Teaching the Future: Emeryville

A screenshot of one of the final games students created in "Game the Future."

A screenshot of one of the final games students created in "Game the Future."

What is the future of digital privacy? What are the implications of space resource extraction? How might we deal with food waste differently in the future? Can robots be competent caregivers?

A small group of high school students explored these questions (which they developed and researched) as part of a three-week academy put on by Teach the Future and California State University, East Bay’s STEM Institute CIRCLe Labs program. We called it Game the Future because the students learned how to “find the futures” of their chosen topics and consider multiple possibilities of how those topics might develop over time and then created online games to communicate their ideas, thanks to the talents of Jateen Bhakta of Ninja Pandas, my co-instructor on the project.

You can find an adaptation of the unit we did in the Teach the Future library. (It unfortunately leaves out most of the great game design skills because, well, I didn’t teach that part and don’t know how to!) You can check out a draft version of one of the games here. (They’re still being revised and will be submitted for publishing on in the Google Play store).

A few reflections:

Futures Gallery Walk

We did a gallery walk to illustrate the definitions and examples of trends, events, and “unknowns.” I showed them sets of images and news headlines representing trends (population growth), events (President Obama is elected), and unknowns (how might artificial intelligence develop?) and talked about the patterns they noticed and discussed other examples of trends, events, and unknowns in society. It was my favorite activity of the unit. The discussion was wide-ranging and insightful, and we even had the chance to talk about ideas like cycles in social change and underlying assumptions that sometimes direct the course of change. A major aspect of Teach the Future is giving teachers and students the language and the framework to be able to talk about and make sense of changes they already see and futures they already consider.

Futures Wheels

Futures Wheels are one of the most fun and accessible foresight tools, and this group used them to envision futures where privacy is a concept of the past and people regularly adopt new identities; where tension arises between what an elderly person wants and what her robot caregiver is programmed to provide; where our cycle of consumption and resource extraction pushes us deeper and deeper into space. A key support that instructors can offer in this activity is to make sure that students are moving through first-, second-, third-, and fourth-order effects step-by-step instead of jumping ahead to the most far-out effects right away. This keeps the conversation grounded in logic and reveals the less-obvious (and generally more interesting) effects.

From Futures Wheels to Stories

The step of our process where the students took the futures wheels and translated them into branching stories was the most challenging task for them and the one I’m still thinking through. Weaving together a series of possible outcomes into a coherent storyline and identifying how exactly those outcomes link up is not easy. Next time around, I would do more focused modeling and practice, but I would also be interested in any other instructors’ thoughts on how to scaffold this process more fully. Developing scenarios is a key skill that can help any of us envision possible futures, but making it both approachable and informed by research and critical thinking is a challenge.

What else?

As I thought about how instructors might adapt this unit for their own needs, I realized that this could be a great project-based learning unit. Students could identify an audience who needs or wants to understand the future of a certain topic, interview their audience, decide which aspects of the future of that topic might be most important for them to understand, develop their stories accordingly, and learn about how games can influence people’s thinking and behavior.

Every day, we reflected on what we’d accomplished and learned, and one student commented, “I like that we talked about the grey areas and the complicated ways things could turn out. Most of the time, people just talk about the future like it’s black and white.”

And that’s what Teach the Future is all about.