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!

IMAGINE: the scenario game that helps kids think about the future

“It’s 2031, and we are renewing…”

Last week, Teach the Future to introduced a new game called IMAGINE designed to get kids thinking about foresight and the future. We joined The Association of Professional Futurists’ (APF) 12-hour Futures Festival on Friday, September 16, and showed them how it works! They were very excited, and I want to share our experience.

The Festival was an online gathering using Adobe Connect and provided a forum for futurists from around the world to present tools and ideas as well as various projects they are working on. We thought it was a perfect opportunity to test our game with people who understand what futures thinking is all about.

IMAGINE is a card game that Teach the Future designed to help young people create future scenarios grounded in observable change and heightened by imagination. Worth noting is that this game is just one piece of a larger curriculum that Teach the Future is creating to make futures thinking more accessible and fun for both teachers and students (more news on that soon!).

Our experience teaching the future to young people proves that they often have the foundational skills needed to create strong scenarios. They are comfortable spotting trends and signals of change as well as creating wildly imaginative future stories.

But we’ve also found that weaving those two ideas together in one scenario is often a challenge for them.

For the APF event, we created a web version of the game (you can find it here with instructions: teachthefuture.org/imagine) and ran a demo with the group, hoping that we could learn more about the game and receive insight and perspective from experts.

The Scenarios

During the demo, we asked participants to create “fill in the blanks” scenarios using inputs from a set of “spinning wheels” that contained various options. They then combined those with their own ideas, using their imagination and understanding of change.

Here are two scenarios from people who attended our session:

It’s 2031, and we are renewing. Our ocean is thriving and our hope is being restored. Back in 2016, we saw growing concern about trash and plastics, and because of that, new technologies began to emerge. Since then, more floating plastic has been removed from our major oceans.

It’s 2031, and we are renewing. Our ocean is out of pH balance and our hope is that we can rebalance its pH. Back in 2016, we saw acidification of the ocean. Because of that, oceanic food supply was threatened. Since then, new technology has created passive alkalinities, which, when deployed in acidic hot spots, will help transform it and renew a pH which supports life.

You will notice a few similarities in these scenarios. We gave participants some structure and inputs to work with, and then they could take it in any direction they wanted. In a classroom or workshop setting, the game would be paired with some research, it would be played for several rounds, and followed up with analysis to identify insights and next steps.

What We Learned

Though the medium for our first dry run with the game was virtual and we are planning to use cards in the classroom, we learned a lot. Plus, we received some very positive feedback from people who work both with students and with adults. They felt that the game would be a great tool for scaffolding scenario creation. Since that was our objective when designing IMAGINE, that was great to hear.

We’ll continue to finesse how we introduce players to the game and how to stage it so it flows well and delivers valuable outputs. Instead of giving the players everything at once, we may need to take a more step-by-step approach. Please play the game online, we’d love to hear your thoughts!

Next Steps

Later this week, we’re playing the game with students in person at Travis High School in Sugar Land TX, so we’ll have more insight to share. Soon we will have the cards downloadable for anyone to play, and we hope to unveil the whole curriculum early next year.

Stay tuned! And thanks for your support. Please share any comments/suggestions/feedback in the Comments section below.

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.

Falling Backwards: Reflections on a Fundraising Campaign

Teach the Future completed its first fundraising campaign in May.  We raised about $15,000. But I was surprised to experience the oddest sensations the day we made our goal ($10,000), and were assured that we would get some money.

The first sensation was a variation of the ‘trust fall,’ when you stand on something and fall back into people’s arms.  I felt as though I had fallen backwards (or stepped off a cliff to make it even more dramatic), and the 60 or so campaign donors caught me.  The experience, however, was not typical trust fall since there was no camp counselor lining people up and telling them to catch me.  I just stepped off the cliff all on my own, and the community responded. Wow!  I was prepared for the campaign to fail, for me to fall flat on my face (or back as the case may be).  So it is difficult to express the gratitude and almost amazement 1) that I did that and 2) that people responded.  I’ve never felt that way before.

The second sensation was how I responded to the many people who congratulated me on the successful campaign.  My reaction was that I didn’t do that; the donors did.  They were the ones to be congratulated.  I realized that for almost the first time in my life, my success depended utterly on other people.  I’ve never been much of a team player.  I didn’t play organized sports or any other organized team activity, like theatre or orchestra.  I usually cut my own path where success (or failure) was mostly up to me.  

That isn’t true, of course.  Whatever success I have enjoyed was due to many people—my parents, my teachers, my colleagues and friends.  Running the futures UH program was definitely a team effort involving faculty, students, graduates and external organizations coming together to build something special.  But never before had I realized how completely dependent I was on the generosity and good will of other people.  

In our seminars, I teach that leaders “enroll others in a campaign to accomplish something of significance.”  I show a picture of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California.  He was a leader, and he began every speech with, “My name is Harvey Milk, and I am here to recruit you.”

But I also show a short YouTube video which says, “Leadership is overrated.”  It is followers that make successful leaders and, parenthetically, they are the reason that anything gets accomplished at all.  I am trying to be a leader, and frankly, for the first time in my life.  I knew there would be much to learn, such as social media and fundraising.  But I didn’t realize that I would be learning life lessons as well.

So a TMI thank-you to all those who caught me by enrolling in our social movement.  We will be calling on you again, early and often, to help us reach our goal of 1,000 teachers teaching the future by 2020.  Stay in touch!

Scenarios As Learning

One of the first questions people ask me is how accurate I was in forecasting the future, but it’s not the right question.  First of all, I am not really a professional forecaster; I just play one in the classroom!  But more importantly, who cares?  Was I surprised by the fall of the Soviet Union?  Yes.  Was I surprised by the rise of the Internet?  No.  But again, who cares?  If I were picking horses in the race or stocks in the market, then people might have a legitimate interest in how accurate I was.  But statements made 20 years go?

The real issue is that foresight is not fundamentally about the future.  We don’t make 20-year forecasts, and then wait for 20 years to see if they come true.  Foresight is about dealing with change, and the only place we can do that, the only place we can do anything, is in the present.  Forecasting (and visioning for that matter) is designed to increase our awareness of and readiness to accept change.  That is hard because most of us do not like to trade the known for the unknown, the familiar for the unfamiliar, the present for the future.  We are doing OK in the present; why gamble on an unknown future?  Even only a few futures students would travel into the future permanently.  The present is not that great, but it’s what we know.  It’s our home.

So what is the purpose of forecasting if it is not to predict the future.  Arie de Geus, one of the scenarists with Shell many years ago, said, “Learning faster is the only sustainable advantage in an environment of rapid innovation and change.”  It’s not about getting the future ‘right’.  It’s about recognizing change when it occurs and being ready to respond to it at an appropriate time and in an appropriate manner.  Eric Hoffer put it this way, “In times of change learners inherit the earth while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”  Learners are still learning; the learned stopped learning some time ago.

Angela Wilkinson, also a Shell veteran and now with the OECD, made the following observation based on her time at Shell.

The most common question about Shell's scenario practice is "Did it work?" That is, did it create direct business value by enabling better decisions? The answer is "yes" in the case of more-focused scenarios and "only indirectly" in the case of global scenarios. We have no solid examples of Shell's having anticipated future developments better than other companies—the mythology around anticipation of the 1970s oil crises notwithstanding. The historian Keetie Sluyterman characterizes Shell as being perhaps faster than other companies in catching on to changes in market or culture, by virtue of its sensitivity to emerging topics such as climate change, the rise of China, and the controversial boom in the development of extensive unconventional gas resources in the United States.
(Wilkinson, A. & Kupers, R., “Living in the Futures,” Harvard Business Review, May 2013, 119-127.)

Scenarios are not predictions.  Rather they are opportunities to practice living in a different world, much like the football team will practice against their teammates playing like their next opponents.  Airline pilots, astronauts, first responders all practice with scenarios.  It is like physical conditioning.  Jogging is not transportation; you don’t get anywhere.  In fact, you end up right where you started, but you are in better shape.   We don’t make scenarios to hedge our bets about the future in hopes that one of them might turn out to be correct.  If one is correct, all the better.  But even if none are correct, it is still worth the effort because we are better prepared to recognize and respond to the change that does occur.  Foresight is about learning in the present.  It’s about being ready to release our white-knuckled grip on the present and move into the future when the time is right.

We should be teaching our children and young adults this skill before they are old adults!

History teachers Teaching the Future. Of course!

David Staley, Teach the Future Board member from Ohio State, organized a session about teaching the future at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta on Saturday, Jan 9.  After the meeting, journalist Colleen Flaherty wrote an excellent summary of the session.  She said, “After attending several AHA sessions, I thought yours would make a 'great story.’  So here it is! http://bit.ly/1KbjgiP 

And we could tell the same story about teaching the future in literature, social studies, math, and science. I even have a lesson on teaching the future in art.  Comment below if you have ideas about how to teach the future in your discipline.

What’s it all worth?

“We teach the future as we do the past.”  That’s the vision of Teach the Future, a hope and a dream I have had for a long time.  It seemed obvious to me that we should explicitly prepare students for the future just as we teach them about the past.  It came as a surprise, therefore, when a participant in a training seminar last week asked me to explain (justify?) why teaching the future would be better than not.  She understood the vision all right, but she didn’t see its value.  “How will the world be better if we achieved that vision?” she said.  Wow, I surely did not see that coming!

So I’ve been noodling the Why’s of teaching the future since.  I am going to take a stab at a few here, but I am also going to try to start the first widespread (I hope!) discussion of this question among the Teach the Future community—my first real foray into social media, outsourcing the issue if you will. 

But first a few ideas –

  1. Human curiosity – I’m going to start this list with a humanistic reason for teaching the future rather than the more utilitarian reasons below.  The future has been fascinating to most human cultures that we know of.  Each culture had its own way of investigating and preparing for the future – the elders for tribal societies, the divinations and fortune tellers for imperial societies, prayers for religious societies, and now social science for modern society.  I have no doubt that our approach to understanding the future will seem just as quaint as those do to us, but it is ours and we should teach it.  So just as we study and teach many things for the sheer joy of knowing, things like astronomy, art, literature, music, and yes, history, so we should teach the future because it is better to know than not to know.
  2. Anticipation – The inaugural speech for Teach the Future makes the point that the current rate of change sets the stage for the appearance of strategic foresight in our time.  It was good enough for previous generations to wait for change because it arrived slowly in most cases.  No longer.  The 20th century experienced more global events that affected more people than any other century in human history. Each of those events required hundreds of millions of people to rethink their assumptions about life and society and to learn new skills that the new era demanded.  That transition from the old era to the new will never be easy, but it will be easier if we can imagine and think about those changes beforehand. Anticipation is a critical human skill.  We should cultivate and refine it so we can handle the unexpected when it occurs.
  3. Decisions – Isaac Asimov said, “The only constant is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today.  No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.”

Teaching the future is not just about anticipating change; it is also about influencing it. What do we wish to see happen?  And why?  What are our values and preferences?How can we achieve the best for ourselves, our families, our communities and our world? The original purpose of public education was to create an informed citizenry that could skillfully participate in a democratic society.  While career preparation has become more important today, a citizenry that understands what may happen and about the consequences of decisions and actions will make for a better society.  Those societies will hopefully make better decisions, or least less bad ones.  Could we have avoided the many blunders in the past with a better knowledge of the future?  Not all, of course, but avoiding some would have made for a better society.

So here are my three reasons for teaching the future as we do the past -- 1) Better to know than not.  2)  Better to prepare than not.  3) Better to understand the consequences of decisions and actions than not.  

Up until now, people studied, anticipated and influenced the future in myriad ways.  Our way today is to approach the subject systematically, to use what evidence we have to draw conclusions, to challenge the assumptions that narrow our exploration of the possible, and to take actions with the best possible understanding of the consequences. Not only should powerful and influential people know how to do this, but, every citizen should know how to handle the future in a society where the consumer and the voter are the ultimate authorities. That is a better society, IMO.

I eagerly await your response, and particularly to see the reasons that you provide.

And so it begins...

Until recently, I was director of the graduate program in Foresight at the University of Houston, a program I had been a part of for more than 30 years.  At the time, It was the first free-standing foresight degree in the world. Since then, the program has graduated more than 300 professional futurists, many of whom are helping businesses, non-profits, government groups and even individuals to more effectively anticipate and influence their future.

I retired from the program in 2013. So what does a retired foresight professor do?  Golf?  Fish?  Play checkers?   Not this retired professor.  Now he has the time to advance his personal passion — to introduce futures thinking to students in classes and schools around the world.  It is now time to teach all students about the future!

Why?  We all have a future.  We all worry, dream about, fear and hope for that future.  The future has  fascinated people since the beginning of time, and it still does.  Teachers claim to be preparing their students for the future.  In 1987, Christa McAuliffe, teacher-astronaut on the ill-fated Space Shuttle Challenger,  said, “I touch the future.  I teach.”  The future is a consistent and important theme throughout education, but it's only an implied theme.

It is strange, therefore, and somewhat sad that teachers and students rarely discuss the future in their classrooms.  Curriculum planners and designers do not build it into their curricula.  State agencies, regional accrediting associations, and non-profits like the College Board, the Educational Testing Service and the Common Core do not include it in their standards.  What is going on here?  We want students to be prepared for the future, but we don’t tell them about that future?  It’s like preparing someone for a job in another country, but not telling them which country they are going to!

Of course, you can't really blame teachers.  They were never taught about the future either, as students themselves or in their preparation to be a teacher.  So how are they supposed to teach something that they were not taught and do not know.  Good point, but more of that below!

And how can you teach the future anyway?  It hasn't happened; it doesn’t exist, yet. We’re not used to teaching things that don’t exist, you may say.  But what about literature and fiction?  Well, yes, but that’s different.  That’s fiction, not fact.  Then what about history?  We believe it did exist at one time, but it doesn’t any more.  If we can teach about the past, why can’t we teach about the future?

One reason is that the past is relatively clear and definite.  The people of the past left us things that we can study and so come to know their time—photographs, documents, buildings, even their bones.  The people of the future haven’t even created those things, much less passed them on to us.  So how are we supposed to know the future without the evidence?

Another good point, and this is where the study of the past and the study of the future differ.  We believe there was one present in the past and that there will be one present in the future when it occurs.  We believe we know a lot about that single present in the past, but can we know that single present in the future?  The answer is No.  The future holds too much complexity and too much uncertainty to be able to tell us today what the future will be exactly, although many people still try.  That is why most teachers are reluctant to even speak about the future.

So what are we to teach if we can’t know that one future?  We should teach that the future is not that one future, but many possible futures.  The real future today is not one true future hiding among a bunch of imposters.  No, the real future today is all of those “imposters.”  Since they all could plausibly occur, given one or another chain of causes and effects, they are all the future today.  The future is many, not one.

But this first blog is no place to elaborate the technicalities of knowing the future.  There’s plenty of time for that in the blogs of the future. Suffice to say that teachers can still introduce the future right now by asking three simple questions in any class, at any level –

  • What do you think is going to happen?  The answer is the Expected Future, where we are headed, what will happen if nothing truly surprising happens.
  • What might happen instead?  The answer is a set of Alternative Futures, the result of surprising and unexpected developments and of using incorrect assumptions about what could occur.
  • What do you want to see happen?  The answer is the Preferred Future, based on values and preferences, the intended result of our effort to influence the future.

This is teachable, and in fact, necessary because today’s students are living in and preparing for a world of ever-increasing change.  Knowing how to anticipate and influence that change is a key ingredient for their being successful in that world.  Leaving it out of what we teach today is a disservice to them and to the world they will build.

For that reason, I have established a community, a collaborative, a social movement even to change education in one very important, but precise way.  It is called Teach the Future. Every course, every school, every system should be teaching the future routinely as they do the past.  We know how to do that.  We have been doing it at the University of Houston and at a handful of other universities around the world for 40 years now, with some incredible results.  It’s time we spread that teaching where it can do the most good, to the children of today and the near future.

Join with us then to promote Teach the Future.  Fill out the contact form on this website to stay in touch.  Tell us about yourself, about anything you do in education or in the futures field, and most importantly, what you might do to introduce futures thinking into schools, either as an educator or as a community partner.

And participate with us on your favorite social platform – Facebook, LinkedIn, and of course, on Twitter (@teachfutures).  Or contact me directly at peter@teachthefuture.org.

We hope to hear from you soon!