high school

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.

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.

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.

Teaching the Future: World Future Society

Teach the Future facilitated a high school workshop and conducted a panel presentation at the annual meeting of the World Future Society in San Francisco.

Katie King and I teamed with April Dennis from Future Problem Solving International (FPSI) to lead a group of high school students through the complete scenario development and problem solving process.  We helped three teams create a “future scene,” a description of a plausible future that contained some issues and challenges.  Two teams worked on the future of social media, and the other team developed a scenario for the future of work in the age of automation.  After the break, April took over and walked the students through the six-step problem solving process.  It was really quick (one morning), but all the students said that they were glad that they came.  In fact, one said she wanted to be a futurist after that session.  Fist Pump!

The next day, I moderated a session called “Teaching the Future: Experiences from the Field.”  The panel consisted of four foresight professionals who teach the future at the four different educational levels --

  • Secondary -- Katie King taught the future to 8th graders at South Bay Middle School in Eureka CA.  They read futuristic novels in English class and applied those ideas to the present and to the future using foresight perspectives and techniques.
  • College -- Sam Miller taught in and directed a course on Foresight in Business and Society at the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame.  Mendoza has been ranked as the Number 1 undergraduate business school in the U.S. for the last five years.  Every undergraduate takes the course, the only required foresight course in the U.S.
  • Professional -- Uri Avin described how urban planners use scenarios in their work.  He is a member of the Open Planning Tools Group that is developing units on scenario planning for professional schools in urban planning.
  • Executive -- Bob Harrison manages an executive education program for mid-career law enforcement officers.  The backbone of that program is five days on strategic foresight, including scenario development and strategic planning.

These courses should be typical; unfortunately, they are not.  In many cases, they are unique, one of a kind.  That is why Teach the Future is devoted to bringing this type of teaching to secondary, college, professional and executive programs across the world.

It was an honor to work with The World Future Society (WFS), the public face of the futures movement.  One of the WFS goals is to attract young people to the Society and to the field so it was a pleasure to introduce the insights and tools of foresight and futures studies to the membership, both young and old.