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YOU ARE NOT ONE: future-oriented participatory action research

This guest blog post is submitted by Mohsen Taheri, Teach the Future’s Iran Hub Director. His inspiring classroom work has recently been published,“You are not one, you are a thousand: Findings from future-oriented participatory action research, a peer-reviewed article by Mohsen Taheri Demneh *,1, Ali Zackery, Department of Industrial Engineering and Futures Studies, Faculty of Engineering, University of Isfahan, Isfahan, Iran, published by Elsevier, ScienceDirect, 2023

You are not one, you are a thousand: Findings from a future-oriented participatory action research. Article Summary, submitted by Mohsen Taheri

Article Abstract

“There is a pragmatic and moral imperative to empower younger generations to tackle environmental degradation. In Iran and drought-stricken Isfahan with a dying river, children and the youth can play a major role in saving this historically significant city. This paper presents the results of a future-oriented drama-based participatory event in a high school in Isfahan. During a 6-day event, firstly, 25 female participants were interviewed about environmental hazards and their sense of agency toward the future. Subsequently, a council-of-all-being-inspired drama was staged during which the participants played local environment-related characters from Isfahan. Finally, on the fourth day, in a focus group, we discussed the reflections of students on this intervention. Paralyzing fear and despair, patriarchal social structure, consumerism, and deep-seated habits were regarded as the main barriers to pro-environmental behavior. Participants felt that they could not overcome the weight of history to shape their desirable futures. Drama unveiled the participant's consume-preserve dilemma, helped them empathize with nature, develop a sense of hope, decipher the importance of individual micro-steps, and even start an inter-generational dialogue.”— Abstract, You are not one, you are a thousand

Preparation and Study Excerpts

Our theoretical approach was based on participatory action research (PAR) which is a form of social investigation that can result in the distribution of agency to participants (Checkoway, 2011). Different approaches to PAR share unanimous components, namely, participation, engagement, empowerment, mutual learning, and capacity building (Minkler & Wallerstein, 2011; Shamrova & Cummings, 2017). In this study, we used semi-structured creative drama as our core method (Ødegaard, 2003). Creative drama is an encompassing, improvisational, facilitated, interactive, non-exhibitional, and process-oriented learning medium (Çokadar & Yılmaz, 2010; Pinciotti, 1993). It involves thinking, feeling, acting, various forms of communication, interactive dialogue, gestures, individual preparations, pair works, lengthy improvisational role plays, group enactments, mimes and pantomimes, event simulations, facilitator-in-role guidance, whole-group activities, embodied sensations, anthropomorphic metaphors (Bolton, 1980; Dorion, 2009; Pinciotti, 1993). They are almost always facilitated and led by mediators who guide the learning experience.

The design of drama was inspired by the “council of all beings” which is an awareness-developing communal ritual during which participants avert their identity and speak on behalf of other life forms; it helps us to conceive our place in the web of life instead of placing ourselves at the apex of human-center pyramid (Seed & Pugh, 1988). The drama was, nonetheless, designed and facilitated by the integration of concepts from creative-drama interventions (Çokadar & Yılmaz, 2010; Ødegaard, 2003), critical place-based pedagogy (Furman & Gruenewald, 2004; Graham, 2007; Gruenewald, 2003) and Theater of Becoming (Baena, 2017).

In class activities increase awareness through role-playing

In this drama, 25 female students of a high school in Isfahan, aged 15–16, participated. Three of the school teachers were involved as well. An ethnographic stance was employed (Hammersley & Atkinson, 2007); two master students were present as ethnographers to observe the participants, gather qualitative data, take notes, and collect documentary evidence such as films and photos. In designing a study where minors are involved, one major concern is the “oversimplification of their involvement” and “misinterpretation of their voices” (Clark et al., 2014; Shamrova & Cummings, 2017).”—page 3

Near the conclusion of the drama, Pire Farzaneh (a participant)  recites a poem:
“You are not one you are a thousand, just light your lantern.”—Rumi

Key Observations

If we liken the future to a stock company, young people are its primary shareholders. They hold the largest stake in the future, yet regrettably, they are often excluded from its management and control, presenting one of the most unjust challenges we face. In response to this, futurists endeavor to empower young people to assume their role in steering the future. One of the most crucial ways to empower young individuals to lead and manage the future is to involve them in comprehending the future, fostering hope for shaping it, and instilling a sense of commitment to creating a better future.

This article serves as a report on a series of initiatives undertaken in schools in the city of Isfahan, Iran, aimed at familiarizing female students with the environmental challenges confronting their city. 

The goal was for these students to delve into the roots of these challenges and, ideally, devise solutions to address them. Several qualitative methods were employed in this study, yielding compelling results. 

The most significant lesson I gleaned from this research is that we must actively assist young people in constructing a future, not solely for the benefit of the youth, but for our preservation. Let's engage more effectively. The future should be overseen by those to whom it rightfully belongs.

The students created a collage to express their learning. Notes on this illustration: The logo is an animal-like creature composed of half human, half dragon. The dragon wants to swallow the sun and the human wants to shoot the dragon and save the sun. The dragon’s tail is connected to the human front of this creature. Applied to environmental crises, the dragon’s tail can be considered as a metaphor for the anthropogenic impact on the environment and the bow and arrow is the human efforts to nullify this impact. The mythical metaphor exquisitely depicts the yin and yang of the environmental crisis. The photo in the center is “Amu zanjir baf12” indicative of social/ecological solidarity. This collage was later designed using the initial sketch of students.

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