Author Archive

The Museum of Before: An experiment in participatory thinking about the future

June 22nd, 2015

Educational research typically involves a lot of  logico-analytical thinking. Much of our time is spent planning projects, gathering and analysing data, reviewing literature, writing research reports and so on.  But every now and then, we stretch our creativity and imagination and dream up thought experiments as we chat over our morning coffee. “Imagine if we could….”, “Wouldn’t it be fun to…”, “What if we tried…”.

Occasionally there’s an opportunity to take a creative idea beyond a thought experiment. To actually try it, to see what happens.

One of my favourite examples has been  “The Museum of Before”, an immersive, science-fiction, participatory role play workshop that was originally developed by me, Jenny Whatman, and Sue McDowall for the International Conference on Thinking (ICOT) held in Wellington in January 2013.  Two and a half years later, I’d like to revisit The Museum of Before to explain why we did it, what happened, and what we learned. To borrow a common practice from the game development industry, it’s time to dig up The Museum of Before for a good old postmortem. Curious? Read on!

What happened in “The Museum of Before” workshop?

In the original ICOT conference version, you would have turned up at a conference room not knowing quite what to expect. I can almost guarantee you  wouldn’t expect to encounter myself and Sue McDowall dressed in head-to-toe coveralls, briefing you on a strange sequence of security protocols before we let you into the room. This included:

  • a compulsory retinal scan (pretend, of course)
  • us zipping you into an (invisible) full-body protective coverall
  • signing a strange document to grant yourself access to “the secure archive facility”.

If you were game enough to comply with our bizarre instructions about how to enter “The Museum”, you would have then been ushered through into a briefing room to discover that you were now almost 100 years in the future. You’d quickly realise that the Museum of Before was built in the late 21st century to help people understand what life was like in the early 21st century.  You’d understand that you – the participant – were an invited  “expert” on 21st century educational history. Your job was to help us identify the artefacts and  plan an interactive exhibition for our late 21st century museum visitors to know what education was like  in the early 21st Century.

A little background: Science fiction

Our original inspiration for this workshop was science fiction, and the interesting ways that learning, education, and human growth and development are represented in science fiction texts.

Our very first idea was to do a conventional discussion workshop where we’d look at some different examples of education in science fiction and talk about how different stories represented different ideas about learning and the role of education in society. Then, after a particularly stimulating coffee-drinking session, we had a moment of inspiration: Rather than us delivering a presentation, or having people engage in activities like deconstructing ideas from particular science fiction texts, why don’t we turn our entire workshop into a role-play science fiction scenario? We drew on ideas from process drama as we developed our storyline and activities, particularly the concept of The Mantle of The Expert. We also drew inspiration from some of our favourite experiences as audience members in Wellington theatre productions (like the brilliant Apollo 13). Basically, we designed the kind of workshop that we would get excited about going to.

Here’s Sue and me giving a video interview (in role) the day before we actually ran the workshop for the first time. This footage has never seen the light of day until now, (perhaps for good reason)!

Yep, live action role play.

At this point, you might envisage yourself running screaming from the room. I get it. Not everyone feels comfortable stepping into a role play. Heck, we were nervous  ourselves. We learned a lot  about how to bridge people into role play in ways that aren’t too threatening, and aside from possibly making a few people a little uncomfortable, no-one was harmed in the making of this process drama. Having Jenny in the team, with her background and knowledge of drama education, certainly helped.

We thought a lot about how the drama would unfold to give people some key beats or moments in which they had to respond creatively to the task at hand and share something back with the group, in role. The  culmination of the workshop was when The Museum Director (Jenny) arrived and we all walked around each table group, asking them to explain the artefacts they’d identified, and their suggestions about the installations we could create in the Museum to help our late 21st century visitors understand education “in the past”.

The funny, thoughtful, and sometimes bizarre ideas that came out of this workshop were a surprise and a delight. Afterwards, we collectively stepped out of role to debrief about the experience. You can get a taste of the workshop and some of the debrief discussions in this video.

So what did people think?

The first thing that came up was the initial surprise and trepidation the participants felt when they realised “whoa- this is a drama thing”. But people also told us they liked the opportunity and freedom to do creative, lateral thinking and to really “get into” ideas, even fanciful/humorous ideas, as well as the multisensory and tactile nature of the workshop. They liked getting to handle familiar objects with the permission to view them through unfamiliar eyes. They were intrigued and surprised by the tendency for either utopian – or dystopian – narratives to permeate their own descriptions of either the present or the future. Someone said that because the scenario was set “so far” into the future, they felt freed up to step out from their current thinking frames and try on some different ways of seeing the present, and telling different stories about the present.  The constructive feedback was that they would have liked longer – perhaps a whole other session – to dig deeply into the ideas that came up while they were in role, and ask critical questions about the different ideas and values that were embedded in their narratives about the imagined future and present.

We ran the workshop a few more times in 2013 with different groups. The feedback in subsequent iterations of the workshop was similar. Some people reaaaaaaally don’t feel comfortable with the freedom to play in the imaginary spaces of the future. Some people  think the activity should be more structured to ensure the outcomes are more productive and tangible. They think we should spend more time around the “so what, what next” questions, which is a fair point. Other people just express pleasure and gratitude at having had a fun, memorable, and provocative whole-body experience that gives them more to keep thinking about as they re-visit their own thinking about education and the future over time.

Was it successful?

Again, looking back to the video interview we did the day before we actually ran the workshop, here was our best effort to articulate the thinking behind our design.

Looking back, what do we think now?

I’ve learned a lot more about live action role play (LARP), and “participatory culture” since then. With hindsight I can see some of the things we did well with The Museum of Before and other things we could have done better. We wanted it to be memorable and experiential, and carry an emotional component, and most of all, be fun, surprising, and playful. We felt it was very important to create a situation which allowed the participants to do the creative thinking work, and to have an opportunity to notice what that felt like, and then talk about what it means to actively think about the future and what kinds of ideas  float to the surface when we are asked to imagine the (inherently unknowable) future. I think we definitely succeeded in creating the conditions for people to start thinking differently about the future, and their role in shaping it. Could we have taken it further? Was there a logical next step in our experiential futures-thinking curriculum? Probably yes. Did we have the time and courage to keep building on our initial experiment? Well, sort of, in a lot of little ways.

Why did we stop running The Museum of Before?

It takes a lot of time and set-up to run The Museum of Before workshop. Eventually we stopped doing the full-blown workshop and instead reincarnated aspects of the concept in various presentations and resources that were less production-intensive.

The Curriculum For The Future Game is one such descendent of The Museum of Before. Like The Museum of Before, it draws on role play, and casting people into a future setting to explore familiar ideas in unfamiliar ways. Hopefully, The Museum of Before also lives on in some way inside the hearts and minds of the hundred or so people who experienced it in the different iterations of the workshop during 2013.

I’d definitely consider pulling this one back out of the vault if anyone was interested, but even if it never happens, I hope it had some lasting impacts for those who experienced it. I know it had a lasting impact on us.

Future focussed issues, Shifting research

#edchatnz blogging meme

September 1st, 2014

So far I’ve managed to avoid being nominated for the ice bucket challenge, but it’s a pleasure to have been tagged in an altogether different kind of meme, the edchatnz blogging meme. Before I wrote this, the researcher in me had to check just to see how far this meme has spread – type the phrase in Google and you’ll get a full three pages of relevant hits. I think that’s pretty impressive for one little conference and says a lot about how this gathering impacted on the people who attended. Thank you Paula Hogg (aka @diana_prince_ww) for tagging me.

If you get included in the blogging meme:copy/paste the questions and instructions into your own blog then fill out your own answers. Share on Twitter by tagging 5 friends and using #edchatnz. Make sure you send your answers back to whomever tagged you,too!

1. How did you attend the #edchatnz Conference? (Face 2 Face,followed online or didn’t)

Face to face.

2. How many others attended from your school or organisation?

None, but I travelled up with my game development sidekick Dan Milward from Gamefroot and we work in the same building, does that count?

3.How many #edchatnz challenges did you complete?

Augh, none. Somehow I missed registering this. I had no idea I had license to dance in my presentation, or get everyone else dancing. Next time… next time…

4. Who are 3 people that you connected with and what did you learn from them?

Dan and I had the pleasure of meeting @BronSt, @PeggySheehy and @knowclue in Wellington a few days before edchatnz, and then again at the conference. From them I learned you can come to NZ and pretty much nail it in a couple of weeks with a series of timely Twitter introductions… I also got to catchup with @belldogc who I met some years back through a research project. It was also pleasure to think about design stuff with @beechEdesignz. Woops, that’s 5 people.

5. What session are you gutted that you missed?

I suffer from FOMO so I have a policy against thinking about what I miss out on and instead focus on what I do get to experience.

6. Who is one person that you would like to have taken to #edchatnz and what key thing would they have learned? 

Gee guys. These questions are hard! Maybe Dave Thornycroft from Gamefroot, but who am I to presume what he might have learned? Everyone’s learning journey is their own, I think.

7. Is there a person you didn’t get to meet/chat with (F2F/online) that you wished you had? Why?

See Q5.

8. What is the next book you are going to read and why? 

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, because I use science fiction as a way to interrogate various ideas about learning, knowledge, schooling, and the future, and I wrote about Stephenson’s The Diamond Age in our recent book Key Competencies for the Future. I’m also re-reading our own book in preparation for the book group coming up in October, to remind myself what exactly we said in there…

9. What is one thing you plan to do to continue the Education Revolution you learned about at #edchatnz?

I plan to keep doing what I already do, but I’ve now got some new networks and connections with even more NZ teachers who are brave, excited, innovative, reflective, want to make a difference, like to be connected with each other, and who I can learn from, alongside the many other amazing NZ educators I’ve had the pleasure of meeting through 12 years of educational research. I’ve also put Curriculum For The Future  out into the world with a very open invitation for people to help us keep developing this little game both as a group activity and hopefully, soon, as a digital game. Watch this space…

10. Will you take a risk and hand your students a blank canvas?

 I’m a full-time professional researcher so I don’t have students, but I’ve dabbled with handing adults a blank canvas from time to time with an invitation to use it for some unexpected creative thinking about education and the future. I have learned that it is uncomfortable sometimes for we, as adults, to look at a blank page and see it as an opportunity project our own thinking and imaginings so we can examine what lies underneath our day to day practices and behaviours. It is as hard for us as it can be for some students to not get hung up on whether we’re getting it “right”. But it’s really worth it.

Oh –  I get to tag this meme on, so how about two other not-currently-school-teachers: 




Curriculum For The Future: The Game, Shifting schooling ,

The making of Curriculum For The Future: The Game

August 15th, 2014

We recently created a game called Curriculum For The Future, and have been playing it with people and gathering their feedback over the last couple of months. This post explains why we created it, what we hoped it might achieve, what we’ve learned along the way, and what might happen next.

What is Curriculum For The Future: The Game?

The game was initially inspired by tabletop role-play games (RPG), where “players act out their role by deciding and describing what actions their characters will take within the rules of the game”. In this case, the game in its current version isn’t too extreme in terms of the roles it asks players to take on. There are no wizard, trolls, dungeons nor dragons. It’s built around a scenario set in the future in which teams of players must argue for different propositions about what the curriculum for young New Zealanders should look like. They present their ideas to a panel of judges (a group of players elected as a “Curriculum Committee”), who must consider the strengths and weaknesses of different points of view and make choices about which position(s) made the most compelling case.

The gameplay itself is relatively straightforward. Our goal was to give just enough framing and structure that players can find ways to be playful and thoughtful with the ideas that are presented in the game. We didn’t want the game mechanics to overly dominate or divert the focus away from those ideas, but we also didn’t want the game to feel too didactic or boring. We think we did OK for first-time game creators.  The feedback, while largely positive (see below), has included a few sharp yet constructive comments which have helped us think more deeply about what the game does, and what it possibly could do, with some further modifications and adaptations.

Why did we create it?

Year 10 students play Curriculum For The Future

We wanted to experiment with creating a process-based resource that could create space and opportunity for ideas about “curriculum”, in its broadest sense, to be generated and shared in a way that is different to the usual ways people might interact with curriculum theory and practice. Depending on who players are, “curriculum” may be something they rarely think or talk about explicitly in their day-to-day life.

One group of people who often have very little opportunity to directly talk about or unpack ideas about “curriculum” are school learners themselves – even though curriculum is implicit in every way to what they experience as school. We think that the question of what students should learn, and why, is one that pretty much everyone is capable of offering a perspective on, whether they are teachers, learners, parents, or anyone else. How deep or well-informed those perspectives are is a relevant question, but so too is the question of whether a game could enable perspectives to deepen or become more well-informed through gameplay. We therefore wanted to create a resource that might open up opportunities for curriculum conversations that mightn’t otherwise happen, amongst people who mightn’t otherwise think or talk about curriculum in these ways. However, the dynamics of bringing together diverse perspectives, and being aware of the different knowledge, power, and prior experiences that people might bring to bear given the opportunity, is easier said than done, as we’ve learned.

But why a game?

Players at the EdchatNZ conference

Curriculum For The Future: The Game aims to give players permission to suspend some of their existing ideas and assumptions about curriculum (and learning, teaching, and school) in order to playfully explore the question “what could the curriculum be?”. Players can try out ideas that might seem outlandish or unworkable in current real life. They can argue for positions that they may or may not really agree with, or even fully understand, or they can take a position they do agree with and test it against challenging questions.

We believe it’s relatively safe to do this kind of exploration in a game because there are no real or serious consequences – there are no ways to “get it wrong” necessarily. The ideas that the group of players collectively generates or imagines during the game do not necessarily have to be acted on. Some have suggested this is a weakness, though I don’t agree. In my view, that’s not the game’s primary purpose, but that doesn’t exclude the possibility for that to happen later, or with some variations of the game in some contexts where that is a key goal. The worst case scenario is that the game is perceived as boring or pointless – but much of the game’s success depends on what players bring to the game, how they choose to play, and what meaning they choose to make of the experience. The ultimate value of the game may also have a lot to do with the context of use, and what could happen before and after the actual gameplay experience. This is something we’ve been talking about with some of our test players, and there have been some interesting suggestions about ways to provide more wrap-around to take the ideas from the game deeper and further.

A work in progress

A diverse team including students, researchers, teachers, and education public servants

We’ve been talking about these as our “beta” versions as we are currently trialling them with different groups, gathering feedback, and continuing to modify and adapt as we go. Curriculum For The Future is a research-inspired resource. In the game notes and workshop notes we discuss some of the research and thinking they drew on. They were initially written with teachers in mind but as they grew we expanded our vision to hope that they would also be useful and usable by parents, students, and other people outside education.

This is where our testing with different players comes in. We’ve played the game with our colleagues at NZCER, with students and teachers at Onslow College, Wellington East Girls College, and Hobsonville Point Secondary School, with a group of mostly teacher participants at the EdChatNZ conference, and with a mixed group of 45 players that included secondary students, teachers, NZCER staff, Ministry of Education staff, and a collection of other people from education-related and non-education organisations in Wellington. We’ve played with student-only groups, and groups which mix together students, teachers, and other adults. We have tried various modifications each time based on the feedback we get from previous players. We’ve played with very small groups (pairs), and very large groups. Every time the dynamics of the game play out differently, and the feedback raises fascinating insights into game players’ experiences of the game. In a few instances, players have seized control of some aspect of the game, which is always exciting to watch.

A diverse team plays with the idea of curriculum being "co-developed with learners"

What have we learned?

Most players say that it is fun and challenging
Only a few players have given explicit feedback that they didn’t like the game, most often because they felt they couldn’t connect with the content of the game, or couldn’t see it’s purpose. So far, these players have been the minority (although there may be others who privately disliked it but didn’t want to tell us). I’ve paid close attention to what these players have said, kept records of their feedback, and thought about what could be tweaked or changed to make it more enjoyable or interesting for them. I’ve also accepted that it won’t necessarily work for everyone, no matter how carefully we try to design it.

It gets people thinking, and opens an opportunity to hear other people’s thoughts, values, and ideas.
Many players have said this, particularly students. If the game succeeds in opening up a space for thinking and talking about curriculum and learning – even if that’s all it does – then I consider that to be a meaningful result. What happens next with that thinking is an open question and a “next challenge”. I invite everyone who’s interested to contribute their thoughts and efforts towards that next challenge.

It is perceived to suit certain personality styles or dispositions
Some players have pointed out that the game might favour people who are confident in their ability to speak in front of a group and/or who feel confident that they are knowledgeable enough to say what they think. This is almost certainly true, though there may be ways to tweak the gameplay to change habitual group dynamics that tend to favour the dominant voices. It’s also still quite a language-based game, and we already know that some of the concepts and vocabulary are hard for some players (students, or people not involved with education) to interpret, and the literacy demands of the game in its current form could be a barrier for some players. Perhaps we could try to take the game in a more visual or kinaesthetic direction. Perhaps we could remake the game based in a completely different cultural mode, style, and way of engaging with people. These are all interesting possibilities to consider.

For every suggestion or criticism of the game, someone else has said the opposite
Some people think they game should be more extreme, more outlandish, and that it should play up the “future” dimension in more provocative ways. Other think that it’s “ridiculous” to include more extreme ideas because it’s “obvious” that the less extreme ideas are going to “win” the game. Some people think we need to make it more fun, while other think we need to make sure people take it more seriously. Some people think it’s an interesting and fresh way to think about complex ideas in ways that open up for spontaneous and creative thinking, while others think the game needs to provide more explicit links to research and theory to help players take their thinking deeper.

What happens in the private space in players’ minds is as interesting as what is played out publicly in the game.
The written and verbal feedback we’ve been gathering shows that what happens publicly in the game is only the surface layer. Whether players leap into the game with gusto, or whether they sit quietly as observers, almost everyone who’s given feedback has indicated the many additional layers of experiences that you can’t necessarily see just by observing the game. Some people have talked afterwards about how the group dynamics in their table played out and how that could be different if the rules were different, or if the players were different, or if the context were different. Some talk about how they felt during the game, whether it was amusement, excitement, frustration, surprise, irritation, terror, or any other response. Are these the kinds of thoughts and feelings that are usually involved in conversations about curriculum? Perhaps not – and we think that’s interesting in itself.

“Everyone’s got an opinion on the colour of the bikeshed”
As we developed the game we had a lot of ideas about variations we’d like to have included. Some of these we tried and discarded, some of these we didn’t try, and some we’d still love to try if we have an opportunity. Our players have offered a lot of ideas too – some along the lines of our original ideas, and some which offered a different twist that we hadn’t thought of. I love the fact that other people can have these sorts of ideas from playing the game, and if I had unlimited time and resources I would love to keep experimenting and trying them out to see what happens. But my wise collaborator, game developer Dan Milward also wryly noted that “everyone’s got an opinion on the colour of the bikeshed”, and the original version of the game can’t be all things to all people… BUT…

It’s licensed under creative commons as attribution, share alike, non-commercial so that other people can take and remake the game in the ways they’d like to play it, or for the people they’d be interested to play it with. We want people to use it, adapt it, modify it. Our only request is that they share back with the rest of us what they’ve done and what happened.

What’s next?

In terms of the original version of the game, for now we’re pausing to think and reflect on all the feedback and think about what might come next. We’re also waiting to see whether anyone who’s experienced the game so far comes back to us with an idea, opportunity, or proposition for a “next step”.

Also, right from the beginning we’ve been thinking about whether and how we could remake Curriculum For The Future as a digital game. There are oh-so-many-reasons why we think this is an idea worth exploring. We’ve also discussed this possibility with everyone who’s played the game as well as a range of other people interested game development and games in education. But that’s a whole other story for the next post…

Curriculum For The Future: The Game , , , , , ,

Call for submissions: SET special issue on “Future education”

July 18th, 2013

A special message from the editor of NZCER’s journal: set: Research Information for Teachers

To mark the 40th anniversary of set: Research Information for Teachers, we invite contributions to a special issue on the theme “Future education”.

We are seeking expressions of interest from potential contributors.




Future focussed issues ,

Memory and futures-thinking

June 13th, 2013

Contemplating my filebox. Will I remember what's in it? What can it tell me about futures thinking?

I’ve been not-very-systematically accruing interesting articles to feed my ongoing obsession with thinking about thinking about the future.  Time to share some stuff I’ve picked out of my favourite filebox of delicious brain science articles (pictured left). The usual caveats apply: I’m sharing my thinking-in-progress, mulling over some of the questions I’ve been kicking around. If you’re interested in the research discussed below you can follow the links to the source material – or perhaps find a friendly neuroscientist who doesn’t mind you asking them lots of questions. Actually, that’s something I’d like to do, because some of this stuff is quite complex science but I think it’s really useful in making sense of how we think about the future (and  how we might become better futures-thinkers so that we can apply this to the task of re-imagining education). So if you’re a neuroscientist, consider that an open invitation to connect with me. If you are someone in the field of education, or just an ordinary human being who is curious, please read on as I attempt to engage with some complex brain research and draw out ideas and unanswered questions that I think we ought to think about. Roll up your sleeves cos this is gonna take a few posts.

Memory and future prediction: What’s the connection?

If you start looking into the neuroscience of futures thinking you’ll quickly find yourself reading about memory, because surprise! – these two kinds of thinking are intimately connected.  A study reported in this 2007 ScienceDaily article used advanced brain imaging techniques to show that remembering the past and envisioning the future involve “strikingly similar patterns of activity within precisely the same broad network of brain regions”. Findings like these seem to suggest

…a tentative answer to a longstanding question regarding the evolutionary usefulness of memory…..It may just be that the reason we can recollect our past in vivid detail is that this set of processes is important for being able to envision ourselves in future scenarios. This ability to envision the future has clear and compelling adaptive significance.

While there are vigorous debates amongst evolutionary biologists about the extent to which different traits can be explained by their adaptive advantage, let’s assume for arguments’ sake that there is something to this idea:  one can see why being a better future-thinker would have obvious survival advantages.

In any case, if our brains use the same “wiring” to achieve both things, it stands to reason that in seeking to understand how we think about the future, we need to also understand memory – and vice-versa. Research on memory is a substantial and fascinating field unto in itself, but I’m specifically interested in the turn in neuroscience towards looking more closely at the connections between memory and predictive/future thinking.  After reading this article by Moshe Bar, I went ahead and ordered  a copy of his edited book, Predictions in the brain: Using our past to generate a future. (This excellent collection of chapters by experts in various fields of neuroscience it isn’t exactly bedtime reading, you do need to be committed science-literate reader to get through it).

In search of unifying principles

What drew me into Bar’s work – and keeps me reading through the complicated parts – is his interest in seeking unifying principles that can help to account for much of the brain’s operations, as opposed to seeing the brain “like a collection of many little modules, each expert in a specific task”. (This approach reminds me of another “unifying” book, Fritjof Capra’s The Hidden Connections, which I posted about here).

One of Bar’s key ideas is that our minds are proactively generating predictions about the future all the time, and that they do this by associative thinking – taking the features of incoming information and linking it to existing, familiar information. In other words,

…when encountering a novel input (and all inputs are novel to some degree because we never encounter anything twice under exactly the same conditions), our brains “ask” what is this input like that we are already familiar with? (Bar, 2011, p. 14)

Bar is saying that our brains receive input and – based on the “gist” of the input – rapidly search for analogies in memory (what is this like?), and engage in proactive associative thinking (what is this connected with?).

The proactive brain?

Bar contends that associative thinking is actually  our brain’s “default” mode – it’s what’s going on all the time, when our brains aren’t engaged in “task-specific cognitive effort”. This proactive view of the brain “implies that, by default, when we are not engaged in some demanding and all-consuming task, the brain generates predictions” [1]

Bearing in mind that “for the brain, “future” is any time between a fraction of a second and a lifetime ahead” [2], what can we learn from this research? So our brains are generating predictions all the time, but are those predictions any good? Are they accurate? Are they useful? How aware are we of the mental underpinnings for our own predictions/projections regarding the future? How do our these shape our actions, and what are the consequences?

Oh dear. Something's gone terribly wrong here...

Oh dear. Something's gone terribly wrong here...

These are a among the many questions I’ve been looking at with my reading, and it appears that while the answers are not simple, they are pretty compelling and even a little bit mind-twisting. And inevitably all questions about future-thinking at  the psychological and neurological level keep connecting back with  memory – not to mention the very closely related processes of imaginative/prospective thinking.

Where am I going with this?

In the next few post(s) I am going to try to cover more of these ideas, including:

  • more on “associative thinking” and what this means for our capabilities to think of the future (for example: how does the brain generate predictions in  completely novel situations? If our brain systems work with the  ”assumption” of a reasonably stable/predictable environment, what happens if this is no longer true?
  •  ”mental time travel”  -  and why “seeing” the past and “seeing” the future involve mental processes which also apply to the mental construction of purely imaginative scenarios.
  • what research says about the inherent emotional component of memory, future-thinking/predictive thinking, and generative/creative thinking.
  • some of the systematic cognitive biases that appears to be inbuilt into our  thinking about the past, present, and future – and how can knowing about these “errors” in our innate predictive systems be adapted into our thinking and behaviour, and does knowing about our own thinking help us think differently?
I’m always on the lookout for ideas/input from anyone else who has already thought longer or deeper or is more qualified to provide a viewpoint on these matters, so if that’s you, please go ahead and get in touch.  And for anyone else, if you’re interested in the same kinds of questions I am, get in touch to let me know!

[1] Bar, M. (2011) ‘The proactive brain”. pp. 13-26 in M. Bar (Ed) Predictions in the brain: Using our past to generate a future. New York: Oxford University Press.

[2] Dudai, Y. (2011). “Predicting not to predict too much: How the cellular machinery of memory anticipates the uncertain future”. pp. 283-294 in M. Bar (Ed) Predictions in the brain: Using our past to generate a future. New York: Oxford University Press.

Future focussed issues , ,

“Going forward” – with our backs to the future?

June 6th, 2013

If you listen to the news on radio or television today I can almost guarantee you’ll hear someone talk about  going forward.

What some see as a “superfluous, meaningless, ubiquitous” phrase  has crept firmly into our language, but  this post isn’t just another rant about silly and useless sayings .

On the contrary, I want to use going forward as the starting point for a brief  and serious journey into the psychology of futures- thinking. (Don’t be fooled by the bunny pictures – I really am serious, and I’ll even leave you with some questions to ponder …going forward, if you will….).

Enough talk, let’s meet Mr Purple Bunnyman.

Going forward? Artwork (c) Rachel Bolstad.

Mr P. Bunnyman, naturally, is going forward into the future.  Well, it doesn’t make sense any other way, right?  It’s illogical to think about going forward into the past, yes?

Those who talk about going forward tend to do so in conversations about planning, strategies, “where-to-from-here”, “what-next”, “how-are-we-going-to-fix-this” kind of scenarios. All of this signals that we think about the future as something we are heading towards - it’s metaphorically in front of us. The past, by contrast, all the stuff that’s been, it’s metaphorically behind us. We  ”look forward” towards the future, we “look back” to see the past.

This is all so obvious that I see why people get irritated by the introduction of meaningless and redundant jargon like “going forward”. Perhaps it’s just another pleonasm, like ”true facts” and “free gifts”  or “where you at?” that we must learn to live with.[1]

Or maybe there is something more serious to think about, going forward?

For example, what happens if we turn Mr P. Bunnyman around?

Backs to the future? Artwork (c) Rachel Bolstad

Backs to the future? Artwork (c) Rachel Bolstad

Although he’s now facing the other direction, Mr Bunnyman is no time traveller – he’s still diligently following time’s arrow, moving inexorably in one direction (since this isn’t a science fiction blog, we’ll stick with the conventional arrangement of  past->present->future, thanks very much). Metaphorically,  the past is now laid out before his eyes, while the future is behind him where he can’t  see it –  at least not until he gets there and it  becomes his present and later, his past.

If you stop to think about it, the second picture actually maybe makes a little bit more sense. We know we can’t “see” the future – except in our imaginations – whereas we can see, touch, feel, smell, taste, the present, and we have access to memories, artefacts, and records of the past.

We don’t often think or talk about the future this way, do we? If we did, perhaps we might spend a bit more time thinking about clever ways to engineer our way out of  our natural handicap of being unable to see where we’re going. We might  think a bit harder about what unexpected surprises we might back ourselves into. Or we might look for ways to predict the likelihood that we’ll be OK on the current path. We might actually use that information to think about changing our path or orienting ourselves in a different direction.

I’ve been thinking about this problem a lot – this problem of how we think, or maybe don’t think, about the future. I’m less concerned about this at the individual/personal level (how we think about our own personal futures), as much as how we do it collectively – how our social systems and structures orient us in relation to “the future”, and why it appears as though we humans  have a bit of a laissez-faire, don’t-worry-we-have-it-sorted kind of attitude on things to do with the future.

After several years of reading everything I can get my hands on about futures thinking – from science fiction, to neuroscience, to futures-studies and the academic discpline of strategic foresight – I’ve started to form some views on this which I’ve been sharing in different ways – on this blog, in presentations and workshops, in some of my research writing, pretty much any time I get the chance in fact.

The problem with thinking about the future, in my view, is that we overestimate our natural capability to do it. Yes, we know the future is unwritten. Yes, we know it holds a degree of uncertainty, and we know that our decisions and actions in the present are part of what actually create whatever future we  are going to encounter.

We know all of these things, and yet we sort of behave like we don’t. We persist with this mental imagery of the future being in front of us, with all the confidence and certainty of a weekend tramper off for a lovely roam around the hills. Maybe we don’t know exactly what’s coming, but we feel pretty confident we’ll see it coming,  and we kind of assume we’ll know what to do with it when we get there.

To bring home just how unusual it is to take Mr Purple Bunnyman’s contrary backwards-facing perspective on the  future, take note of this  2006 study of South America’s indigenous Aymara people which found that:

Contrary to what had been thought a cognitive universal among humans – a spatial metaphor for chronology, based partly on our bodies’ orientation and locomotion, that places the future ahead of oneself and the past behind – the Amerindian group locates this imaginary abstraction the other way around: with the past ahead and the future behind….

Analysis of the gestural data proved telling: The Aymara, especially the elderly who didn’t command a grammatically correct Spanish, indicated space behind themselves when speaking of the future – by thumbing or waving over their shoulders – and indicated space in front of themselves when speaking of the past – by sweeping forward with their hands and arms, close to their bodies for now or the near past and farther out, to the full extent of the arm, for ancient times. In other words, they used gestures identical to the familiar ones – only exactly in reverse

Read more at:

This study is now about 7 years old, and I don’t know whether there has been more work done in this area, but reading the article you’ll see  that the linguistic experts certainly thought it was a pretty big deal to find a human culture – possible the only one – with a reverse orientation to the past and future embedded so deeply in thought and language.

Where I’m going with this is to encourage you to take a moment to think about those things we do all our thinking with – our minds. I think we need to understand better how our minds work if we are to become better future-thinkers. The Aymara reverse-view of time provides one opportunity to think about the consequences of certain ways of thinking, and I find it a particularly interesting one. Note that at least one researcher speculates that this different way of thinking had profound consequences

This cultural, cognitive-linguistic difference could have contributed, Nunez said, to the conquistadors’ disdain of the Aymara as shiftless – uninterested in progress or going “forward.”

Read more at:

Going back to going forward, I also invite you to think further with me about what all this “going forward” language and thinking tells us about our strengths and weaknesses as futures-thinking beasties. I can assure you that the invitation to think together is real – I certainly haven’t got it all figured out yet, but I want to keep picking away at these ideas and see where they lead.

In the next posting I’ll pick up where I’ve left off with some more interesting research I’ve been reading.

Not quite so sure any more. Artwork (c) Rachel Bolstad

[1] For the record, I do use, and will continue to use “where you at?” or maybe “wher u@?” when I’m in a hurry.

Future focussed issues , , , , ,

“Design thinking” for educators – an inspiring resource!

April 22nd, 2013

I’ve recently been talking a lot about futures-thinking in education, and if there is one “take home message” that I’d like to underscore it’s this:  We all need to start thinking of ourselves as futures-thinkers and future-builders. If you haven’t seen it already I highly recommend taking a few minutes to watch this Keri Facer video.

So…What does it mean to be a future-builder?  “Building” usually requires starting with a bit of a plan, right?  The question is, who designs the plans? I think we all need to have a hand in shaping the future, and that means we all need to think about ourselves as designers as well as doers.

I’ve long been interested in “design thinking” and last week I stumbled upon a rather inspiring set of videos and resources on Design Thinking for Educators, developed in the USA by a Riverdale+IDEO. The Design Thinking toolkit is available for download for free and is well worth a look. For a little introduction to design thinking, check out the video below. I think this could be a fantastic and inspiring resource not only for teachers and school leaders, but anyone wanting to take on the challenge of designing solutions to fit their own community’s needs and make a difference.

Future focussed issues, Shifting schooling, Teachers' work

Learning Futures: Education, Technology, and Social Change

April 8th, 2013

So far, my favourite education-related read of this year has been Learning Futures: Education, Technology, and Social Change by UK professor Keri Facer. Her work aligns strongly with many ideas and questions that I have been thinking about over the last few years.  I found it a very provocative and inspiring book (on my insistence it is currently “doing the rounds” at NZCER – filled with doxens of post-it-flags which I insisted my colleagues leave in place so that when it finally returns to my desk, I can quickly thumb through some of the key ideas that really leapt out for me ).

For me one of the most important messages was the idea of schools feeling empowered to see themselves as “future-builders” . Incidentally, while looking around at what else I could find, I found my way to this resource.

If you can’t get your hands on the book or want a quick taster, here is a recent video from the author –  definitely worth a look.


Future focussed issues , , , ,

Prof. Jim Dator on “The Future of Futures Studies”

March 22nd, 2013
A couple of weeks ago I went to The Thinking Futures Workshop organised by the The New Zealand Futures Trust.
Professor Jim Dator from the University of Hawaii skyped in as the introductory speaker, and he and the NZFT have generously shared the link to this talk for wider circulation.
If you have time I recommend watching the whole thing!

Some key points if you’re short on time:
00:00-  He introduces himself and his relationship to NZ and international future studies communities
2:14  He introduces the main subject of his talk: The future of future studies
2:40 He explains what futures studies is and is not
3:15  He proposes four recurring “images of the future” that appear recur across all projections of the future:
  • continued growth/continuation
  • collapse
  • a disciplined or green society
  • transformational
5:57  He argues what has CHANGED about the future is not the 4 images but the future itself. – there is a “new normal” for the future of futuring.
6:58  He explains “the unholy trinity +1″ – his metaphor for the “new normal” on which all future thinking must be based. Energy, The Economy, The Environment, and (+1) Governance.
10:46  Argues that no democratic country in the world is yet able to effectively deal with this “new normal”

Introducing Professor Jim Dator

Jim Dator is Professor and Director of the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies, Department of Political Science, University of Hawaii at Manoa.

His major areas of specialization include:

  • Political futures studies (especially the forecasting and design of new political institutions, and the futures of law, education, and technology)
  • Space and society, especially the design of governance systems for space settlements
  • The political-economic futures of North America, the Pacific Island region, and East Asia, especially Japan and South Korea
  • Media production and the politics of media– video, radio, and multimedia production and the effects of these media on political and other human relations and consciousness

He consults widely on the futures of law, governance, tourism, and space. He is also:

  •  Co-Director, Space & Society Department International Space University, Strasbourg, France,
  •  Fellow and member of the Executive Council of the World Academy of Art & Science

And was:

  • Secretary General/President of the World Futures Studies Federation, 1983-93.


Dealing with complexity, Future focussed issues

Researching the future of education and community engagement: “hard fun”?

August 31st, 2012

For many years some of us at NZCER have been chipping away at  the gnarly question of what it might take to achieve deep levels of community and public engagement with education – not just for the purposes of  engaging the community in debates around the perceived educational issues of today, but to start to collectively reimagine public education to ensure that it is relevant for the future. We call this “future-oriented community engagement with education”.

I’m very aware of the ease with which a term like “future-oriented” can be used to mean everything and nothing. For example, I’m fairly certain that almost everyone involved with education (including teachers, students, families, and communities) believes that what they are doing now is preparing learners “for the future”; this idea is so ingrained that it’s almost tautological.

But as I have discussed in a previous blogposting and in a lot of my writing, in my opinion most of us actually have a very poor set of  ”futures thinking” skills and tools. This isn’t necessarily a failing of our intellects, but rather of our own educational experiences and the fact that the human environment has changed (and continues to change) so rapidly that our basic default settings for thinking about and planning for the future simply can’t cut it anymore. To my mind we may as well just come  to terms with this, and with due humility,  just start getting  on with the work of assisting ourselves and each other to become better futures thinkers and futures-builders.  This is good work and important work, and really, really challenging work.  However, as an educational researcher I have seen how the inherent rewards of this kind of work are energy-building, “buzzy”, and above all, deeply meaningful for the people who are engaged with it. (Years ago at NZCER we  adopted the phrase “hard fun” to describe this kind of work, and it still crops up in our conversations from time to time).

That brings me to another question I’ve been worrying away at for the last few years: What is – or should be – the role of research in informing, supporting, critiquing, or evaluating the kind of future-oriented work that we are arguing needs to happen?  If education needs to change, what about educational research? Where are we positioned in all of this? Should we be trailing behind the changes  to document and make sense of them?  Should we be informing and directing the changes, or leaving it to others to pick up our work so that their work is “research-informed” and “evidence-based”? Is it our role to sit on the sidelines or to get in amongst it?

I think many people assume that research is about finding answers, but in my experience it’s  all about reaching the meaningful questions. If my theme question for 2010-2011 was, “what does it mean to take a future focus in education” then my theme question for 2011-2012 has been “what does it mean to take a future-focussed approach to research?”. This question has filtered through several of my recent projects; you’ll see it addressed it in section 1 of the Future-oriented learning and teaching report NZCER recently prepared for the Ministry of Education, and it’s picked it up and addressed it again in a new working paper called: What role might research play in supporting future-oriented community engagement with education?

The working paper builds on several pieces of our previous work, and in particular this piece by Ally Bull.

As you can see, my own thinking on these matters is still forming and changing and growing, and I’d be interested to hear any thoughts from educators, researchers, or anyone else who is interested in discussing this!


Community engagement, Future focussed issues, Shifting schooling , , ,