Teach the Future is dedicated to bringing futures thinking to young people around the world. This blog is about the opportunity for young people to learn about the future outside of school.
We all, young people included, learn in different ways – at home, in school, in museums and libraries, in after-school and summer programs, online, on social media and a lot, perhaps most, from their peers. Schools are important for Teach the Future because young people spend most of their waking hours there, six to seven hours a day, five days a week, 40 weeks a year. However, the school curriculum is already oversubscribed with mandated standards and textbooks that contain more than teachers can cover so it is difficult to add more to their curriculum. Teach the Future has ways of doing that, but it’s still difficult.
As a result, Teach the Future has also worked with other learning environments, such as summer programs in Texas. Our first venture with informal learning was with museums. The American Alliance of Museums maintains the Center for the Future of Museums. We have delivered presentations and conducted workshops at conferences in the United States with ASTC, the Association of Science and Technology Centers, and in Europe with ECSITE, the European Network of Science Centres and Museums. We have consulted on a terrific project called Dream Tomorrow Today, at the Doseum, the children’s museum in San Antonio TX where they are opening their second futures exhibit on this summer. Finally, we have partnered with the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University who also helped design Futures, an exhibit at the Smithsonian last year. So, museums around the world are including the future in their materials and programs.
Now we are turning to another informal learning environment, the library. Libraries hold a special place in the American culture, usually as a safe, warm and helpful place to learn. Like most Americans, my library memory was in Baldwin, New York where I grew up.
Teach the Future’s first contact with libraries was through a unique organization called SPLAT (Special Projects Library Action Team) at the Idaho Commission for Libraries. I attended their meeting in October 2019. We did an exercise called Assumption Reversal to use our creativity to discover ways that the future could surprise us.
It’s a simple three-part activity. The first part was to list a few things that have always been true about libraries. In their exercise, the members said things like libraries were always in a building, there were people and books in the building, etc. The second part was to write down the opposite of those things, such as not in a building, no people, no books, etc.
The third part was where the fun began. Tell a story about how, in a fantastical future, any one of those things could occur. I don’t remember the stories, but I do remember that they were pretty comfortable thinking of libraries outside of buildings and without books because of the Internet. But imagine a library without people? They thought that was really strange. But, of course, that is exactly what happened six months later when COVID struck. We didn’t predict the future, but we learned that the future can be really surprising.
The Idaho Commission held its first in-person convening in March this year. It was sponsored by the Teen Services branch, and it attracted 80 teen librarians from around the state. Teach the Future conducted a three-hour workshop on including the future for teens in the library. We covered things like…
· How much material and programming that libraries have about the past versus about the future (a lot more!) and how much futures should be in the library (a lot more!).
· What do teens think of the future? A professional survey* found that teens are pretty reasonable about the future. More than half believed that being a teenager these days was fine and that they would be able to make a living as an adult. In fact, 90% believed they would be rich when they grew up. Maybe not so reasonable after all!
· Why include the future in libraries? Futures thinking is an excellent way to introduce a major reform in education, such as shifting the emphasis from learning facts (what’s in the text) to acquiring skills. Why spend years learning facts that they can look them up on the Internet in 20 seconds? It’s more important to learn what do with those facts, such as how to critically think about them, how to communicate them, how to work with others to use facts to improve their world.
· What would students learn in class on futures thinking? A lot, but two things mostly:
1. There is not one future, but many. We can’t just settle for the most likely future or the least or the most preferable one. Most of the questions we learn in school, in history or in science, have one right answer, and most of the problems we solve have one right solution. But most of the important questions and problems we encounter as adults have multiple answers and multiple solutions. Some better than others, for sure, but not just right and wrong, despite the fact that most adults believe that their answer is the right answer! In the same way, there are other plausible futures, some more likely than others, and many preferable futures, some more valuable than others. Students should begin practicing how to use their judgment to understand those differences and to listen to judgments from others in their earliest years.
2. We are not helpless victims of the world. We can influence the future, even in small ways, to make it better for ourselves, our families, our communities, and the world in general. Influencing the future is not like construction where you use a blueprint and a set plan. It’s more like raising a child where we might have a plan, but the child (or the world) has a say in what’s going to happen. In the end, we do not know enough, and we do not have enough control to just follow a set plan. We need to approach the future tentatively, interactively, more like an explorer entering unfamiliar territory vs a builder constructing a house. We may have a plan, but we must use it flexibly as we adapt to unexpected conditions.
· Can we try it out? We did not have the time to do the five exercises planned, but they would have covered:
1. Our assumptions about the future. Is it determined or open? Do we have influence or not?
2. The different signals about how the future could be.
3. A game to think creatively about the future.
4. An exercise to imagine the preferred future.
5. A story about how one can influence the future.
Each of these exercises is available here.
Finally, SPLAT had just released a toolkit for introducing futures in libraries, including programming, displays and staff development.
The Idaho convening was followed in April by a conference on the future sponsored by the Maryland Library Agency. They attracted 150 librarians from around the state and from other states to discuss the future of libraries. Teach the Future began the conference with a keynote that made the distinction between ‘the future of libraries’ and ‘the future in libraries,’ sharing most of the Idaho presentation. The keynote was followed by a one-hour workshop where 35 participants experienced some of the exercises shared in Idaho.
Young people learn in many ways – schools, museums, libraries, the Internet. Teach the Future is working to make materials and training available to professionals in each of those areas, and to the young people themselves, so they can approach the future with their eyes open about what the future could be and their hearts full of the desire to make it as good as possible…
The Maryland Agency will hold a follow-up meeting on June 7 to discuss how they and others can move forward to introduce futures thinking to libraries. If you would like information on this meeting, please reach out to email@example.com.