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How to talk about teaching the Future

I had lunch with a colleague today who made a generous contribution to Teach the Future. As a result, she earned the right to designate a teacher for coaching on teaching the future. She is close to her children’s high school, and wants to designate someone, but does not know how to approach the teacher or the principal with this opportunity. “Who is this for?” she asked. “Is it for a specific subject? Or for a specific type of teacher?”

Excellent questions. Despite having presented and written a lot about Teach the Future over the last six months, I realized that there was no one place that says how a person from the community could talk to a principal or a teacher about Teach the Future. So that’s what this blog is about—an FAQ of sorts.

The short answer

We teach a lot about the past as we should. That’s where our culture and institutions were created. But no one is going to live in the past. No, today’s students are going to live in a challenging and uncertain future. Should we not give them some idea of what it might be like? Not teaching the future is like taking students on a field trip, but not telling them where they are going!

The future has traditionally been shrouded in mystery and superstition, but no more. We have been teaching the future to adults in graduate schools and corporate seminars for 50 years now. We know how to do it. It’s time we started teaching the future to young people as well.

But how can we do so when the future is unpredictable? The answer is that there is not one future, but many futures –

  • The one that most people think about is the Expected (predicted) future. That’s where we will end up if everything happens the way we expect it to. That’s where most people stop, and they are almost always wrong.

  • Something else is bound to happen, in the details for sure and even in the big things at times. Those something elses are the Alternative futures, usually depicted as scenarios, stories about how the future could occur. We cannot predict them, but we can exercise our capacity for dealing with unexpected change by imagining what they might be.

  • Finally, we don’t have to accept whatever the future hands us. We have a role to play in shaping the future as well. We have time, talent, and resources that we can apply to move closer to our Preferred future based on our values and preferences. We cannot achieve all of that future, but we will get more of it if we apply ourselves than if we don’t.

So what we are asking teachers to do at first is to simply ask three questions in their classes –

  • What do you think is going to happen? (Expected, cause-effect thinking)

  • What might happen instead? (Alternatives, contingent thinking)

  • What do you want to happen? (Preferred, value-based thinking)

Most teachers can do that so we should start doing it now! Here are the details…

What is Teach the Future?

Teach the Future is a global movement to introduce futures thinking in schools at all levels—secondary, college, professional and adult/continuing education.

Why is teaching about the future important?

We teach a lot about the past, which we should, but we teach almost nothing about the future. Educators claim, rightly so, that they are preparing their students for the future—how to read and write, how to collaborate and think. But they tell them next to nothing about the world that they might be living in as adults. Should we not give them a hint about what lies ahead, at least as much as we can?

Do you have to be able to predict the future to teach about it?

School is mostly about getting the right answer – in math, in history, in science, etc. One would think, therefore, that the “right” answer in learning about the future is to predict what will happen. But, unlike predictions in science, the future of human affairs is inherently unpredictable so we cannot know what will happen in the future in that way. That’s when teachers go silent and teach something for which they do have the answer.

We do know a lot about the future—demographic and economic projections, future changes to the world’s environment, new technologies that are coming along all the time. Those things are “fairly” predictable. But there is another way to answer the question of the future that does not require that we know exactly what will happen, including a whole range of things that are highly uncertain—actions to curb climate change, the resolution of domestic and international conflicts, the risks of new technologies. Should we just be silent and not teach about those crucial issues just because we do not know exactly how they will turn out?

Do we look away from the road on a rainy night because it is hard to see what lies ahead? Of course, not. If anything, we pay even closer attention. Should we not do the same thing about the future of our students’ lives?

The right answer in teaching the future is not what will happen, but rather “It depends...” There are multiple plausible scenarios out there that we should consider. Some good; some not so good, but all are important to know and discuss and learn from. How else are we to make decisions about the future? So put briefly, we cannot know the future, but we can know many of the most important futures. And shouldn’t we teach them to our students?

Can teachers teach the future when they have never been taught themselves?

Not right away, of course. But learning about the future and how to teach it is not as hard as it might seem. It’s not brain surgery or organic chemistry. It’s simply an organized and systematic way of collecting data and using reason along with disciplined imagination to depict plausible futures and their consequences. It is also using our values and aspirations to create visions and set goals, and then using the knowledge of ourselves and of how the world works to develop strategies and plans to achieve those goals and make the future better for ourselves, our families, our communities and the world as a whole. Aren’t those skills important for students to learn while they are still in school?

What is the best way to introduce the future in schools?

Teaching the future can be done in a separate class, but it does not have to be. Teachers can use the future to teach the skills that they are already teaching, just by using the future rather than some other topic to do so.

Here are examples of where teachers can introduce the future in the main subjects –

  • History – flow, change over time, time series, patterns, uncertainties, contingencies, alternative histories, historical images of the future, historical analogy

  • Literature, language –future tense, subjunctive mood, science fiction, asking about the three questions for fictional works –

    • What do you expect to happen?

    • What might happen instead?

    • What do want to happen?

  • Mathematics – time series, extrapolation, probability, preference ranking, criteria weighting

  • Physical science – time series, extrapolation, technological applications, social consequences, public issues

  • Social science – social change, time series, cultural concepts of time, national and global awareness

  • Art – imaginative depictions, feelings and perspectives of the future

The whole educational system is becoming more interested in teaching complex skills, so called 21st century skills like critical thinking and creativity, rather than just answering questions on a test. The establishment may not have caught up yet, but many parents and even teachers are starting to push back on excessive testing and test preparation.

So here are the concepts and skills that can be taught using the three types of futures –

  • The expected future

    • Causal reasoning

    • Mathematical extrapolation

    • Critical thinking, identifying assumptions

    • Implications analysis

    • Evaluation

  • The alternative futures

    • Challenging assumptions

    • Creativity, imagination

    • Causal reasoning from different premises

    • Estimation of plausibility

    • Implication analysis, evaluation

  • The preferred future

    • Values clarification

    • Preference ranking, criteria weighting

    • Communication, persuasion

    • Planning, organizing

All of these are worth teaching, and any teacher can use the future to do so.

The conclusion

The U.S. alone contains more than 65,000 public and private secondary schools and over 7,000 post-secondary institutions. Every one of them has at least one history teacher, if not whole departments. They teach about the past, as they should, because that is where our culture and our institutions began. But no one is going to live in the past. They are going to live in the future, and we should give them some idea of what they can expect when they get there.

And that is where Teach the Future comes in. We are developing teaching materials to put in teachers’ hands so they can teach the future using the knowledge and skills they already have. In the early days, we will be coaching those teachers individually on how they can use the future to teach whatever they want to teach – in social studies, in math, in science, etc. We will then capture that experience in seminars and in-service classes to introduce futures thinking to more teachers. Ultimately, we will write books and other teaching material and put them on the Internet to reach even more teachers.

We now know how to teach the future. We have been doing it in graduate programs and corporate seminars for 50 years now. Isn’t it time we included our young people in the conversation? If a systematic and beneficial approach to the future is ever to become the obvious, default way of dealing with the future, it has to start with young people while they are still forming their fundamental assumptions and skills about how the world works. Let’s start that now!



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