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“Ah the serenity ...”: Absurd ideas about educational futures

Andrew Gibbons
Abstract: 

The most powerful thing about the literature on future-oriented education is what it tells us about our orientation to the present. This article explores some of the key ideas of future orientation that show the importance of both the present and, in particular, the presence of the teacher. The contributions of science fiction and of Albert Camus are explored to support this analysis and to generate some practical philosophical approaches to making sense of the present in an absurd world.

Journal issue: 

“Ah the serenity ...”

Absurd ideas about educational futures

ANDREW GIBBONS

Key points

Future-oriented education discourse aligns well with past and contemporary educational projects and movements.

The notions of serenity and absurdity open up particular ways of thinking about, and critiquing, the progress of civilisations toward utopian futures.

Through science fiction, we can critically imagine our individual and collective futures. We can also use it as a medium to critique future-oriented education.

Future-oriented teachers critically approach their teaching through a heightened understanding of, and commitment to, their orientation to the present.

The most powerful thing about the literature on future-oriented education is what it tells us about our orientation to the present. This article explores some of the key ideas of future orientation that show the importance of both the present and, in particular, the presence of the teacher. The contributions of science fiction and of Albert Camus are explored to support this analysis and to generate some practical philosophical approaches to making sense of the present in an absurd world.

Introduction

Do you sometimes imagine a serene, pastel-toned classroom full of connected, creative, collective learners working around hubs of digital displays, having thoughtful and respectful conversations, and asking you challenging questions that you skilfully turn back to them? Does this image seem absurd? Of course, you don’t have to imagine it on your own. Science-fiction movies are full of these images. The odd thing is, they are not often movies about a nice future. There is typically an undercurrent of anxiety, and hidden mechanisms for controlling or pacifying society in the interests of a small elite. Should we share the same concerns as science-fiction texts when we start talking about the future of education?

Imagining the future is a practice that can tie together science fiction and teaching in productive ways. This article explores why and how. It argues that, through science fiction, we can critically imagine our individual and collective futures. To explore these potential experiences, the themes of serenity and absurdity open up particular ways of thinking about the progress of civilisations toward utopian futures.

The article begins with an overview of talk about educational futures. Popular science fiction is then introduced to develop critical questions concerning the future of education. The notion of serenity is considered through reference to the TV pilot of the same name, showing that futures-talk can at times fantasise a serene, ordered, all-knowing society while hiding the violence that is caused in the name of that future. The article then explores existentialist philosopher and writer Albert Camus’s critique of the absurd—of the absence of a universal, enduring meaning to life—to challenge an orientation towards the future. The final section provides implications for classroom practice. My approach proceeds from reading science fiction and philosophy of education to imagining how we might draw these genres into the classroom.

The future according to educational discourse

“Educational futures” and “futures education” are terms that have gained momentum over four decades with interest in the relationships between changing political, economic and environmental contexts, and how educational policy and practice should respond to these contexts (for an overview see Bolstad & Gilbert, 2012; Olssen, 2003; Peters & Humes, 2003; Slaughter, 1987; Taylor, 1971). Peters and Humes (2003) track futures-orientation back to 16th-century utopian visionaries, and in particular the visions of Sir Thomas More. They argue that the once-creative task of envisioning the future has become a “mundane or technical” approach to policy and planning “with the idea of bridging business, science and technology, and government” (2003, p. 431). Supposedly neutral technicians plot a future based on present trends (for instance, educational planning based on population-growth predictions). Futures talk is also normative in that it plans for particular ideal futures (Taylor, 1971).

However futures education is not simply about planning, or an ideal future, or both. Perhaps more accurately, planners are becoming more aware of the rather large task of planning for the future. Futures talk has relaxed a little in terms of determining what the future might look like. It is also more hesitant in imagining the future of the role of the classroom, the teacher, and the digital device. Current futures-talk for education draws together desires for a particular kind of social existence and trends in some classrooms and in the world. An important example of this talk is the New Zealand Council for Educational Research report Supporting Future-oriented Learning and Teaching: A New Zealand Perspective (Bolstad & Gilbert, 2012), which charts trajectories for the education community in relation to a future-oriented education. This report is the focus here because of its stated purpose in summing up a range of positions and then advocating for a coherent national vision. The authors ask key questions about the future of learning and teaching.

In Bolstad and Gilbert’s summation of contemporary futures literature, the world is explained as complex, fluid, and uncertain—characteristics that are evident in a range of the so-called “wicked problems” of climate change, poverty, and global economic stability. The fact that these global experiences are believed to be increasing requires developing an approach to education in which our knowledge of teaching and learning also becomes more complex, uncertain, and fluid (Bolstad & Gilbert, 2012). In other words, we are going to need to jettison some, if not all, of our concepts and traditions related to knowledge and learning institutions; we must radically change in order to be more future friendly, or, in more negative terms, future proofed. Put paradoxically, we must plan for the unplanned.

No longer can education systems regard the potential of the child as something to prepare for a known, stable workforce, environment, and economy. The present education system will not enable, and may actively disable, the potent individual. If the system does not respond to, and match, the fluidity, uncertainty, and complexity of the world, we may not realise our collective potentialities.

The learner is the critical unit and this unit, it is claimed, is well known in terms of how it learns (Bolstad & Gilbert, 2012). The argument for futures education is that the curriculum and its associated pedagogies must flex with and open up the learner’s world, rather than prescribe the learning for an unknowable future. A set of themes and principles support teachers in their journey into this unknown. The three themes of coherence, connectedness, and diversity seek to create clarity around the complexity of an orientation to the future. It is through shared principles that this clarity might be seen as possible.

A first underlying principle is evident in the expectation that future orientations “support all New Zealand learners to successfully participate in, and contribute to, our national and global future as well as their own personal futures” (Bolstad & Gilbert, 2012, p. 1)—to have a successful participatory life is a shared assumption that we might agree as a driver of education. To be successful, individuals should experience an education in which elements of the system suit their own diverse needs, and in which they get to apply knowledge in relevant contexts with peers and teachers and community partners.

These pedagogical practices are, as noted by Bolstad & Gilbert (2012), not particular to future-oriented learning and teaching, and so it is important to take note of their relationship to preceding pedagogies and philosophies rather than presume we have a new set of theoretical tools as if they had appeared from out of the vacuum of galactic space. For instance, the idea of an imagined flexible community of learners and teachers who negotiate the construction of knowledge has been developed by many educational theorists. The gist of future-oriented teaching and learning resembles Wenger’s concept of a community of practice (1999), is evident in Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society (1976) and Seymour Papert’s Children’s Machine (1993), is arguably articulated in Tomorrow’s Schools (see Langley, 2009) through the assumed decentralisation of educational management, and is clearly developed in Te Whāriki (Ministry of Education, 1996).

“No longer can education systems regard the potential of the child as something to prepare for a known, stable workforce, environment, and economy. The present education system will not enable, and may actively disable, the potent individual.”

Ironically, in the future-orientation literature there is a strong sense of being in the present. For instance we have in a future orientation the ideas of a “focus on learning to be”, where people “need the space and support to work out their own particular” presence in the world (Bolstad & Gilbert, 2012, p. 18). In a concise critique of the growth of the educational futures community Richard Slaughter (1987) articulated the difference between “futures in education” and “futures of education”. An abundance of planning for the future is evidence of the latter, while the former, “futures in”, emphasises the present:

I am more interested in futures in education than I am in futures of education because the former concerns itself with the needs and potentials of real persons in the present while the latter often reflects a more managerial or technical views. The slide from ‘in’ to ‘of’ parallels the immensely greater investment in controlling the future as compared with the more convivial task of facilitating human development in order to create it. (Slaughter, 1987, p. 342)s

In a focus on “learning to be”, one can see a future in education that is relaxed about uncertainty and disjointedness, and so resists a unified picture of tomorrow’s learners and teachers. Yet we can also see in futures-orientation a tendency to idealise a particular kind of learner: the fluid, connected, knowledge-constructing learner is a dangerous entity if we do not critically imagine the learner’s nature and purpose. Here, we run the risk of creating a singular idea (Olssen, 2003) about learning, even when that idea acknowledges difference. It is dangerous to assume that these ideas about the learner are objective realities of the nature of learning. The problem, for Olssen (2003) and others, is one of freedom to create and act that is obscured when we presume to know the character of the learner. We can explore this problem through critiques that emerge in science fiction.

The future of education according to science fiction

Science-fiction short stories, comics, novels, and films explore the themes that are raised in future-oriented education. In the 1980s Perelman (1980) distinguished four science-fiction themes that resonate with futures education themes: technology, evolution, community, and human nature. These imaginations simultaneously point to the present. According to science-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin (2000), science fiction employs the future as a metaphor for the present, and so this section also reveals what stories we are being told about now rather than an unknowable, unpredictable future. Of particular interest is the TV pilot Serenity (Mendel & Whedon, 2002) in which two kinds of futures are imagined. If you want to watch the movie: stop, go watch the movie, and then come back to this article later.

In the opening scene of Serenity we are in a future classroom. The teacher is talking to the children about the war between the “Interplanetary Alliance” and the independent outer planets. The war, we are taught, was won by the Alliance in the name of enlightenment and civilisation. The teacher asks why the “Independents” might not have wanted to enjoy the Alliance’s “social and medical advances”, and to be more civilized. A student answers:



River (a student): We meddle.
Teacher: River?
River: People don’t like to be meddled with. We tell them what to do, what to think, don’t run, don’t walk. We’re in their homes and in their heads and we haven’t the right. We’re meddlesome.
Teacher: River… We’re not telling people what to think… We’re just trying to show them how.

This teacher assumes that knowledge is dynamic and that the role of the teacher is not to simply transmit facts. Yet delivered in this way we are invited to ask whether there is something sinister in the expression behind its socioconstructivistic obviousness. The movie asks us to question what we mean when we replace “what” with “how”.

The second device in the Serenity plot involves a different approach to teaching and learning. During the film the spaceship Serenity is on the run from an Alliance operative (who is attempting to stop River from revealing critical secrets), and also trying to avoid an aggressive race of human-eating zombie aliens (as you do). When the spaceship follows River’s flashbacks to the planet Miranda we then find out that the Alliance had included “G-23 Paxilon Hydrochlorate” (the Pax) in the terraforming of the atmosphere in order to “weed out aggression”, “calm the population”, and create a “world without sin”. Thirty million people “just let themselves die” as a result of the ultimate of absurd attempts to “positively” modify the behaviour of a brave new world. But wait, there’s more. Point one percent of the population “had the opposite reaction”, and thus we have the madness of the Reavers—the human-eating zombie aliens.

The serene facade of the Alliance screens its people from the absurd and violent lengths that an anxious government will go to in order to make a “better world”. Here I am interested in what happens when we realise that a better world is an absurd idea. To explore this problem it is worth looking at an anxiety towards the future that necessitates a future orientation.

Camus, the absurd, and worrying about the future

What happens if we become conscious that there is no great meaningful future in store for us? Camus’ work on the notion of the absurd explores this question in the novel The Outsider, the play Caligula, and the essay The Myth of Sisyphus, which is of particular interest in this analysis. The actual myth is of interest to Camus because of the punishment that the gods mete out to Sisyphus for his disobedience: he is sentenced to roll a rock up a hill for eternity. Camus imagines the implications of this sentence.

Camus’ essay establishes the problem of the absurd through exploring the limits of science and rationalism and the work of the great authors on existence (Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Kafka, and so forth). The “absurd” is a condition that is evident to us in many ways. However, only some people become conscious of it, particularly through the discovery that there is no great and lasting meaning to life. Camus asks how life might be lived in the absence of meaning. He develops an ethic of an “indifference to the future” (Camus, 1991, p. 60), and says what “counts is not the best living but the most living” (p. 61) because there is no way of determining the best. Camus talks about the screens that hide us from our predicament: “surrendering to the illusions of the everyday or of the idea—all these screens hide the absurd” (p. 91). What is the screen that hides the teacher from the absurd, and what is the absurd that is hidden by the screen?

In future orientation we are given a series of ideas, but when we look behind them we realise that they amount to a belief in a serene future that can never exist. Complexity, uncertainty, fluidity, and potential are evidence of this absurdity. However the world might be, with whatever we might measure its complexity, fluidity, uncertainty, and potential, we are destined to perceive that they are always growing, and we will never know where they lead. For Camus, this condition is not despairing. Rather, he develops a way of thinking about this apparent absurdity as a productive challenge. His work provides a kind of artistic technique through which to create our presence in this progress towards the future. While “the absurd cancels all my chances of eternal freedom, it restores and magnifies, on the other hand, my freedom of action” (p. 57). In the absurd we are more present; we give up on the future and on the debts to it that take the form of investments for tomorrow. In the absurd it is possible that we can experience a successful participatory life.

Camus is not pessimistic, and neither is his ethic passive. Camus goes to some length to point out that when one discovers that there is no meaning to life we are able to reject certain ideas and problems. He specifically is interested in creative and poetic kinds of responses and follows these through looking at different characters: the lover, the actor and the conqueror. Camus intimates that it is worth considering other kinds of lives in relation to the absurd. In acknowledgement of Camus, the next section explores the role of the absurd teacher.

Two implications

The absurdity of our orientations to the future—whether that future is a serene and organised utopia, or a chaotic, apocalyptic, dystopia—reveals to us that we are locked into particular ways of thinking about education and school, teaching and learning. Camus’ work resonates for those teachers who become conscious of that absurdity and, when faced with broken promises of a great plan and essential meaning to our roles as teachers, set about being creative, active, and present in their classrooms.

There are two implications that I would like to explore here. However these are not technical implications that can be determined so that life can become more efficient. The purpose is to work out how to relate to the complexity in ways that are creative, liberating, and perhaps even satisfying.

Listen to the critiques of philosophy—“live in the now”

Serenity highlights the dangers of inventing systems to ensure efficient civilised outcomes. These dangers are scrutinised by philosophers including Jean-François Lyotard and Michel Foucault. Their work supports teachers in navigating complex, fluid worlds. Here, I would like to show how philosophy might assist teachers by adding a few more ideas to supplement the work of Camus.

Lyotard (1999) theorised that late 20th century knowledge is produced and shared using narrow technical principles of science and technology. These principles “trap” education in a postmodern economic “destitute” position (Standish, 2002, p. 165) that focuses our educational practices towards the production of more efficient means and ends, limits the ways in which we understand what knowledge is for, and limits how knowledge is produced and transmitted. In class we might ask students to consider the impact of their connected hypertextual worlds on how they know about the world, and what they are expected to do with their knowledge.

Foucault’s interest in futures is evident in his critique of totalitarian utopias that are evident in any regime that regards difference as a problem and that plans for a future without difference (Olssen, 2003). He explored the ways in which learners are disciplined to construct a particular understanding of their identity and then to govern that identity according to particular ideals (see Foucault, 1994a, 1994b; Gordon, 1991). He critiqued the idea of learning to govern ourselves through our experiences of being taught how to think (Foucault, 1994a). Teaching a child how to think makes the child more governable and more exploitable in an ideal future. Serenity’s Alliance is engaged in a kind of idealism. While idealism typically talks of freedom in a future, we run the risk of losing sight of the experience of freedom in the present (Biesta & Säfström, 2011). There are important implications for education:

by conceiving education as a process that will deliver its promises at some point in the future—the question of freedom disappears from the here and now and runs the risk of forever being deferred … To keep education away from pure utopia is not a question of pessimism but rather a matter of not saddling education with unattainable hopes that defer freedom rather than making it possible in the here and now. (Biesta & Säfström, 2011, p. 541)

Biesta and Säfström (2011) are particularly interested in the question of freedom as it relates to the nature and purpose of education—a question that was central to the work of Camus. Understanding the nature of future-oriented thinking for our lives is, then, an element of being a liberated teacher through which we respond to the kinds of tensions that occur as a result of difference; if we are less able to respond to these tensions we might think that difference is a problem. I suggest that where difference is a problem, something saddening happens to education.

However, it is not a problem to entertain utopian imaginations of the future learner and neither is it a problem to base these aspirations on an ideal. Following Olssen (2003), the ideals are in there somewhere, whether we like it or not. The problem, to reiterate, is one of a relationship to difference. For example, the talk of the digital future for children is one that can lead to an overwhelming sense of inevitability, as if there is no different future and no other option than to be a digitally wired individual. There is no sense of freedom in a future where everyone is obligated to keep purchasing new versions of smartphones in order to be constantly processing greater amounts of data through more complex social networks. For some critics, this future individual will be an “unpaid digital labourer” whose use of mobile devices to stay online will be constantly mined for exploitable data (Fuchs & Sevignani, 2013).

However, it is also unhelpful to think that some kind of technological “matrix” will inevitably control our lives and that anyone who varies from the programme will be brought in to line, conditioned, or “terminated”. We can resist the power of the smartphone to determine our lives, we can experience different kinds of freedom with a smartphone, and we can make sure we have space to have different interpretations of the future of education. The interest here is the role of education in this resistance.

As policy makers and as teachers, we can have a utopian vision without it becoming an impingement on our freedom. How? Well, we need to ensure that all learners are able to question and imagine their future (Olssen, 2003), and able to critique the ideologies that shape their future (Morgan, 2013); in other words, to be active (or present) in the creation of their future in education. For example, what opportunity does the learner have to challenge their future as a user of a smartphone (which includes how they use the device, how they connect with telecommunication corporations through the device, and how they are able to reject or refuse the device)?

“As policy makers and as teachers, we can have a utopian vision without it becoming an impingement on our freedom. How? Well, we need to ensure that all learners are able to question and imagine their future …”

The philosophical analysis of future-oriented educational policy and practice, and the implications of these practices for the experience of freedom, is an important creative classroom practice. The gift of these philosophical lines of inquiry is the revealing of the adventure that is the classroom, conscious that teaching to the teacher is like acting to the actor: “Of all kinds of fame the least deceptive is the one that is lived” (Camus, 1991, p. 78). The creative teacher actively creates space for children’s thinking free from the meddling of an anxiety towards the future. This kind of teacher is less concerned with the kind of anxious future that shaped River’s education, and more concerned with a critical awareness of the ways in which the system meddles with the child to manage the pathway to a particular ideal future. Teachers can actively create worlds that are lived for the present. One way in which they might do that is explored in the next implication.

Draw science fiction into your teaching

Science fiction is an excellent resource for future-oriented education. Science-fiction advocates have spent over four decades arguing that the genre enriches learning across the entire school curriculum (Gunn, 1996) and that, in its essence, science fiction has a didactic nature and purpose (Finch, 2000). Within one study of a science-fiction text students can engage in literary, political, technological, and ethical analysis in ways that “compel the reader to consider alternatives in order to make meaningful choices” (Finch, 2000, p. 33).

Students are more likely to engage in these analytical activities because science fiction appeals to the imaginations of students, and students are likely to enter the classroom with expertise in the genre (Perelman, 1980). Science fiction as a genre has many subgenres and these lend well to specialised application, depending on the curriculum focus and, of course, on the interests of the students.

Classic and contemporary science-fiction novels, short stories, comics and films provide valuable ideas that enrich a curriculum. For an overview of how this is possible, and what teachers are doing, visit websites such as Pinterest and Prezi. Pinterest includes a teaching with science fiction page that highlights the currency of The Hunger Games and also provides evidence of the breadth of subject-area applications in school, across the sciences and arts.1 Exploring “teaching science fiction” in Prezi indicates the wide application across the many genres and media of science fiction. In addition, there are many teaching resources shared online for school teachers and for student teachers (see, for instance, Dodson, 2009; Dyer, n.d.). The immensity of the resources available evidences the immensity of possibilities for all subjects and contexts. Here, I would like to briefly narrow the focus to the contribution of science-fiction authors I regard as particularly valuable for the depth of critique of the present rather than creation of fantastic futures.

During the mid-20th century the earlier work of Swift, Shelley, Butler, and Wells fuelled a massive growth in critical science fiction. Two famous science-fiction novels do this particularly well and have been in English teachers’ plans for some years now: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1958) and 1984 by George Orwell (1986). Both were written with a particular interest in the development of totalitarian regimes, and the problem of difference, evident in the period between the First and Second World Wars. More recently, writers such as Gibson, Atwood, Schroeder, and Shteyngart imagine the future of a present that was, for Huxley and Orwell, the imagined future.

Through the work of authors identified above, a serene world made possible by vast learning networks of well-behaved learners is revealed as an absurd myth. Behind a serene facade of the future we find a reinforcement of narrow technical and economic ideas about progress. When the screens are drawn back, we see the absurdity of this language that talks as if there is only the future and no present. The lived moment becomes a unit of value that the teacher takes back from the future through the learner’s engagement with science fiction.

Now, while science fiction has been labelled a fetish of white middle-class males (Donawerth, 1990), this view neglects both the influence of anyone that falls outside of that broad generalisation (and there are many), and the educational value of the many texts written expressly to challenge certain social and political conditions associated with white middle-class men (including Huxley and Orwell). Science fiction has been regarded as offering hope of a freedom from the constraints of a society that maintains gender inequality (Donawerth, 1990) and class and colonial inequality (Perelman, 1980). In class, then, science fiction can challenge the segregation of gender and the history of colonisation.

To think beyond unifying educational agendas is the first task for teachers who wish to see systemic change in their present and who value a call to be more present in the classroom. The purpose here has been to show that a future orientation is a radical rejection of the orientation to the future that has driven schooling and in particular driven the management of the learner and the teacher, whether to produce a particular kind of just citizen or a particular kind of rational consumer. The young River Tam states the rejection quite well:

People don’t like to be meddled with. We tell them what to do, what to think, don’t run, don’t walk. We’re in their homes and in their heads and we haven’t the right. We’re meddlesome. (River Tam)

Science fiction can bring to the classroom questions concerning what we meddle with. In addition, science fiction brings to the classroom questions concerning how our meddling relates to big ideas such as democracy, freedom, justice, and society. Science fiction in the classroom shapes not just the “what” and the “how” of teaching and learning, but also, more significantly, the “why”.

Conclusion: It’s the way you do it!

The challenge to a narrow visioning of education resonates with the concept of unbundling, articulated by Bolstad and Gilbert (2012) as a loosening of our grip on both the structure and content of education so that we might be untethered from an anxiety towards the future. In 1971 William Taylor argued that it was “the duty of teachers to identify the major elements of any” educational future and “decide either to work with the grain of the changes that they imply, or, where necessary, to exercise countervailing force to oppose these changes” (1971, p. 128). He went on to state that:

what matters most are the kinds of ideas and the kind of imagination that spring from a conviction that there is no need simply to wait for things to happen to us, but that, given the appropriate organisation of knowledge, and the willingness to recognise and build upon our strengths, the future is ours to make (p. 135).

The best orientation to the future is not an orientation to the future at all. This means that the focus is on who you, the teacher, are in the system (and against the system). In order to be this person you need to understand how an anxiety for the future impacts upon you.

Acknowledgement

Thanks to Brooke Borkan for commenting on a draft of this paper.

Note

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Andrew Gibbons is an associate professor at Auckland University of Technology. His teaching and research interests revolve around technology in the early childhood and primary curricula with a particular focus on the philosophy of technology. He is co-editor of the online Encyclopaedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory and has recently co-written a special issue of Educational Philosophy and Theory on the work of Albert Camus. Andrew is currently involved in researching the professional status of early childhood teaching and the nature and meaning of a “digital world” for children.

Email: andrew.gibbons@aut.ac.nz

1See http://www.pinterest.com/traykay/teaching-with-sci-fi/