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Nurturing Futures Thinkers: The Case for Designing New Learning Systems to Scale Futures Literacy

Updated: Nov 22

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Teach the Future (TTF) has developed a paradigm shifting curriculum by introducing futures thinking and practices to students and educators. Thirty years ago, Peter Bishop developed a curriculum to teach futures thinking to students before they entered higher education. Predicated on the belief that “the future can be influenced by individual choices and actions,” the program has spread throughout schools around the globe.

Much has changed within the last thirty years. Advancements in technology, finance, health care, transportation, and communications have expanded exponentially. However, the complexities of global crises in climate, epidemiology, democratic governance, cybersecurity, and diplomacy, have intensified historic hegemonies. These crises have been classified by governments and global planetary organizations as volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) such that the United Nations has issued sustainable development goals through 2030.

The Anthropocene has given primacy to humans at the expense of the natural resources, and animals that sustain us. Political ideologies have divided nations that were previously described as democratic. Social and economic policies have created unprecedented barriers to basic needs among middle and low income families. These are but a few of the myriad, multifaceted, muti-leveled, and interconnected challenges today’s students will inherit unless they define and design new and different futures. But with no systemic way of instituting the TTF curriculum throughout primary and secondary schooling, will enough students be prepared to live in sustainable (and generative) futures?

There is a case to be made for integrating futures thinking and strategic foresight into education leadership training and development. Programming that engages education system leaders and policymakers with futures consciousness would ensure holistic and systemic benefits of embracing futures thinking. Likewise, there needs to be a thorough diagnostic of how primary and secondary education systems not only fail to prepare students for future life, work, and planetary concerns, but also perpetuate the same social and political hegemonies that existed when these school systems were designed.

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A wider-deeper-longer perspective

In their 2010 JFS article, (Bishop & Strong, 2010) stated, “To teach the future means helping

students develop a wider-deeper-longer perspective.” The TTF curriculum is designed to prepare students to live in future iterations of the world. Students are acknowledged as citizens and active contributors to society now instead of at some future time when they are gainfully employed or hold leadership positions. Young people are taught how to consider the VUCA issues of the present and invited to co-create preferred futures using their knowledge and diverse experiences, imaginations, and aspirations.

This helps students build confidence and self-efficacy as they view themselves as decision makers and leaders. Students are encouraged to investigate systems at multiple levels and to envision the world differently than they have come to know it.

After the futures literacy course

However, what happens after students are introduced to futures thinking? How do they integrate their new knowledge with other classes, particularly in traditional schools? Many schools are still perpetuating binary, right or wrong, grades-based approaches to assess student achievement. Unfortunately, because futures thinking isn’t embedded throughout the education landscape, students’ self-agency could be encumbered as they move on from classes where TTF is taught to classes or schools that have yet to be exposed to or embrace these concepts. Many schools continue to be concerned with “the right answer” and do not encourage the engagement of students’ imaginations, aspirations, anticipations, or diverse experiences as an approach to problem solving. Many schools do not consider analyzing alternative futures as a means of decision making. This can be extremely frustrating to students who feel hindered by traditional curricula or teaching practices.

Benefits of futures conscious education leaders

While not all district leaders will acknowledge the value of engaging futures thinking and foresight, I have served with and conversed with several who were open to the endeavor. I interviewed school systems leaders located throughout the United States and Western Canada who were working toward creating more equity within their districts. I asked them to envision their school districts ten years in the future and to consider four scenarios of change from no change to radical change. These leaders expressed gratitude for the opportunity to expand their thinking beyond the daily issues and unprecedented crisis due to COVID-19 to play with alternative iterations of their districts.

Imagine what school systems that promote creativity and imagination from pre-kindergarten through the secondary grades could allow students to accomplish. Instead of maintaining traditional grade structures, schools can be redesigned to support the individual learning needs of students. Armed with a deeper understanding of their own futures consciousness, district leaders and policymakers would be compelled to ensure that all educators and students in their systems learn more about futures and how to use futures concepts and methods to co-create emancipated futures. This would also strengthen the learning relationships between teachers and students as they explore alternative futures together. Moreover, schools could invite experts in a range of fields to demonstrate how to use foresight tools to analyze complex problems and challenge students to consider alternative futures.

To ensure that students are prepared to co-create the world they want to live in over the next thirty years, and not merely react to the effects of historical decisions, school districts and education policies must nurture the development of their futures consciousness. Scaling the TTF curricula to systems and policy leaders will ensure a better chance of students engaging with alternative futures towards planetary thriving.

Appadurai, A. (2013). The future as cultural fact: Essays on the global condition. Verso

Bishop, P. C., & Strong, K. E. (2010). Why teach the future? Journal of Futures Studies, 14(4)

Epps, Z. (2022). School district leaders as agents of equity and public education futures. Journal of Futures Studies (Digital Edition).

Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the oppressed: New revised 20th anniversary edition. Continuum.

Zhao, Y. (2009). Catching up or leading the way: American education in the age of globalization. ASCD.

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