All their tomorrows
Michael Duffy posts an environmental health warning. Fascinating though it would be, Visions of the Future is not a study of utopias and dystopias.It is a tract for our times, and its subtitle sums up its theme.
There are three compelling reasons why we need to teach for tomorrow, the authors say: because the future is hugely problematic for the environment and indeed the human condition; because it is wilfully neglected in our education; and because children, though optimistic about what the future will bring to them as individuals, are in general deeply pessimistic about the future of the world.
That third factor, they say, is by far the most compelling. A negative image of the future is the litmus test of a society's decline. No image at all - a deliberate intention, as they see it, of the national curriculum, in spite of its declared intention to prepare the young for the "opportunities, experiences and responsibilities of adult life" - is just as bad: "We cannot build a future that we can't imagine."
The authors, both active in the Global Futures Project, make it quite clear where they stand in this. They take it as given that a key role of education is to be transformative - to challenge inequalities and make for a more just and more sustainable world. They don't discuss in any detail the characteristics of such a world, or indeed its attainability. There is no mention, for instance, in a work that is peppered with references to studies in the futures field, of the Brandt Report.
Their central argument is that children of all ages are conscious of the future and concerned about it, and need to be given systematic opportunities in schools to think about the shape it might take and the strategies they will need for coping with it. Now is the time, they say, to do it, when the approaching millennium is focusing interest and concern - and there is at last some room in the curriculum for the neglected theme of citizenship.
The heart of their short book is an account of their 1994 survey into young people's thoughts and attitudes. Pupils from the ages of seven to 18 were asked to identify their hopes and fears about themselves, their immediate locality and the wider world. They were also asked to rank four alternative scenarios (Same as Today, New Technology, Global Disaster, Environmental Concern) in order of their desirability and (separately) probability.
Their answers make fascinating reading and do much to justify the authors' claim that, at the very least, schools should try to provide a structure within which children's multi-layered and conflicting images can be ordered and resolved. The last chapter contains details of schemes, including the Bristol based "Choices" project, that have addressed the task.
But this is something more thana manifesto, and 11-year-olds' voices are a compelling reminder of what we owe our children.
"In the year 2020," one wrote, "I would like . . . For people to have jobsNo more wars and fighting And children who are sensible With thoughts for the futureAnd happy minds." It's hard to disagree with that conclusion. What can schools do to help achieve it?