Last month I twice gave a presentation called “Taking a future focus in education: What does it mean?”. The first time was for a CORE Education Breakfast Seminar in Wellington (their breakfast seminars are excellent, by the way, and well worth the early morning start), and the second was a repeat session for NZCER’s in-house “Thinking Tuesday” seminar series. I’ve just sat down at my computer to look at those presentations again to try and re-cut parts of them for the “Local and global participation” entry point session at the upcoming Shifting Thinking Workshop 2012. (May 3-4, are you registered yet?).
This isn’t just about lazy recycling of work: I’m revisiting some of my prior papers and presentations because I’m convinced that we need to sharpen up our thinking about the future in order to start making better decisions about what we are doing in education today, including how we think about supporting young people to participate and contribute at the local and global levels. Keeping a strong “future focus” angle for the local and global participation session is important to me – as you will find out if you come to the session!
However, the more I think about what it means to take a “future focus” in education, the more I realise just exactly how hard this really is. At first I thought maybe it was just me – but research is telling me that it’s not just a failure of my own individual imagination. Thinking about the future is actually really hard, and none of us should feel bad about our intellectual capacities if we find this to be the case! (Conversely, if you find thinking about the future is really easy, then…. well I hate to say this but I think you probably aren’t thinking about it as deeply as you could). Oh – and if I’ve convinced you that think that thinking about the future is hard? Here’s the worse news: Thinking about the future in order to change what we’re doing today is – you guessed it – even harder.
So why is it so hard? The neuroscience articles I’ve been reading recently are making me see that it’s partly to do with how our minds work, how they have evolved. And the educational literature suggests it’s also partly to do with how our educational and social systems shape our ways of thinking. I’ll be saying more about this at the Shifting Thinking workshop, so I hope that you are tempted to come and be part of that!
Hopefully I haven’t lost you at this point with all this talk of hardness. Hopefully you, like me, remember that hard things present us with the most exciting opportunities for learning, and that learning is fun. One thing that has been helpful for my own thinking, and for people I have presented to, has been to map a few different ways about thinking about education and the future on a continuum from “most obvious” to “least obvious”. At the left end of the continuum we have the very “obvious” and “familiar” idea that education is about preparing learners for their future lives. So far, so good. Even if we might not be all that good at really imagining what their future lives might be like (apart from thinking they will probably be somewhat similar to our own lives today), we are at least pretty good at realising that today’s education is part of what ought to set people up to do well in their lives in the future.
The next idea up the continuum is about the future of education itself, and what might need to change to ensure education is fit for our future needs. Over the past couple of decades there’s been a huge amount of international and NZ thinking in this area and I’d be pretty surprised if you haven’t encountered a lot of this already. You may know about UNESCO’s Taskforce on Education for the 21st Century, or the OECD’s “Schooling for Tomorrow” programme, or New Zealand’s Secondary Futures initiative. I hope you will have read or seen videos from educational writers, theorists, and philosophers like Charles Leadbeater or Gunther Kress or Kieran Egan, or Sir Ken Robinson, or my colleague Jane Gilbert, or any number of other TEDtalks that do the rounds talking about the need to transform our educational systems.
Charles Leadbeater who is a pretty well-known British commentator on innovation says there is a growing consensus about the kinds of transformative changes that our education systems need. This consensus is built on a massive amount of research evidence about the current state of education, as well as a lot of research about learning and about the changes that are taking place in our world across social, political, economic, and technological domains. And if you line up what all of these different people are saying, what you see is there is a pretty clear consensus that what we have now isn’t going to cut it in terms of meeting our current and future needs. I could go into a lot more detail about all of this but I’m going to move forward on the assumption that you do know about these ideas, and if you don’t, come and talk to me at the Shifting Thinking Workshop and I can recommend some good readings or TED talks.
Where I’m hoping to take us, though, in our Shifting Thinking Workshop Entry Point session, is right up to the top end of my continuum.This is where we have to think really deeply about the kind of world we might have in the future, the kinds of issues and challenges that people will be facing, and what kinds of learning will be useful and relevant for those people.
It’s going to be hard. But I think it’s also going to be fun
Meanwhile, if you’re interested you can read a little more about futures thinking on this theory page or download my2011 working paper where I was first beginning to pull some of these ideas together.