30 SES 12 A, Early childhood sustainability education
This paper aims to explore the challenges and openings related to addressing social inequality in early childhood sustainability education in a Danish context.
Addressing social inequalities has been considered a key dimension of sustainable development efforts since the emergence of the concept. Since the 1980s, the environmental justice movement in, for instance, North America and South Africa, has linked environmental problems to social justice, and from the 2000s calls for climate justice gained momentum in global climate activism agenda (see e.g. Haluza-DeLay, 2014). Lately, the French ‘gilets jaunes’ have brought to the attention of the wider European public that climate change policies (such as rising fuel prices) often have a social bias. Yet, in the Danish context, the interest for social inequality in relation to environment and sustainability issues has been limited (primarily with a focus on questions of unequal access to and ‘use’ of nature within the national population). Furthermore, within the Danish education system, the three dimensions of sustainability (economic, social and ecological) have until recently most often been treated as separate agendas. Based on an analysis of educational encounters involving students and professionals who attempt to combine social and ecological concerns, in the context of early childhood education, in this paper we explore, on the one hand, dilemmas and paradoxes for sustainability education and, on the other hand, openings for rethinking early childhood sustainability education in the Danish/Scandinavian context.
Theoretically, we draw on Ghassan Hage’s perspectives on the links between racism and environmental exploitation (2017) and Heila Lotz-Sisitka’s work on decolonization and critical expansive learning in environmental and sustainability education in relation to issues of global inequality and common goods (2017).
This paper is based on a research project on education for sustainability anchored at the university college professional education of social educators. Based on critical and constructive approaches, the project aims to explore and support the development of early childhood sustainability education in the Danish context. The project involves explorative and collaborative research activities with teachers and students as well as with practitioners and children in various educational settings (day care institutions and NGO driven activities). The research methodologies combine action research (see e.g. Husted & Tofteng, 2014; Nielsen & Svensson, 2006) and engaged anthropology (see e.g. Low & Merry, 2010; Nielsen & Jørgensen, 2018). The action research component of the project is focusing on educational experiments and knowledge production related to sustainability education in processes involving researchers, teachers and students. In parallel to and in dialogue with these processes, an ethnographic study of nature pedagogies and sustainability education activities with young children from social housing areas is carried out. The two ‘paths’ of the project employ different research positions but share an ambition to make a difference beyond academic knowledge production, with the aim of engaging more directly in the promotion of social change. The analyses underlying the discussions addressed in this paper are based on empirical material generated in educational experiments involving educators and students within early childhood education, on ethnographic fieldwork in gardening and nature exploration activities involving children from social housing areas in the larger Copenhagen area, and on discussions with professionals involved in these activities. Our analytical approach may be characterized as abductive (Coffey and Atkinson 1996). Rather than clarifying theory and concepts before the empirical study, as in deductive approaches, or inductively letting phenomenological exploration lead to conceptualizations that are subsequently related to existing theories, we attempt to establish a continuous dialogue between empirical findings and theoretical conceptualizations.
We argue that social inequality may be an important entry point for working with sustainability in early childhood education in Denmark, yet an entry point which calls for reflection. Social inequality and social inclusion are key values among social educators in Denmark. In our research on sustainability education involving students and practitioners, we have encountered a number of practices that combine a focus on nature pedagogies, outdoor activities and ecological sustainability issues with ambitions of social inclusion. These examples highlight some important paradoxes. First, while nature pedagogies in these activities are seen as a means for social inclusion, very often nature pedagogies are socially and culturally ‘blind’, lacking reflection on the ways in which its practices are grounded in white middle class practices and values. Second, when nature pedagogies are used in the context of addressing social inequality, in most cases the aim of supporting the children to become ready for school, for instance through developing their language competences, appears to overshadow other sustainability aims. Third, when social educators aim to address ecological sustainability with children in marginalized and vulnerable positions, they tend to choose behavior-change oriented approaches rather than approaches encouraging critical reflection, hence reinforcing rather than challenging social inequalities in education. In spite of these paradoxes, approaching sustainability through questions of social inequality in the context of early childhood education in Denmark also offers interesting openings for children’s and students’ reflection and agency, often emerging in encounters with human and non-human ‘otherness’ (cf. Hage 2017). Furthermore, research dialogues with practitioners, students and educators on the paradoxes and dilemmas of addressing social inequality in sustainability education opens for discussions and destabilizations of fundamental assumptions about knowledge and practice, which might be a first step towards more socially and ecological sustainable early childhood education.
Coffey, A., & Atkinson, P. (1996). Making sense of qualitative data: Complementary research strategies. The Lancet (Vol. 42). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications. Hage, G. (2017). Is racism an environmental threat? New York: Wiley Husted, M., & Tofteng, D. M. B. (2014). Critical Utopian Action Research. In D. Coghlan, & M. Brydon-Miller (eds.), The SAGE Encyclopedia of Action Research (1. udg., Bind 1, s. 230-232). Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore, Washington DC: SAGE Publications. Lotz-Sisitka, H. (2017) Decolonisation as future frame for environmental and sustainability education: embracing the commons with absence and emerge. In Envisioning Futures for Environmental and sustainability education. Wageningen Publishers. Low, S. M., & Merry, S. E. (2010). Engaged Anthropology: Diversity and Dilemmas. Current Anthropology, 51(2), 203–226. Nielsen, K. A. & L. Svensson (2006) (eds.), Action Research and Interactive Research: beyond practice and theory (1. udg., s. 389-399). Maastricht, Netherlands: Shaker Publishing. Nielsen, G. B., & Jørgensen, N. J. (2018). Engagement beyond critique? Anthropological perspectives on participation and community. Conjunctions. Transdisciplinary Journal of Cultural Participation, 5(1).
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