1. Why teach the future?
The argument for teaching the future is so obvious, even compelling, that it is hard to articulate. Which world will our students live in as adults—Past? Present? Or Future? Since the world of the future will be different from the present in many, significant ways, should we not prepare students now for those differences? It is like preparing someone to enter the foreign service or take a job in another country without telling them which country they are going to.
- 2. Why teach the future now?
One of the distinguishing features of our time is the increasing rate of change. We did not invent change. The switch from hunting-gathering to agricultural societies was change; the introduction of literacy to the Renaissance was change; the appearance of democracy was change. However, those changes took a long time, generally longer than a lifetime. As a result, people generally lived and died in the same society they were raised in. Except in a few cases of extreme change, their preparation was useful throughout their lifetime.
Not so, in our world. Change is occurring at a speed today that means we experience significant shocks many times in one life. We are regularly asked to give up obsolete ideas and practices in order to adapt. We have to learn anew, not just fall back on what we were taught. The UK took 160 years to double its GDP for the first time; the U.S. took 60 years; China took 10. Products are adopted faster – the telephone, the radio, the television compared to the Internet and the cell phone. Ideas travel farther and faster, colliding and recombining to fuel the innovation that drives change. So we live in a world that is changing faster than the world of our parents and grandparents, and should these conditions continue, it will change even faster for our children and our grandchildren. So we should respond to the needs of our time by teaching our students about the future.
- 3. Then why don’t we teach the future today?
There are, in fact, many good reasons. Let me take them one at time.
- We do not have time to teach the future.
Actually I agree with this one. Schools are burdened, not only with endless curriculum demands, but with the requirement to solve many other problems that children have in society today – character development, hunger, drugs, sexual behavior, etc. Schools cannot possibly add another course in order to teach the future.
And they don’t have to. They can teach the future in any subject within the existing curriculum. See the sidebar to learn how.
- The future is unpredictable.
Again, agreed. There is too much complexity and uncertainty to know what will happen exactly. But do we have to know the exact answer about the future to discuss it intelligently? Here is where futures studies differs from traditional forecasting. The many thousands of traditional forecasters are trying to predict the one future that will occur. Accuracy is their primary concern. They don’t do very well, but they keep on trying.
We futurists take a different approach. We don’t predict the future. We realize that getting the future “right” is futile. So we see the future, not as a single prediction that will occur, but rather as many scenarios that could occur. Listen to the change in the verb – will, what the English teachers call the indicative mood, the mood of fact, vs could, the language of possibility. That is a profound difference. Futurists think of the future as a set of plausible futures rather as one future that is “right” and the rest that are “wrong.”
We develop those futures in scenarios, stories about how the future could emerge, based on a disciplined use of imagination –
- Imagination because a truly different future can only be conceived in the imagination, not simply as the result of logical analysis.
- Discipline because a well-grounded future requires some evidence to suggest that such a future could plausibly occur.
- We do not know how to teach the future because we were never taught.
Agreed, again – a trifecta! I received all the education that American society could offer–an excellent high school and college education from the Jesuits and graduate degrees in sociology from one of the top universities in the country. Yet few teachers talked about change; and as far as I can remember, none mentioned the future. I read Marshall McLuhan, Alvin Toffler, Paul Ehrlich, Donella Meadows and a host of science fiction, but none of that was for school. I went into sociology to study social change, which I did in my thesis and my dissertation, but there was not even one class on social change in my department.
But that condition is also beginning to change. There are now between a half dozen and a dozen graduate program in strategic foresight around the world. There are professional seminars that are introducing professionals to these concepts and even a few in-service classes for teachers. Still a tiny amount compared to the study of the past, but still it’s a start.
- 4. How can we teach the future to our students?
Teaching the future is as easy as answering a few simple questions. Having selected a domain, a topic to be studied like an issue or an industry, we can ask students four basic questions –
- What are the current conditions of the domain? If you could take a snapshot of the domain today, what would it show? Where are things located? How big are they? Who is involved? That question asks students to do Internet research and interviews, find data and descriptions about their domain and put those into a coherent presentation.
- What do they expect to happen in the domain? Where is it headed? What will it look like in 2040? That question asks students to extrapolate trends and plans into the future and to identify implications for themselves and their families.
- What might happen instead? What assumptions are we making about the future that might be incorrect? How could we be surprised by what happens in the future? That question asks students to think critically about their expected future by challenging assumptions and imaging a significantly different future than what they expect. At the same time, it also asks that they provide a plausible foundation for that future and to present it in an imaginative and creative way.
- Finally, of all those alternatives, what would they prefer to see happen? Which of the alternative futures is better than others and why? That question asks students to state their preferences and to examine the values that support those preferences.
That can be a whole course or a unit of a course or simply an approach to teaching something else. Simply asking one or more of those four questions would be enough to teach about the future. I submit that every teacher should be able to do that if they wanted to.
- 5. So the last question, what is to be done next?
The vision for Teachthe Future is that “We teach the future as we do the past.” We teach a lot about the past, as we should, but we should also be routinely teaching about the future.
Leaders ask themselves, “If not us, who? And if not now, when?” We can all be leaders in this movement; it’s that early. This is the founding moment, the ground floor. My hope is that we will look back at 2014 as the year that teachers and schools began to take the future seriously for the sake of their students.
If you want to hear more or even get involved, sign up at www.teachthefuture.org/contact-3 or send an email to Peter@TeachTheFuture.org. Tell me about yourself, and more importantly, what you would like to do to introduce futures thinking to our students.