The implications of early understandings of inequality, science and technology for the development of sustainable societies


The environment is considered to provide only one of the three core pillars of sustainable development, alongside the economy and society (UNCED, 1992), and social sustainability requires an ethos of compassion, respect for difference, equality and fairness (Carness, 2001, Chan, 2006). This article draws upon evidence that suggests that in the United Kingdom and the United States (at least), we still have a long way to go in developing such an ethos. The research presented was commissioned for a programme in the British television documentary series, A Child of our Time (2005)(1) and involved an experimental study of 136 children aged between 3 and 5 years, conducted by researchers at the University of Kent. It shows how gender, ‘racial’ equality and social class are already influencing how young children at this age understand themselves and their future lives. The study also explores the children’s awareness, attitudes and expectations related to inequality in housing, and it is in this latter context that the reproductive part played by popular misconceptions of science and technology are identified.

Education for sustainability has a clear relevance for early childhood education (ECE), and arguably, ECE educators have been contributing towards these ends for decades. ECE practitioners have provided young children with experiences that have contributed towards their emerging awareness of the essential interdependence of humanity and the natural environment, through teaching young children about how things are made, and where the products and produce that they consume have come from. In many, if not most, pre-school contexts, children have learnt about nature and about the environment, and about conservation, and (increasingly) even the importance of recycling. While we should undoubtedly be doing more to support this kind of early learning, it is important that we acknowledge that there is nothing particularly new about all of this. We should also be acutely aware of the danger of relying too heavily on children to ‘save the planet’. In this context, children might very well be considered at times as ‘redemptive agents’, programmed as solutions to our present problems (Dahlberg and Moss, 2005, p. 11). Young children have always learnt the most from our actions, they have learnt from what we do, more than from what we say. It will therefore always be through the sustainability of our own day-to-day practices that we are the most influential to them. This draws attention to the importance of adult modelling, and on working in partnership with professional colleagues and parents in developing sustainable practices in our everyday lives.

In this article, I address aspects of early childhood education for sustainability that have traditionally been given less attention than any of those referred to above. The environment is usually considered to provide only one of the three core pillars of sustainable development, alongside the economy and society (UNCED, 1992). Social sustainability is especially concerned with all of those social, cultural and political issues that affect the quality and continuity of people’s lives, within and between nations. Sustainable societies are considered just and inclusive societies, which may be characterized by participation, emancipation, freedom, security and solidarity (Koning, 2001; Thin et al., 2002). ‘Solidarity’ is often considered important in this sense in generating social cohesion based on empathy and co-operation between individuals and social groups.

Sustainable development requires, therefore, an ethos of compassion, respect for difference, equality and fairness (Chan, 2006). This article draws upon evidence that suggests that in the United Kingdom and the United States (at least), we still have a long way to go in developing such an ethos. The research was commissioned for a programme in the British television documentary series A Child of our Time (2005) which showed how ‘racial’(3) equality and social class influence how young children at this age understand themselves and their future lives. Previous studies in the United States (Aboud, 1988; Brown, 1995; Nesdale, 2001) had shown that racial intergroup bias and stereotypes emerge at an early age, and the first of these studies (Rutland et al., 2005), set out to test the hypothesis that similar results would be found in the United Kingdom, and to investigate the influence of different levels of contact between groups. The study recorded the responses of 136 children aged between 3 and 5 years, to a range of questions associated with the photographs of four children, and four adults, each belonging to a different ethnic group: Anglo-British, African-Caribbean, Asian-Indian, Far-East Asian (Rutland et al., 2005, p. 704). Each photograph was obtained from a model agency, and were selected (in a pilot study) to ensure that they were considered equally ‘attractive’ and ‘smiling’. The children were shown the photographs in sets of four (boys for boys, girls for girls) and, when comfortable and engaged, they were asked at first (to test ‘racial constancy’): (a)Which one are you like?’ (b) ‘If you went on Holiday to a really hot place and got a suntan, and your skin turned dark, which of the children would you really be like?’ Then they were shown the adult pictures and asked: (c) ‘When you grow up, which one will you be like?’

The children were then presented with the following six positive and six negative adjectives on cards, and the children were asked to stick the word to any or all the four photographs of children. The particular words applied had been obtained through the construction and testing of an appropriate Multiple-Response Racial Attitude (MRA) instrument (Rutland et al., 2005):

Positive adjectives: Friendly, Kind, Helpful, Smart, Hardworking, Clever

Negative adjectives: Mean, Stupid, Nasty, Rude, Lazy

Standard verbal definitions were provided for each, e.g. for ‘Friendly’ the interviewer said: ‘Some children are friendly. They often share their toys with other children. Who is friendly? Is it the Black child, the White child, the Asian child, the Oriental child or more than one child who is friendly? Or even no child?’ (Rutland et al., op cit., p. 704).

All the necessary controls and procedures were applied, and the study provided the following convincing results:

  • Racial bias was strongest towards African-Caribbean children, but a significant negative bias was also found towards Far East Asian children.
  • The ‘Anglo-British’ (White) children showed significantly more bias towards the ‘African-Caribbean’ (Black) children than the other children.
  • Children who had more contact with the other groups showed less racial bias.
  • The bias that was found towards the Far-East Asian children was related more closely to ‘racial constancy’ than the amount of contact that the children had with them.
  • The racial attitudes identified were not significantly related to the children’s moral judgements: the children were simultaneously presented with a vignette describing an incident of racial exclusion, and 87 per cent of them held it to be ‘wrong’.

For young children, the ‘racial identification’, and ‘racial constancy’ that they hold for themselves appears to be especially significant, and a clear link was found in the study between high ‘racial identification’ and higher racial bias (Rutland et al., op cit., p. 109). This parallels similar findings related to gender (e.g. Ruble et al., 2004).

For young children, African Caribbeans may be considered the most noticeable ‘visual minority’ in the United Kingdom, and ‘skin colour’ is therefore an important issue that we should not be afraid to address directly with them (Siraj-Blatchford, I., 1994; Siraj-Blatchford, J., 2007). In England, the new Practice Guidance for the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) for children under 5 are to be introduced in September 2008 (DfES, 2007), provide a platform for promoting good practice in this area. This national guidance makes several explicit references to the subject:

‘You must promote positive attitudes to diversity and difference within all children’ (Sect 1.8).

‘Provide positive images that challenge children’s thinking and help them to embrace differences in gender, ethnicity, language, religion, culture, special educational needs and disabilities’ (Enabling Environments, p. 23).

‘Give children accurate information which challenges cultural, racial, social and gender stereotypes’ (Knowledge and Understanding of the World, p. 76).

‘Help children become aware of, explore and question differences in gender, ethnicity, language, religion, culture, special educational needs and disability issues’ (Positive relationships, p. 75).

The publication also provides numerous relevant examples of ‘good practice’ in the more detailed guidance for practitioners. These include:

  • 8-20 months .Planning and resourcing: ‘Work with staff, parents and children to promote an anti-discriminatory and anti-bias approach to care and education’.
  • 16-26 months . Note: ‘Young children’s interest in similarities and differences, for example, their footwear, or patterns on their clothes and in physical appearance including hair texture and skin colour’. Note: ‘Young children’s questions about differences such as skin colour, hair and friends’. Effective practice: ‘Talk with young children about valuing all skin colour differences’.
  • 40-60+ months . Note: ‘How children express their attitudes such as about differences in skin colours’. Effective practice: ‘Develop strategies to combat negative bias and, where necessary, support children and adults to unlearn discriminatory attitudes’.

Rutland et al. (2005) argue that their evidence suggests the need for an emphasis in the early years upon increasing intergroup contact, and (importantly) upon developing strategies that counter the negative (rather than merely promoting positive) attitudes towards other groups. But the difficulty with this latter suggestion is that the negative influences that these young children are picking up are actually a part of the ‘taken for granted’ everyday ‘realities’ and assumptions (the ideological hegemony) of most people living in affluent Western countries (Siraj-Blatchford and Siraj-Blatchford, 1998).

Further evidence from A Child of Our Time is relevant in this respect. This relates to interviews conducted by Weinger (2000) on young children’s evaluations of wealth and ‘life chances’. These video sequences are especially poignant, showing two 5-year-old children ‘James’ and ‘Helena’, who come from very different socio-economic backgrounds. Instead of photographs, the props that the children evaluate this time are large doll’s houses; a small terraced house, and a large detached villa are used. The interviews are semi-structured to elicit the children’s general perceptions of inequality, and they are first asked:

‘Tell me about the people who live in this house.’
‘What are the grown-ups like who live in this house?’
‘What are the children like?’
‘Which child would you choose as your friend?’

The children show themselves acutely aware of the consequences of growing up rich or poor. James, who comes from a relatively disadvantaged family is visibly upset at the end of the interview. He seems quite aware even at this age of an injustice, while Helena ultimately explains the reasons for her comparative advantage as ‘a secret’. . . . Overall, the research identifies the following specific associations and constructs that are held by young children:

  • Wealth associated with White skin:
    ‘ Being happy’ – ‘being good’ – ‘having good employment prospects’ – ‘being clever’.
  • Relative poverty associated with Black skin:
    ‘Being sad’ – ‘being bad’ – ‘having poor employment prospects’ – ‘being less clever’.

To understand the manner in which these perceptions are constructed we must recognize that the doll’s houses that the children were focusing their attention upon, and all of the built environment that these houses represent, along with all of the other artefacts and technologies that are unevenly distributed around them, plays a major part. Most significantly, in the case of the arguments presented here, every artefact has embedded within it the social relations and values of its production, and each should be considered an example of ‘hardened history’ (Nobel, 1979). One of the most significant challenges to achieving sustainable development is therefore the need to develop a better understanding of the nature of science and technology, and to redirect our (especially environmentalist) attention away from simplistic criticism of a few technological artefacts (considered more or less unsustainable), towards a recognition of the values associated with all technological applications.

It has become commonplace to observe that we identify ourselves most significantly by distinguishing ourselves from ‘others’. For the White ethnic majority in the United Kingdom, the ‘others’ that they have most significantly distinguished themselves from historically have been the Black and ethnic minority, who have also been seen as representatives of the Black populations of the former British empire. The ethnic majority identity has thus been constructed in opposition to non-Western ‘others’ who have often been treated as:

. . . ‘primitive’: child-like both in the sense of being at a stage of development that ‘the West’ had already passed through, and as indicative of a state requiring tutelage and governance. (Fabian, 1983)

This is where popular notions of ‘natural’ inferiority come from, and these are directly reflected in, and are being reproduced through, the children’s association of relative poverty and being less ‘clever’. As long as the public continue to associate ‘development’ with high consumption, highly complex weapons, and industrial science and technology, they will continue to look down upon those cultures that have apparently failed to acquire it. They will also continue to underscore technological appropriacy and sustainability. This logic (or mislogic) of racism constitutes a kind of intellectual trap, a tautology that Said (1994) referred to as the ‘impressive circularity’ of British ‘self’ identification:

. . . we are dominant because we have the power (industrial, technological, military, moral), and they don’t, because of which they are not dominant; they are inferior, we are superior . . . and so on and on (Said, 1994, p. 127).


A Child of our Time provides the case of one child, ‘Tyrese’, who has not been brought up to accept the racial stereotypes that have corrupted his peers. The example of Tyrese thus provides a cause for optimism about what may be achieved. The sort of self-affirming, multi-cultural and anti-racist educational intervention that he benefited from should be provided to all young children.

While the influence of the current misconceptions about science and technology may be identified in early childhood, I believe the focus of our attention should, at first, be upon the professional training of early years’ practitioners, as the current problem is ultimately one of our own understandings of science and technology, and of our own identity and self-identification. A first step towards this would be for us all to learn to apply more ‘appropriate technologies’(4) in our everyday lives.

1. A Child of our Time provides a20-year longitudinal study that is following the lives of 25 children selected as a representative sample of British families, all born in the year 2000.
2. An excerpt from Child of Our Time 2005 – Series available from the BBC:
3. References made to ‘rac
ial attitudes’ in this article are not intended in anyway to reify the biological myth of ‘race’ as it has been applied to humanity. Its use simply [sic.] acknowledges the popular discourse, i.e. the term derives from the objective reality of ‘racism’ rather than that of ‘race’. Research has actually found that there is greater genetic variation within every (so called) ‘racial’ group, than between any two of them
4. To take the example of the ‘detached villa’, an ‘appropriate’ application of the technology might be as a community care home or a nursery, rather than as the private residence of a nuclear family. (See Budgett-Meakin, 1992, Siraj-Blatchford, 1996.)

See also:Promoting equality through science education in the early years


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