Teaching the Future: Pittsburgh

JFK was assassinated. Beyonce is coming to Pittsburgh. Harriet Tubman will be on a 20 dollar bill. Past, present, future.

These were just a few of the dozens of important events that 20 Pittsburgh-area high school students contributed during a foresight workshop hosted by Youth Leading Change and co-facilitated by Teach the Future and KnowledgeWorks. Together, we created a massive timeline of events and trends that have shaped where we are today and then envisioned what might happen in the future, considering everything from near-certain near-future developments to less-certain far-future events.

While the students learned more about how to think about the future, I learned more about how to teach the future.

Connect the personal, the local, and the global.

Students added important events and trends that shaped their own lives, their community, and the wider world for each past decade on the timeline. As a result, they saw the relationships between those layers, which can often feel disconnected. How did my ancestors’ personal pasts relate to what was happening in their neighborhoods? How might my personal future fit into a global future? How might those influence one another? Through Youth Leading Change, these young people are already involved in community change efforts, and this exercise helped them visualize futures at multiple levels

Let the past be prologue, not destiny.

As students populated the early years of the timeline, they noticed patterns of how history developed and similarities among watershed moments. Some were then able to project futures that followed past patterns, but rarely were they constrained by what occurred before. Their mental flexibility reminded me of why foresight is a perfect match for secondary history classes.  Young people have the ability to grasp the importance of what’s come before and to simultaneously imagine alternative possibilities, which is an enormous challenge for most adults.

Envision scenarios from the past and the future.

After students populated the timeline with past events, we asked them to combine a few events to create a “story,” a short narrative or drawing of what someone’s life was like at a particular moment in history. After they described possible future events, we had them do the same for a time in the future. The activity made clear to me that making sense of the past and imagining the future are similar skills; both require that we use our best evidence, our imagination, and, ultimately, our assumptions to piece together a narrative. It pushed the students to not think simply about events, but also about the implications and impacts of events that affect people’s lives, both in the past and in the future.

Let the future be both serious and lighthearted.

Today, every moment carries with it both concerns and joys, both fortunate and unfortunate realities. Why would we anticipate the future to be any different? Adults often think only about a deeply serious future. Teenagers think about that, too. Their concerns for climate change and inequality came through in the potential events they envisioned. However, they also thought about what events like Pittsburgh getting a basketball team, Game of Thronesending, and flowers “turning silver” due to air quality could mean for them and for the world. Young people have an incredible ability to treat the future less like a faraway place only filled with major world events and more like what it really is: where they will live.