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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

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.  http://www.nzcer.org.nz/news/seeking-submissions-future-education

 

 

 

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!
References

[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: http://phys.org/news69338070.html#jCp

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: http://phys.org/news69338070.html#jCp

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 , , ,

Supporting future-oriented learning: A new report

June 12th, 2012

The Ministry of Education has just released a report we prepared for them entitled Supporting future-oriented learning and teaching – a New Zealand perspective.

It’s great to have this work out in the public sphere, and given its focus I think it may be of particular interest to you in our Shifting Thinking community.

The report draws together findings from new data and more than 10 years of research on current practice and futures-thinking in education. It discusses some emerging principles for future learning, how these are currently expressed in New Zealand educational thinking and practice,  and what they could look like in future practice.

We hope that this piece of work can be a platform for continued thinking about the future of learning and teaching in New Zealand and I would be interested to hear from any of you who have a chance to engage with the report (or those of you who might have contributed to the research!)

Future focussed issues, Shifting schooling , ,

Taking a “future focus” in education

April 2nd, 2012

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.

Future focussed issues, Global and local participation, Workshop 2012 , ,