Report from the Houston Summer of Futures

From Peter Bishop: 

I’m standing in front of Quail Valley Middle School on a warm July morning watching dozens of cars turn into the school. Each vehicle is bringing a middle school student to the Houston Summer of Futures, a futures camp created by Teach the Future. The Houston Summer is the first major initiative in partnership with school districts around Houston and Dallas.

Teach the Future has been operating officially for two and half years, and informally for almost 10. StudentThe first version was based at the University of Houston and offered five teacher workshops and one summer camp around 2010. The current version began in 2013 when I retired from the University and more specifically when Teach the Future, Inc. was formed in January 2015. Since then, Teach the Future raised money through crowd funding to pay teachers to build a Library of materials for teaching the future.  

Another group of donors contributed money this year to develop The Futures Thinking Playbook for middle school students, which is now being finalized by Katie King and Julia Rose West. The book contains a coherent process, appropriate for middle school students, for choosing a topic to investigate, doing research on trends in that topic, and writing creative stories about the expected future and about a ‘What if?’ future that could happen instead. The book is the basis for the four-day summer camp. The teacher-facilitators for the camps provided invaluable feedback for the book which will be available for sale in the Fall.

The partnership with the three school districts began with a day-long teacher workshop on tools and techniques for teaching the future in their classes. A subset of those teachers took two additional days of training to learn to facilitate the four-day summer camp. In total, 185 teachers took the one-day course; 18 teachers took the facilitation training, and 12 of them facilitated two camps that served 160 middle school students. In fact, the facilitators and administrators involved in the camps are asking for more discussions about how they can adapt and use this material in their regular curriculum.

Evaluations conducted at the end of each segment showed that teachers and students were very glad to have taken the training and attended the summer camp. All the comments were good. Here are few selected ones: 

  • Futures thinking teaches learners to more readily accept differences of opinion…and perspectives, and be able to communicate and thoughtfully debate these divergent outcomes amongst themselves and their peers...
  • The most rewarding training I have honestly been to. I have received activities and items I can use in my class for years to come.
  • Teach the Future has given me great materials to use in my class throughout the year. The material can be used in any subject or grade level.
  • Love the design of the day! I would also "advertise" this as giving educators tools that they can use over and over with GT learners as they teach for depth and complexity.

Students echoed the teachers’ comments. The activities they liked best were researching their topic, asking “what if?” questions, writing creative stories, and imagining themselves as superheroes who solve major problems in the future.

  • Students also summarized what they learned in the form of several fundamental truths –
  • I need to follow my future or the future I want.  
  • Every choice you make changes the future.
  • All things have positive and negative effects.
  • I will always remember the story that I wrote with the drawings.
  • It is good to look at things using two perspectives because the future could play out many different ways.

So Teach the Future now has a portfolio of proven products and services that districts and teachers can use to introduce futures thinking to their classes and schools. And we will continue to develop workshops and materials to use with K-12 learners.

But of course, we did not do this by ourselves. So our thanks to the 2015 donors who helped us build the Library and to this year’s donors who contributed the money to write the book. Thanks also to the team who made the Houston Summer of Futures successful:  

  • Dr. Lue Bishop who developed and taught the one-day teacher workshop,
  • Katie King and Julia Rose West who wrote and designed a rigorous, yet friendly approach to the future which Katie turned into an outstanding training session for camp facilitators,
  • Sandy Damashek who contributed her expertise in children’s media, and Sarah Rebar who crafted outstanding illustrations.

And most of all, our deepest thanks to the district administrators and teachers at Fort Bend, Spring Branch and Coppell Independent School Districts who took the risk to partner with us to bring the future to their teachers and students: You are all pioneers of change, and you have our deepest respect and gratitude.

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The Summer of Futures

To help teenagers think more effectively about the future when making decisions, Teach The Future has launched the Summer of Futures for high-school students. This program has three phases:

  1. Starting now, administrators can schedule a 6-hour course for teachers of GT (Gifted and Talented) students. All participants learn how to integrate a lesson on ‘futures thinking’ into their classes, whatever the subject. 
     
  2. After completing the 6-hour course, teachers may sign up for a 2-day workshop which prepares them to conduct a 5-day student workshop. Teachers will be paid for their time, certified for “Futures Thinking” instruction, and eligible to work in the Summer of Futures program. 
     
  3. During the summer, high-school students will gather in our 5-day workshops to learn how to think about different ways the future could unfold as well as their possible roles. Students will be able to select topics and issues which they see as important to their future. 

Want to participate? Know someone who should? We have brochures and flyers and entry forms. Just contact Peter Bishop, peter@teachthefuture.org. 

Who Taught the Future in 2016?

Last month, we sent out a survey to everyone who downloaded materials from Teach the Future's library last year. We wanted to understand what worked for these earliest adopters and what we can do better in the future. The respondents were split about 50/50 between higher education and K-12, and about two-thirds of them were teachers or instructors.

What did we learn from them? Let's start with the good news:

About two-thirds of respondents said they were "extremely" or "very" satisfied with the material they downloaded. No one said they were unsatisfied.

Ninety percent of respondents said they were likely to use the material again or teach other lessons about the future.

Those data points are uplifting, but they only represent those respondents who had used the materials they downloaded. About half of respondents had downloaded but not yet used the material with their students. We also learned that nearly half of those who had used the materials said they modified them "moderately" or "significantly." 

Neither of those points were surprising nor did we feel that they reflected poorly on Teach the Future. I can confirm that when I was in the classroom, I downloaded many materials that I found interesting but never got around to using. I also very rarely used online materials "as-is"; my students and teaching style were my own, and my lessons and units needed to reflect them. 

Nonetheless, those responses reflect a need. Most educators we come across "get" why teaching the future could be valuable. They find the concept intriguing and recognize the disservice we're doing to young people by omitting the future from classrooms. Still, few teachers make the leap to actually teaching the future. That's partly due to time constraints, which we will never overcome, but it's also because teachers themselves were never trained to think this way nor to introduce these concepts to their students.

That's why we're focusing in 2017 on teacher professional development and support. That's always been part of our plan, and we individually supported several teachers last year. But we are buckling down on that effort this year with the hope that we can make educators more comfortable with the concepts and the material to the point that they don't need us or even our Library anymore. We envision a community of educators who can incorporate futures thinking into any subject and are committed to doing so.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the survey. If you know of a school or group of educators who want to learn how to teach the future, or if you want to sponsor educators to participate in this professional development, get in touch.

Teach the Future with Imagine FutureEd Student Competition

When I was in the classroom, the best days were when a unit both sparked my students’ interest and helped them see the world or themselves in a new way. The first time I taught a future-focused unit, I found a perfect mix of both.

They read future oriented-novels, compared them with articles about change happening today, and envisioned their own future worlds. My students were intrigued by the promise of new technologies but were also attuned to possible unintended consequences. Their concern about some of the dystopian futures they imagined was matched only by their insistence that we all must be involved in influencing the future. In the end, they developed mostly hopeful and optimistic future images, but their weeks of discussion, reading, and thinking made them understand that we all have a role in shaping what’s to come and that our preferred futures are unlikely to occur without focused action.

Many students do not get a chance to explore the future in a rigorous and creative way. To help bring futures thinking to more students and surface their views of the future of learning, Teach the Future and KnowledgeWorks are hosting a student design competition, Imagine FutureEd. That competition invites students to submit scenarios (stories about the future) and artifacts (images of the future).

I hope that all educators and young people who participate in the Imagine FutureEd competition have a fun and mind-opening experience like my students did. To provide guidance for young people as they create their submissions, Teach the Future and KnowledgeWorks are creating activities to spark both creative and critical thinking. These activities are based on the work of experienced foresight educators and on workshops that we have done with students in the San Francisco Bay Area, Houston, and Pittsburgh. The four core activities that we are developing focus on the following topics:

  • Exploring Your Future Outlook: How do you think about the future? How do others think about it?
  • Exploring Possibilities for the Future: What changes are happening in education already? What might happen next?
  • Telling Stories from the Future: What might the future of learning look like given different trends and possibilities?
  • Reflecting on the Future: Why is thinking about the future valuable? What should leaders be doing today to prepare for it?

An extension activity also guides young people through illustrating their stories by creating and submitting artifacts from the future.

There are so many reasons to participate in the Imagine FutureEd competition. In general, teaching young people to think about the future empowers them to ask challenging questions and imagine a range of possibilities. I have always found that to be an enlightening experience for everyone involved, educators included. In particular, the Imagine FutureEd competition gives adult facilitators the chance to develop their toolbox for engaging students around the future and offers the option of receiving some extra help from our team. We are also lining up some exciting prizes! But the most important reason to participate in Imagine FutureEd is that, by giving young people the time and support to think about what, why, and how people could learn in the future, you are telling them that their ideas, voices, and leadership on this important topic matter and deserve to be heard.

Learn more about Imagine FutureEd and sign up to participate.

Teaching the Future: Travis High School

What do you get when you combined the fashion industry, soldiers, and an aging population? A compelling future scenario, believe it or not.

We recently had the pleasure of hosting an after-school workshop with 52 students at Travis High School in Richmond, TX, and played IMAGINE, our scenario building game, for the first time with students. Most of the students are part of a Global Studies Academy and this was the first session of several where they will explore global issues such as climate change, an aging population, and education and health care access. Our pitch is that thinking about the future of an issue first can help surface new insights that will lead to better and more forward-thinking solutions. You can see me explaining this to the students here:

IMAGINE is meant to get the wheels turning for scenarios. At the end of each round, each player has a short (four lines) scenario that may or may not make much sense on its own but is ripe for further development and might already raise a few interesting questions about the future. A pre-scenario, we might call it.

Below are a few from the students who participated, lightly edited for clarity. Each of these raised a compelling question about the future for me, which I’ve included.

It’s 2031, and we are collapsing. Our ocean is draining and our water situation is hopeless. Back in 2016, our society was aging. Because of that, older people worked longer and young people had a hard time finding jobs and were paid less. Since then, younger people became enraged and rebelled and attempted to drain the oceans.

What new conflicts might arise between young people and older people as the 65+ population grows?

It’s 2031, and we are making it work. Our schools are improving, but paper is challenging to find. Back in 2016, global climate change was increasing. Because of that, we experienced drought. Since then, droughts have spread all over the world, which has caused many trees to die and almost no paper has been produced. Most schools can’t give homework because there is no paper, but they are trying to find alternatives.

What effects might environmental change have on our most constant systems and traditions?

It’s 2031, and we are collapsing. The country is hopeless and soldiers are limited in their options. Back in 2016, our society was aging. Because of that, the fashion industry struggled. Since then, soldiers couldn’t express themselves through their appearances, so most of them fell into a deep depression and fewer soldiers were willing to enlist and now we have no one to defend our older people.

How might an aging population affect national security and military issues?

It's 2031, and we are renewing. Our places of worship are alive and bacteria are fresh. Back in 2016, there was more economic growth in developing nations. Because of that, new technologies were created. Since then, the priests created a machine that would allow anything to adopt religion. The bacteria are now part of the church and are on the quest for enlightenment. Blueprints are being written for the first ever bacteria church in 2032. We’re calling it the Temple of Bactabuddhism.

This one gave me a huge laugh, but it also blew my mind when I thought about how we might begin to manipulate and “recruit” bacteria and microorganisms as we learn more about them, how they work, and how we might try to use them to our advantage. I see endless implications to explore there.

We’re still tweaking the game. It’s still a bit too complex, and the cards and the template need to match up better than they do. Nonetheless, the group had fun and came up with some really provocative ideas about possible futures. I’ll leave you with a final reflection from one of the students:

We should think about possible futures because we are the next leaders of the future. We need to know the possibilities of what could happen.

OECD Director: "The past was interactive, the future is participative"

"A generation ago, teachers could expect that what they taught would last for the life of their students. Today, schools need to prepare students for more rapid economic and social change than ever before, for jobs that haven’t been created, to use technologies that haven’t yet been invented, and to solve social problems that we can’t yet imagine. "

from Andreas Schleicher, OECD Director of Education and Skills

Global Education Conference Recap: Gwen Ifill and the Power of Possibility

“Your necessary voice can invest in the power of possibility. You can relish the unexpected. You can claim the path you never really intended to take.”
— Gwen Ifill, 2014 commencement address to the American University School of Public Affairs

The Teach the Future team and our colleagues from UNICEF and OECD presented “The Power of Possibility: How Teaching the Future Can Promote Student Agency in a Globally Connected World” at the Global Education Conference on Monday, November 14. When we signed up to participate, we didn’t consider that we’d be presenting amid the intense global uncertainty that’s emerged from the U.S. presidential election, or that shortly after our session, we would learn of admired PBS journalist Gwen Ifill’s passing.

Our presentation was about engaging young people in the study of foresight. We made the case that by giving them the tools to think about the future critically and creatively, we can support and nurture their sense of agency. Instead of simply telling them to trust that it will all work out, or, alternatively, allowing the stresses of today to overwhelm them, we can teach them to rigorously examine the world around them, imagine a range of possible futures, and act with their new knowledge in mind.

Gwen Ifill didn’t have a clear path to the future. When she began, she didn’t have a roadmap of how to achieve at the highest levels of journalism as a black woman, so at some point she had to envision a future that was more than simply an extension of the present.

Many of today’s young people also find themselves in uncertain positions and with unclear futures. Our co-presenter Yulia Oleniek from UNICEF is developing foresight materials for educators in Sudan, and we’ve worked with students in Pittsburgh, the Bay Area, Houston, and Costa Rica. For many of them, the barriers to a positive future can feel insurmountable. For some of them, the outcome of the election has made those barriers even more daunting. We urgently need to build up their sense of possibility for the future, but we don’t believe unchecked optimism should be the goal. We need help young people engage with the messiness and murkiness of change and help them navigate it. The tools we use to understand the future are not perfect, nor do they provide all the answers, but we believe they can help young people understand the world in meaningful ways and help them find their necessary voices, which they will need to shape the future.

We need more role models like Gwen Ifill to help the next generation see what’s possible, and we need to support vulnerable young people better than we do today in so many ways. We also need to teach them how to recognize signals of change, examine assumptions, consider multiple possibilities, envision futures that don’t yet seem possible, and forge new paths that even Gwen Ifill couldn’t have imagined. At a time when an imagined past is some people’s preferred future, we believe this is essential work.

We appreciate the opportunity from the Global Education Conference to talk about teaching the future, and we thank everyone who attended the session. Special thanks to Yulia Olenik of UNICEF and Miho Taguma of OECD Education 2030 for joining us as presenters. You can watch the full, hour-long session here, and we will have segments of it ready soon. And for an inspiring message about agency, we recommend you watch Gwen Ifill’s full speech to American University graduates here

OECD Education 2030 Workgroup Recap: Foresight as a 21st Century Skill

I’ve spent the last two years focused mostly on Teach the Future’s “bottom-up” activities, directly addressing educators who want to teach the future. We’ve assembled our Library of teaching materials for foresight educators, offering activities, lessons, units and whole courses which teachers can use freely. We’ve worked with students across the country, facilitating workshops that introduce them to futures thinking.

Recently, I had the opportunity to work at our mission from the "top down.” We’ve consulted with the Policy and Planning Unit at UNICEF, which is creating a soon-to-be-released toolkit for their country offices to engage adolescents in foresight.  I also contributed to an OECD project called Education2030, whose objective is to compile a research base for competencies that students will need to be successful in the future, commonly referred to as ‘21st Century Skills.’ I was one of 14 experts to begin the process of compiling the OECD list. Because as a futurist, I believe we need to look to the past before we can look to the future, I consulted as many other lists of 21st Century Skills as I could find. Much to my dismay, after having spent a career in foresight education, I found that foresight did not appear even once on any of the existing lists.

After making the case that we must teach the future explicitly in order to prepare young people for the future, foresight did appear on the list of cognitive competencies discussed at the 2nd Informal Working Group meeting for Education2030 held in Japan in December 2015. Having put it on the list, the Education2030 staff then asked me to elaborate on what foresight is for the final report. I also appeared at the 4th Informal Working Group meeting in Beijing in November 2016 to give a brief presentation on foresight and discuss its implications in breakout sessions with the participants.

The OECD is still working on their report so it is not available yet.  But when it is, we trust that it will give educators a rationale to approach their curriculum developers to include foresight among the competencies and learning objectives for their schools.

Teach the Future at the Disruptive Innovation Festival

The Disruptive Innovation Festival (DIF) is taking over the web again November 7-25. DIF is an online, open access event that invites thought-leaders, entrepreneurs, innovators, businesses, makers and learners to explore the question: The economy is changing - what do I need to know, experience and do?

This year, Teach the Future Europe has the opportunity to host two sessions for this future-focused festival, called "Engaging the next Generation's Imagination."  In other words, we will show examples of how easy it is to bring future thinking into your classroom. 

We believe that we are obligated to prepare young people for tomorrow by teaching the future today. It helps them embrace change in this rapidly changing world, and shows them that they are capable of creating their own future.

That's why we are attending the open mic sessions. The aim of the Open Mic stage is to provide a platform for future-focused ideas to be shared and discussed so we can all learn from and discover new perspectives for mastering everyday challenges.

Our first session, which will be held on the 8th of November from 12:00-12:30 GMT is focused on working with young people between the age of 10-12 years. The second session, held on the 9th of November from 12:00-12:30 GMT, will discuss the same subject but with a focus on 17-19-year-olds. By explaining several key techniques to help young people imagine the future, we hope to inspire teachers, parents and others to bring futures thinking into the classroom and beyond. Of course we are available to answer all your questions live in the discussion box after the streaming of our sessions.

We hope to virtually welcome you on our Teach the Future session at DIF.

See Teach the Future in Action in New KnowledgeWorks Video

In May, I collaborated with KnowledgeWorks and Youth Leading Change to create a foresight workshop for high school students in Pittsburgh as part of the region's Remake Learning Days. You can read more about my take on the great experience here, but now you can hear from the students themselves. KnowledgeWorks wrote about the session and put together this fantastic video that highlight students' views on the future, why we should teach the future, and how Pittsburgh is leading the way in rethinking education. Watch and share!