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.
We hope to hear from you soon!