Development as Freedom in Childhood

In his book, Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen (winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics) examines the substantial issue of participation as a part of the process of economic development. Participation represents a critical component of freedoms that individuals must exercise in a progressive economic society–which also relies on freedoms in political and social engagements.

Sen focuses on individuals as agents that are capable of participating in economic, political and social arrangements. In this sense, individuals are seen as a homogenous group of capable individuals. Departing from Sen’s argument, I am interested in considering how children, as a group, are capable agents in their own economic, political, and social (EPS) realities–or even within the wider EPS realities that do not directly affect their lives.

I believe there is a process of development that includes the full participation of children as capable agents. Whereas, Sen (1999) positions that “adults” need the necessary, “knowledge and basic educational skills” (p.32) to participate, children represent a special case where the responsibility to include them rests on the acknowledgement of their participation from adults. The acknowledgement of children’s participation in economic, political and social arrangements by adults is a necessary first step because of the deeply embedded inequalities between children and adults in society. Those inequalities are manifested during multiple interactions between children and adults, including decision-making processes, familial arrangements, educational opportunities, etc.

The perception is that children may not have the necessary knowledge and basic educational skill to participate because of their relative inexperience in terms of ‘years being alive’–however, this should not exclude them from directly participating in their social arrangments. Children, as a group, have been denied freedoms on the grounds of this relative inexperience and immaturity (see Young-Bruehl’s and Wall’s interpretation of ‘childism’). This same argument has been used throughout history to subjugate groups of people in order to favor the developmental needs of the “elite” or dominant group in society (ie: slaves and slave owners, development aid in impoverished regions). The argument is that the “elite” or dominant group is successful simply because they are dominant, and that they know what is best for others based on their formula of domination. There is ample evidence that inequalities between groups in society and domination from a particular group is a detriment to overall human progress, so I will spare the discussion (if you are interested in this discussion, check out Richard Wilkinson and Joseph Stiglitz who write extensively on how inequalities in society harm progress and violate democratic rights). My point is that children experience the same type of subjugation and domination by adults that prevents them from participating in society–and that this has detrimental effects on their individual development and to the development of society as a whole.

Take, for example, our public educational system in North America. This system is obligatory for children to attend and there are strong incentives to succeed. The failure of some children to succeed in public education has long-lasting repurcussions throughout their individual lives and society in general because of our meritocratic and hierarchical system that relies on institutionalized educational attainment (read IllichFreireGiroux for this discussion). Without the official merits of educational attainment, children and adults are excluded from participation in economic, political and social systems. However, as Illich and Freire have articulated extensively, our public education system is not the only means of learning and teaching. Individuals learn and teach in almost all contexts and situations during their daily lives. Then why is our obligatory school system the only validation that someone has learned something and is capable of full participation in society. I believe that on some level, children understand this incongruity between obligatory schooling and learning in every day life–which causes some of the failings and conflicts within our public education system.

When children are acknowledged as full participants in society and are capable of exercising their freedoms (while taking into consideration the responsibility that adults hold over children), Sen’s ‘development as freedom’ can be realized which includes all members of society, regardless of social status, cultural affiliations, age and gender.


More reading material related to this post:

Pierce, C. M., & Allen, G. B. (1975). Childism. Psychiatric Annals5(7), 15–24.

Sen, A. (1999). Development as Freedom. Random House: New York.

Wall, J. (2008). Human Rights in Light of Childhood. The International Journal of Children’s Rights, 16(4), 523–543.

Wilkinson, R. (2009). The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. Penguin: London.

Young-Bruehl, E. (2012). Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children. Yale University Press.

Be Nice to Spiders

Be Nice to Spiders, by Margaret Bloy Graham

“A little boy is moving to a new apartment that doesn’t allow pets.  Not having a place for his pet spider “Helen” to stay, he decides to leave her in a box at the front gate of the zoo.  Inside the box is a note asking that the zookeeper take care of her.   When the zookeeper opens the box, Helen escapes and makes her way into the lions’ cage.  Before the arrival of Helen, the lioness and her cubs were miserable, covered in flies from mane to paws.  Helen, whose favorite meal is flies, sets up her web in the corner of the lions’ cage and begins to feast.  A week later, Helen has eaten all the flies in the lions’ cage and so moves next door to the elephant house.

This weekly migration of spinning, eating and moving on continues and the zoo becomes a peaceful, fly-free place for all.  The harmony is broken when the zookeeper decides the zoo needs to be cleaned up for an upcoming inspection by the mayor.  Despite a protest from one of his assistants that “spider webs are supposed to be sort of useful,” the zookeeper decides that all spider webs must go!  With that, the balance among flies, animals and Helen is broken.

To avoid the cleaners, Helen disappears into a crack in the ceiling of the camel house and remains hidden there for several days.  At first, the zoo looks spotless.  However, with Helen gone, the flies begin to come back after a few days.  Helen spins her web at night in the camel’s cage but does not travel around to other cages for fear of being swept away by the zoo attendants. All the other animals once again begin to look miserable, except for the camel.  The zookeeper and his assistant finally realize the role Helen has played in maintaining harmony within the zoo.  The “ah-hah!” leads the zookeeper to establish a new rule at the zoo:  “Be nice to spiders.””

This story that is read in Early Childhood Classrooms highlights the social conflict that occurs when people view conflicts as short-term rather than long-term. This story teaches the importance of viewing a conflict from a broader perspective, that is, viewing the benefits of a spider in catching flies rather then the unattractiveness of the spider’s web. Ultimately, the point of the story is to be nice to spiders because they provide a value to the system, in this case, the zoo.
This story, used in the early childhood classroom, can provide an introduction to learning about living systems. Living systems is an, “animate arrangement of parts and processes that continually affect each other over time” (Sweeney, 2008). Through learning about the interdependence of the parts of a system, children can begin to understand many issues surrounding environmental sustainability, biodiversity, living cycles, etc. which are all very important social issues.
Sweeney, L. B. (2008). Principles of Living Systems. Taken from [ ]

Systems_gfx.pdf (290 KB)
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The Joy of Stats: Hans Rosling on World Population Health and Income

There is a rising trend of using infographics and video technology to explain very significant statistics–statistics that were often isolated to only minor appearances in public service announcements and discussions within academia. But with the rise of new media formats and data visualization technology, these statistics have the opportunity to appeal to the general audience and inform them about some very important data that explain some very important issues.

In this video, Hans Rosling explains the connection between life expectancy and income through 200 years in 200 countries using 120,000 numbers in just 4 minutes. Hans shows how the world we live in changed radically over 200 years and how this world is very different then the world most of us imagine. From the data visualizations, we see the huge disparities in income and health between countries and even within countries, as Hans demonstrates within the different provinces of China.

This video is part of a new series from BBC called, “The Joy of Stats”.

This documentary will explore various forms of data gathering and statistical analysis, such as a new application that mashes police department data with the city’s street map to show what crime is being reported street by street, house by house, in near real-time; and Google’s current efforts at the machine translation project.

It is exciting to see this new surge in data visualizations and the opportunity to explain the world that we all live in.

To stay up to date, please visit one of my favorite websites, Information Aesthetics and subscribe to their RSS feed.

Ken Robinson’s ‘Changing Education Paradigms’

Sir Ken Robinson’s Wikipedia Biography

Sir Ken Robinson, PhD is an internationally recognized leader in the development of creativity, innovation and human resources. He has worked with governments in Europe, Asia and the USA, with international agencies, Fortune 500 companies, and some of the world’s leading cultural organizations. In 1998, he led a national commission on creativity, education and the economy for the UK Government. ‘All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education’ (The Robinson Report) was published to wide acclaim in 1999. He was the central figure in developing a strategy for creative and economic development as part of the Peace Process in Northern Ireland, working with the ministers for training, education enterprise and culture. He was one of four international advisors to the Singapore Government for its strategy to become the creative hub of South East Asia.

Roots of Empathy

From the Roots of Empathy Website

Roots of Empathy has been called Canada’s olive branch to the world.

Roots of Empathy is a powerful idea whose time has come. An evidence-based charitable organization, its mission is to build caring, peaceful, and civil societies through the development of empathy in children and adults. Its vision is to change the world – child by child.

At the heart of the program are classroom visits by an infant and parent. Through guided observations of this loving relationship, children learn to identify and reflect on their own thoughts and feelings and those of others (empathy). Independent evaluations consistently show children who receive Roots of Empathy experience dramatic and lasting effects in terms of increased positive social behaviour (sharing, helping and including) and decreased aggression.  

Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie

Simply, an amazing movie about a very famous Canadian that deserves all the recognition and respect. David has done so much to advance the environmental movement and continues to do so. It is sad that there is an undertone of David’s mortality in the movie, but he seems to be at peace with that eventuality. It is a deeply personal and moving film about his life–that is, a life dedicated to the preservation of the environment, as well as, the native Aboriginal cultures of Canada. Even though he clearly spells out that our situation on this planet is dire and needs special attention, he seems optimistic about our ability to rise above our current consumerist and exploitative culture to that of sustainability and peaceful cohabitation with nature.

Visit here for more information:

About the film

At 73 years of age, David Suzuki, the iconic Canadian scientist, educator, broadcaster and activist, delivers what he describes as “a last lecture – a distillation of my life and thoughts, my legacy, what I want to say before I die.”

Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie interweaves this lecture with scenes from Suzuki’s life and lifetime – the major social, scientific, cultural and political events of the past 70 years.

In this biography of ideas, Suzuki articulates a core, urgent message: We have exhausted the limits of the biosphere and it is imperative that we rethink our relationship with the natural world. He looks unflinchingly at the strains on the interconnected web of life and offers up a blueprint for sustainability and survival.

Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie is directed by Sturla Gunnarsson and produced by Entertainment One in co-production with the National Film Board and in association with the CBC.

Check out The Test Tube with David Suzuki, an interactive parable about the fallacy of growth.

explore: Oasis of Peace

From website:

“Problems arise when people simply do not understand one another. At the community school in Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam—named in both Hebrew and Arabic—children learn both languages at a very young age, thus cultivating a spirit of communication and mutual understanding. The village is a true rarity, as Jews and Palestinian Arabs live together in cooperation and respect.”

Microsoft’s global initiative, Partners in Learning, Video

Partners in Learning is a global initiative designed to actively increase access to technology and improve its use in learning. Our goal is to help schools gain better access to technology, foster innovative approaches to pedagogy and teacher professional development and provide education leaders with the tools to envision, implement and manage change.

Together with our partners around the world, we are focusing on three key areas that have the greatest potential to empower students and teachers and transform education: