Learning social agency in family, school and community

Effective citizenship in a chaotic climate future will require new skills and virtues, including the ability to act collaboratively with others and to resist illegitimate power with courage.104 Earlier in Chapter 3 we described these as skills of strong ecological citizenship. Peter Levine argues all efforts to support young people’s voice in politics often contain an embedded seed of hope for a more positive future.105 But Levine acknowledges we cannot rely solely on seeds of hope that arc not spread uniformly. The kind of agency that children need to exercise as ecological citizens will require more than energetic, hopeful self- determination. Given the complexity of the problems confronting this generation, effective ecological citizens will need to learn to exercise agency as social action and critical resistance in family, school and wider community settings. Beyond protest movements like the school strikes, where do young citizens learn about a communitarian vision of ecological citizenship, despite a wider emphasis on individualism in neoliberal democracies?

Families and social agency

Since the 1950s, significant studies, including Talcott Parson’s general theory of action, have identified the role that family and peers, as well as school and personal traits, have as key influences shaping individual agency. Family life may not always be democratic but it is a crucial incubator of early citizenship values. Nussbaum argues that children’s opportunities in life are shaped even before birth, and that feeling nurtured and loved from an early age makes an enormous difference to a child’s confidence to participate in public life.106 One of the most important primary conditions that nurture an expansive sense of agency is the ability to feel and express empathy for others, which is required for the richer concept of ecological citizenship. This ability to feel empathy is nurtured in strong attachments in childhood. As Nussbaum reminds us, it is the sense of being worthy and capable of love, and the ability to feel empathy, which is an important precondition for political agency that is more open, inclusive and compassionate. We saw examples of this seed of expansive agency fostered in the tribal and extended family setting of many children we interviewed from Community-ATnra School in the first edition of this book.

The role of whanau (family) and tribal membership in nurturing strong attachments, empathy and agency came into stark relief in conversation with several boys who knew the interviewer well and were young leaders amongst their peers. In describing how much their family and tribe mattered, several children came close to tears. Part of an intense and moving conversation is reported here with permission of the children and their school community.

Interviewer: How about I use this word, what docs it mean to be

a citizen of your iwil [tribe] Or what does it mean to be a citizen of your whanau? What does that mean?

Park Master: A lot.

Evil Hawke: Special.

Cranberry the 13th: I reckon my family’s cool and stuff and they’re the best family in the world and stuff, and I like them ... Well there some things I don’t do cause my iwi doesn’t like me doing it and I don’t like doing it...

Ghost: I feel real happy that whanau makes me feel special.

Evil Hawke: Well really good because you get to sec what you haven’t

seen before, like in your family.

Cranberry the 13th: If wasn’t for my family, back me up and support me and stuff then I reckon there’d be like no meaning to my life and stuff cause I don’t wanna live without a family.

(Community-ATnra School, 2012)

In the context of wider tribal and friendship networks, these children are already expressing agency that is mutual support and, as Evil Hawke indicates, extended families can help children expand their knowledge ‘to see what you haven’t seen before’ and to express citizenship identity through collaboration. David Uzzell and Patrick Devine-Wright et al. have examined how children learn to exercise their agency for pro-environmental change in their homes and families.107 Their respective research suggests children and parents have to be willing and able to communicate with each other, and the environment has to be regarded as an appropriate topic for discussion, conditions which both conclude arc rarely met. This work echoes the results of Wood, which suggests family backgrounds can undermine agency if parents themselves feel they are unlikely to effect change.108

Schools and social agency

Beyond the family, environmental educators and psychologists have highlighted the role that schools can play more generally in fostering collaborative learning and action while respecting the autonomy of the individual.109 For example, political psychologist Connie Flanagan has argued that civic identities ‘form during adolescence and are rooted in teens’ everyday lives - in their experiences as members of schools and communities’.110 In this formative time, how we teach agency in schools both through instruction and role modelling matters a great deal. As environmental educator William Scott and colleagues have argued, effective learning begins with an understanding of what the learner needs and wants to learn, rather than what the outcomes of education should be, as dictated by adults.111 Scott highlights the potential for greater synergy between citizenship and environmental education.112 He advocates providing children with opportunities to engage in action learning, that is, the chance to take part in - and critically reflect on - real decision-making within their school and their wider community.113 He argues environmental education is most effective when it provides children with opportunities to think critically about the world around them and to reflect on how their views and experiences shape their environment.114 This concept is explored further in a discussion on place- based learning in Chapter 5.

Research by Rickinson, Lundholm and Hopwood echoes the emphasis on understanding the complex decisions that young citizens wrestle with whenever they take action in everyday life.115 They argue pupils need support to debate the values embedded in environmental choices, but caution that students can be ‘switched off’ by too much moralising. In New Zealand, Wood has similarly highlighted the need for teachers to pay careful attention to the role peer groups and classroom expectations play in encouraging children’s interest in political debates and their belief and confidence in their ability to effect change.116

Striking an effective balance between providing substantive environmental content and nurturing a critical appreciation of the processes of political, social and economic decision-making is also the concern of environmental psychologists David Uzzell and Nora Rathzel.117 These writers are particularly critical of teaching that focuses on sustainable development. They argue the classic concept of sustainable development (as development that meets the needs of today without compromising the needs of future generations) is a policy construction that was designed to assist negotiations amongst those concerned with promoting economic growth and those worried about planetary degradation. The concept may have helped environmental policy negotiation, but is an inadequate focus for teaching children to think critically or act in new ways to advance sustainability because, as a policy concept, sustainable development was designed to conceal, not reveal, deep value conflicts in communities.118 Rathzel and Uzzell argue schools can play a more useful role in nurturing children’s capacity for critical thinking and action by providing opportunities to practice debating real issues that involve deep dissent. Drawing on ideas of psychological liberation, such as Boal’s theatre of the oppressed and Vygotsky’s theory of education, they argue children need more opportunities to develop conflictgenerated problem-solving skills. These authors describe this approach as ‘transformative’ sustainability education, in which children learn how to challenge powerful groups and individuals.11

Not all schools offer similar support for children to learn the virtues of social agency, and we speak often about the hidden curriculum, what it is that children arc learning from the underlying values and actions of teachers and school authorities that undermines or counters overt curriculum messages. For example again in 2012 study we heard from children at Faith School who struggled with the issues of agency and were clearly wrestling with the science they were learning and what they understood from observing and listening to adults around them:

Interviewer: Who do you think is responsible for taking action on climate

change?

Jimmy: God [is responsible for floods] ... it’s God’s tears because he is

angry ... God controls everything. It’s a cycle, I read a book about it and it was on Suzie’s World [a television science programme].

(Faith School, 2012)

Other children like Jimmy were very worried about climate change and felt they had to look to God: ‘Flow are we supposed to die? It’s not like we can just die. That’s no fair. God, create something to protect us’. Here Poppy echoes Jimmy’s suggestion that God controls everything. In contrast, a few city blocks away, other children at Small World School reported school councils as empowering experiences even in a changing climate:

Popcorn: Yes. I am a house captain and I think that we can make changes in

the community, because we’re kids too so we listen to kids.

Britney: I think, urn, that, urn, the house captains, I mean pupil council can

change things.

Tina: That’s house captains.

Britney: No, pupil council too can um, will change things and they like

organise things. I think pupil council can change things and the school.

(Small World School, 2012)

These markedly different views of agency and responsibility for climate change predate the school strikes but raise the question of what difference can a school make in teaching agency? The UK benchmark study was the Crick review of the citizenship curriculum, which suggested the impact of schools of children’s attitudes to their agency can be quite significant. The Crick Report explicitly draws out this relationship between the structural organisation of schools and citizenship education. That report suggests: ‘[t]hc ethos, organization, structures and daily practices of schools have considerable impact on the effectiveness of citizenship education’.120 In the light of this assertion, it is interesting that in the New Zealand case study some children appeared to gain a great deal of confidence in their ability to exercise their agency as a result of their school-based activities. Many children, for example, commented with pride on performing in кара haka [cultural performance] groups or in choirs. School camping trips were also often cited as valuable opportunities to Team to do things with others’ (see Chapter 5). Many children were acutely aware of the altitudes of their classroom teacher, reporting if they voted or if they listened to the children. In addition, sports and cultural clubs, and the coaches of these clubs, were frequently cited as important supports for children learning to do things with others; sport in particular was listed by nearly all children at this age.121

Supporting children to learn to collaborate as citizens matters. Elizabeth Beaumont reminds us that learning political confidence and skills to act with others can be a disruptive force in public life.122 She examined four situations in which students in the United States learned about political agency by taking part in various community and political activities. She argued that students learn politics by doing politics. However, these lessons tend to advantage those who come from homes that encouraged political debate and those who are already advantaged in education - they had a wide range of similar opportunities increasing their confidence. What role can the wider community play when family and schools fail to support the development of youthful agency?

110 Social agency Communities and social agency

Children’s confidence in their social agency appears to be reinforced significantly where schools collaborate with the wider community in ways that enable children to sec and work alongside efficacious supportive adults. In the 2012 study, two middle-income schools (Small World School and Community-ATwra School) actively built close working relationships with parents, grandparents and other relatives, who would often spend spontaneous time in classrooms as helpers. Social spaces were created for parents and relations to have a cup of tea, and day classes were offered in parenting skills, family кара haka or cultural performances, or to help parents learn about what was being taught at school. These intergenerational learning interactions were reported by children, and the pride children took in learning an Indigenous language and performing in front of family and communities appears to have reinforced both social agency and opportunities for intergenerational learning and conversation.123 Many children in the bilingual programme at Community-/fwra School in 2012 also reported observing grandparents and relations taking active roles in the community. Elsewhere, Sacha McMeeking, as a representative of the South Island’s Ngai Tahu tribe, has spoken of the value and strength she and other young leaders draw from reflecting on a political struggle over seven generations by the Ngai Tahu tribe to settle their claim for loss of cultural taonga or treasures, including land.124 Historian Ranganui Walker speaks of this strength of resistance as 'Ka whawhai tonu matou - Struggle without end’.125

Intergenerational support is a powerful boost to children’s confidence in their ability to effect change, enhancing children’s capabilities to exercise citizenship.1 6 Inglehart and Welzel argue that people are also supported in their community to exercise agency in non-material ways, when freed from the immediate demands of survival.127 When people are disempowered, tired or simply scared, it can be very difficult to exercise agency by speaking out. Ofien, as the earthquake experience in Christchurch revealed, nurturing agency in these situations requires helping a person simply to survive. But as Sen has pointed out, survival is not all that people arc capable of and should not be the sufficient condition for fostering agency.125 In my own observation of children and adults, feeling a sense of agency is a key part of recovery after a disaster for young citizens. Children, like adults, value the ability to be able to effect changes in their world in ways that are meaningful to them. This raises difficult questions for the school strike generation: to what extent is it important that adults and older efficacious peers or tuakana, show support or awhi for young activits? Kera Sheerwood O’Regan suggests it is vital for young citizens that they have opportunity to be supported as teina (students) by tuakana (see Chapter 1), without this cross-generational, community support, students can struggle to exercise their agency.

Young citizens’ agency can also be eroded in other subtle ways in the wider community, particularly through children’s experiences of poverty or income inequality. In the two poorest school communities we spoke to in the first edition of this book, all children in the focus groups agreed that a lack of money limited collective agency

(negatively affecting the conditions of school grounds or their town, and constraining their opportunities to learn new things that were available to other schools - sec Chapters 5 and 6). At ages 8 to 10 years, these children arc observing the way New Zealand has experienced rapid growth in income inequality since 1984. The small comments were made with some wry humour and collective solidarity, yet they are poignant reminders that agency depends on economic resources. I lumour in the face of frustrated agency was also evident when children discussed who ‘gets the bell’ from mum or dad if they are ‘cheeky’ or ‘speak out’. These latter comments are disturbing, however, and the 2018 commentaries by students on everyday racism and observations of domestic violence should give pause for thought to those who rush to argue that children lack agency, are apolitical, prc-political or consumer orientated. If young citizens are to experience their capacity for agency, adults need to address the structural oppressions of inequality and racism that so routinely silence, intimidate and oppress them.

 
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