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