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OPENING STUDENTS’ MINDS TO FUTURES

In my last blog, I suggested that educators should be more intentional about empowering students to thrive in a variety of futures and that one way to do this would be to require students to complete a foresight course. It is rare for undergraduate students in the United States to be required to take a course focused on foresight. This leaves a preparednessgap in students’ education and fails to address the problem of short-term thinking.


To illustrate the scope of this problem, one survey found: “53 percent of Americans say they rarely or never think about the ‘far future’, or something that might happen 30 years from today. Twenty-one percent report imagining this future less than once a year, while the largest group of respondents, 32 percent, say it never crosses their mind at all” (McGonigal, 2017). The survey also found that, “36 percent of Americans say they rarely or never think about something they might personally do 10 years from now” (McGonigal, 2017). Richard Fisher also discusses the problem of short-termism when he writes, “If our descendants were to diagnose the ills of 21st-century civilization, they would observe a dangerous short-termism: a collective failure to escape the present moment and look further ahead” (Fisher, 2020, pp. 10). Another reason that an introduction to foresight is important is the increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous nature of the world.


In this blog, I describe how an undergraduate course that develops students’ ability to think systematically about the future might help address these challenges. Students would complete this course as part of the required coursework they complete in addition to their specialization in a disciplinary program, which is typically called a major. In U.S. undergraduate education, students take these courses, often referred to as general education or curriculum courses, early in their course of study. Even though the introduction to foresight course would be one of these required courses, students would complete it closer to graduation. This would provide them the opportunity to employ what they have learned during their undergraduate study, courses in disciplines such as history, science, economics, and philosophy, to thinking about the future. Completing a foresight course further along in their studies would also make the course more relevant to students as they naturally begin thinking about their future, specifically what they plan to do once they complete their degree.


The course would be designed to empower students to thrive in a variety of futures related to their personal and professional lives. It would achieve this by preparing students make better decisions for today and also for tomorrow and also by preparing and inspiring them to embrace their responsibility to future generations. The list below describes learning goals related to what students will know and be able to do after completing the course, and how they will change in terms of what they value.

By completing this course, students will be able to:

1. Define foresight.

2. Explain why it is ethically responsible to systematically think about and plan for the future.

3. Effectively apply strategic foresight tools to discover and use valuable insights about the future to inform decision making.

4. Integrate what they have learned during their undergraduate study when using foresight frameworks and tools.

5. Using foresight, complete projects focused on real-world problems and opportunities that are useful for their intended audiences.


Based on the course’s purpose and learning goals, here is a proposed course description:


This course prepares students to think systematically about the future, and recognize the ethical importance of doing this, so they are empowered to thrive, individually and professionally, in a variety of futures. The course introduces students to a strategic foresight framework and the process of establishing the necessary foundation for a foresight project, identifying and analyzing trends and weak signals of change, describing alternative futures, and developing informed strategies that address possible challenges and opportunities in the future. Students will use strategic foresight tools to complete projects. Students will be expected to incorporate what they have learned from their undergraduate study when completing the course’s assignments.


The course will include the following blocks of instruction:

  • The ethics of thinking about the future: This block will include assignments related to ethical perspectives that are useful for thinking about the future as well as exploring whether we have ethical obligations to future generations.

  • Foresight and the Association of Professional Futurists Competency Model:

    • Foresight Technical Competencies: Students will learn about each of the six foresight technical competencies and will complete assignments to ensure they are able to employ each competency when completing their projects.

    • Personal Effectiveness, Academic, and Workplace Competencies: Students will explore these competencies, learn about their importance for foresight work and other activities, and discuss how their undergraduate studies have enabled them to grow related to these competencies.

  • Specific Tools: Because it is an introductory course, students will not have the opportunity to encounter a wide range of tools. Below are the tools that they will study and apply to complete their projects. Students will be provided resources for further study should they desire to learn about other tools.

    • STEEP

    • Futures Wheel

    • CLA (expound)

    • Three Horizons Model

    • Different types of scenario approaches

    • Other resources


The course would focus more on the practice of foresight than the academic theory that serves as its foundation. Instruction related to each foresight technical competency and each tool would include activities designed to assess and improve students’ ability to employ it.

Students will be expected to complete two foresight projects. The first project will focus on their possible futures by requiring them to go through each foresight technical competency and employ specific foresight tools with a focus on their life, both personal and professional, after they complete their degree. Students will discuss this project with someone in career services or a faculty mentor to receive feedback on it. The assignment will assess and develop their ability to apply foresight technical competencies and tools, and it will also provide an opportunity for students to reflect on life after completing their studies, what future they prefer, and how they can make that future more likely.

The other project will require students to work with a client to explore a topic important to the client and their organization. Students will meet with the client, both prior to beginning the project and during the project, to ensure they understand the organization’s needs, receive feedback at the midpoint, and determine the best format to use for communicating their findings to the organizations. Students will present their completed projects to the client, and client feedback will influence the assignment grade.

It is certainly important for our students to learn about the past and to be engaged in the present. But it is also important for them to learn how to discover and use valuable insights about the future as well as recognize and act on their obligations to future generations. This will set them, and the societies in which they live, up for success in the future by enabling better decision making.


References:

Fisher, Richard (Nov/Dec2020, Vol. 123 Issue 6). “How to Escape the Present.” MIT Technology Review. pp. 8-13.

McGonigal, Jane (April 13, 2017). “Our Puny Human Brains Are Terrible at Thinking About the Future: And that has consequences.” Slate. https://slate.com/technology/2017/04/why-people-are-so-bad-at-thinking-about-the-future.html


© Chris Mayer 2022

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