked down are made into
forests of fibreglass and cement
For Chris, a seventeen year old at another non-metropolitan
school, there was the desire to 'bring to the surface'
taken-for-granted ways of thinking about the future in comics and
other media artefacts but, also, a sense of heightened insecurity,
impoverished social imagination and lack of proactive skills for
dealing constructively with perceived problems of an environmentally
see the world in total disharmony and unease.
So-called efforts to save the environment, to stop war, to
erase poverty have been unsuccessful and failures.
It's a world of total conflict
No effort is being made to
bring together and discuss our problems in a civilised way.
fear the world in the twenty-first century will be much like a comic
book science fiction story. Especially
one like "Judge Dredd" will become reality.
If we don't attempt to bring these thoughts to the surface
now, then the Earth will become a vast waste dump
In their interpretations of various possiblilities for late
industrial societies, such as Australia, more than three-quarters of
the participants indicated that they thought a 'hard' technology,
environmentally destructive path was more likely than a 'soft'
technology environmentally sustainable path.
Politically Corrupt and Deceitful World
the same time as many young people in Australia are expressing such
concerns or even major fears about the future, there is also a
widespread sense of cynicism indicated about the value of voting and
of the responsiveness of traditional political parties generally.
Nearly a third saw no point in voting whilst a further 20 per
cent expressed considerable doubts.
As one student put it bluntly, 'politicians are all lying
bastards'. In an
equally ascerbic comment by another student, broken promises on
child welfare, youth employment and environmental provection were
Politicians will be sneaky and always find a loophole
Such attitudes were found to be more likely among young
people in metropolitan Sydney than among young people in
non-metropolitan areas of Australia, although in both cases the
trend lines of anger and disillusionment with conventional political
life were strong. The
data suggest, also, that assumptions about the pointlessness of
voting are generally more common among adolescents from lower
socio-economic areas than upper.
It underlines, as in the Aulich report (1991), major needs in
terms of participatory approaches to citizenship education.
of Preferable Future Worlds
such evidence about young people's feared futures, the situation is
more complex and potentially open to negotiation than might at first
sight be suggested. The
inadequacy of the strict determinist fallacy is highlighted by
recent Australian data on age cohort as a predictor of value
priorities, whether materialist, postmaterialist or mixed, and
levels of support for environmental groups, 'new politics' and
non-violent participation (Papadiakis 1993).
Arguably, too, our children's voices, if actively listened to
as a form of diagnostic signalling, may result in quality responses.
Rather than either deafness to the young people's pleas or
fatalism about probable outcomes, there may be constructive efforts
at applied foresight both within and outside schools (Hicks and Bord,
1994, Boulding, 1995).
The experience from the small-group dialogues, in which young
people were given not only opportunities to frankly express their
concerns and fears but also were invited to creatively visualise
preferable worlds and to begin the processes of action-planning,
lends support to this latter proposition.
Although an area ripe for longitudinal studies and a good
diversity of specific action-research projects in schools, the
available evidence from the present study substantiates the value of
cultivating broad rather than narrow literacies, especially if young
people are to feel less helpless about an undifferentiated world of
'problems, problems and more problems'.
What is encouraging is that it tends to confirm quite
strongly the innovative work by Elise Boulding (1988) and others on
the need for optimal forms of literacy that go beyond the 3 Rs and
the educational technofix assumptions of reductionist kinds of
In resisting colonising images of the future and educating
beyond fatalism, skills in lateral thinking, social imagination and
action competence are vitally important for would-be journeyers into
the twenty-first century. What
this may mean for schools, teachers, students and curricula is a
matter for crucial choice. In
attempting to transcend the metaphors of deterministic space and
time of the Newtonian clockwork universe, it is important that young
people's feared futures are dealt with honestly and caringly.
Yet, in resisting the fallacy of hard determinism, it is also
important not to unwittingly reintroduce taken-for-granted ways of
thinking by uncritically embracing technofix 'solutions' to social
and environmental ills. The
fallacy of technological 'magical helpers' needs to be debunked.
Limitations of Technocratic Dreaming
not active, hope is central to technocratic dreaming.
Technological determinist assumptions remain unproblematised
in such imagery of the future.
Human beings adjust to a given technological development
trajectory rather than negotiate futures.
There is the promise of the eisy-fix and consumerist pot of
gold at the end of the high-technology rainbow.
Just under 45 per cent of the sampled population of young
people agreed that breakthroughs by scientists and technologists
offer the best hope for a better future, whether with problems of
direct violence, poverty or ecologically unsustainable development.
Complex interrelations are involved in such an essentially
illusory faith in technofixes and a lack of image literacy of social
Some specific examples of naive optimism about reductionist
forms of science and technology as saviour may help in elucidating
this argument. Generally,
the most enthusiastic adherents of technofixes were to be found
among the boys. Here, for example, is what Gordon had to say about
technological evolution and human society by the beginning of the
third decade of the twenty-first century.
For this year 11 student, who attends a government high
school in an inner-city suburb, survival from the onslaughts of war
and environmental degradation depend on the passive hope of a
the year 2020, there are lots of computerised things.
Everywhere you go computers will do the hard work
Earth may have had a nuclear war and be badly polluted - so the
surviving people live together in cities.
They may have to have huge bubbles over the cities to protect
Outside of the bubbles would be a desolate Earth with
lots of pollution but inside [the bubbles] everything would be a
nearly perfect environment to live
[Beyond our present planetary
home] there may also be people living on Mars or the moon
Dylan, who is a year 10 student in a Catholic inner city boys
school, also is quietly confident of technocratic deliverance:
The world will enjoy the improvements of technology
environment will be reasonably clean
There will be voyages into
New planets and galaxies will be found
Even more enraptured by hi-tech answers is Nicholas, a year
11 student at a metropolitan high school:
The twenty-first century to me will be more easy
be done by a flick of a button.
Instead of human modes, I see robots
technology will lead the field in the twenty-first century
will be more peace in the air and the environment will also be
better if they keep producing aerosol cans without fluorocarbons
The uncritical enthusiasm of true believers in the
technocratic credo was similarly evident in the view of Matthew and
Adam who attend a non-metropolitan School.
This is what Matthew had to say about his preferred world in
the twenty-first century:
will be cities under the water
There will be great new
School will be a thing of the past as machines will
slowly take over the workforce
There will be no point learning
as there will be no jobs to occupy us in a leisure-filled world
Adam, a sixteen year old, elaborated a similar technological
see robots everywhere, like they will be servants
have their own personal ones
Cars will have no wheels and will
run on air just above the ground
Schools will be run with
computers with no paper
Instead of having cruises at sea, there
will be flights to different planets and people might even be living
on different planets
illusions of hi-tech 'magic helpers', technological cargo-cultism
and an easy technocratic exit from contemporary crises on planet
Earth are implied in the naive expressions of hope by young people
such as Adam, as the world nears the new millennium.
In this, signs may be discerned that contemporary
questionings of orthodox economics and destructive technologies by
many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the emergence of
green politics movements in late industrial societies are being
vigorously resisted. Unlike
other modern meta-narratives, such as Soviet Communism which was
morally bankrupted by the Gulag and economically bankrupted by the
Cold War arms race, the selective tradition associated with
epistemologically strongly reductionist forms of science and
technology still retains some culturally very powerful myths or
guiding images about what makes and constitutes true 'progress' or
'development' Yet, even
within the context of such guiding images and institutional trends,
is there some room for choice and engagement?
Is it possible that teachers and teacher educators can make
some difference through encouraging forms of social imagination and
action competence that are less impoverished than technocratic
Diverse Forms of Social Dreaming
girls in the sample were both less optimistic about conventional
science and technology and more open to alternative imagery of
peaceable or ecologically sustainable science and technology than
their male peers. It is
trite to suggest that the lack of equivalent enthusiasm among girls
may be attributed simply to technophobia or inadequate scientific
literacy, especially if in narrowly
defined modes. At a
deeper level, some of the explanation may lie in the existing
patterns in late industrial societies of male dominance in
scientific education and technological training but also in terms of
interlocking crises in machine culture in which long
taken-for-granted ways of thinking about normal science and
technology are beginning to be challenged in more critical and
The Newtonian world-view of predicability and patriarchal
expertise is now much less secure than previously.
What have been described as 'monocultures of the mind' are
being questioned by feminist and other diverse movements of
'grassroots globalism'. These
movements have emerged partly as a response to global trends and to
perceived negative interdependencies in economy, gender relations
and ecology (Shiva, 1988, 1993; Weithem, 1995).
With the contemporary, although still highly provisional
moves at reconceptualising macho technology and re-enchanting
science with nature, it has become more difficult to take for
granted the traditional Cartesian dichotomy between facts and
ethical considerations. Similarly,
because of feminist, anti-militarist and green critiques of 'toys
for the boys' over recent decades, it is now more difficult to
ignore issues of means and ends in science and technology.
Feminist futurist Le Guin (1992, pp. 85-90), for example, has
argued that such eco-relational thinking from the new social
movements and alternative knowledge traditions is potentially
significant in the protracted processes of negotiating futures.
She uses the Taoist metaphors of yang and yin to illustrate
'hard' and 'soft' styles of reasoning and social imagination about
what constitute authentic 'progress' or 'development':
It seems that the utopian imagination is trapped, like capitalism
, in a one-way future
[Its] premise is
progress, not process
Utopia has been yang.
In one way or another, from Plato on, utopia has been the big
yang motorcycle trip
kind of utopia can come of [the] margins, negations, and obscurities
[of alternative knowledge traditions]?
Our civilisation is now
so intensely yang that any imagination of bettering its injustices
or eluding its self-destructiveness must involve a reversal
would a yin utopia be? It
cyclical, peaceful, nurturant
such an invitation to engage in a dialogue
des ιpistιmologies, it is illuminating to note that there may
be some gender differences in openness to alternative knowledge
traditions and in collaboration across diversity.
There are indications that while relatively few boys and
girls are very active participants in local community projects,
girls more often than boys are likely participants in green
organisations and social welfare groups.
Although larger numbers are involved, there is a similar
story in relation to fund-raising for community service projects,
such as the Red Cross, UNICEF and Community Aid Abroad/Oxfam.
Interestingly, too, in the small-group dialogues many of the
girls expressed a dislike or distaste for contemporary offerings in
science classrooms as well as of boys' attention-getting or
disruptive behaviour in what is perceived as essentially a
'masculine preserve' Those
girls who voiced an interest in a future career in science usually
did so in areas with an explicit social welfare, community-oriented
or ecological dimension, such as environmental science or health
science, and not in areas such as engineering, nuclear physics or
military science. Relatedly,
the evidence in Table 1.1 suggests a greater readiness on the part
of girls than boys for creative imagination about social
alternatives that extends beyond both the fallacies of technocratic
dreaming and technophobia.