Looking Back on the Futures of Education

As most students and teachers wrap up the school year, I’m at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina jumping both-feet-in to a short-term teaching gig.  Duke TIP Field Studies is an enrichment program designed to offer extended learning opportunities to (hopefully) deeply engage nerdy kids. My amazing thesis advisor, Suzanne Stein, is a long-time TIP instructor (unable to make it this year, sadly) who encouraged me to apply for the job. I’m working in a supporting role, teaching alongside Stuart Candy (who co-introduced me to futures/foresight work and is renowned in the field), Dushan Milic, and Ceda Verbakel.

Having had this last academic year to stand outside of my decade-long job of classroom teaching – and to think humbly, critically and reflectively about it – it feels good to reconnect with young people. I’ve also met a few folks down here with overlapping interests (or, at the very least, a desire to be thoughtful about this practice we call ‘teaching’ and these institutions we call ‘schools’). We’ve shared a few thoughts, questions and musings on the futures of education; these conversations have prompted me to gather in one place some of the ideas about education and society that have impacted me this year. If you are someone interested in contemplating possible futures of education, and the culture we help create for children in Canada, the US, and beyond, then perhaps some of these links will be of interest to you, too.  They are not definitive of any theories I love, or pedagogies I believe in, the breadth of issues relevant to the topic of educational transformation,  or ‘solutions’ I hope scale up* – they just provoked thought and/or feeling, and for that reason alone they’re perhaps worth sharing. Please, too, share if you think there is value here.

Remember the feel-good Wired article about the Mexican teacher who broke all the rules with his disenfranchised kids and surprised everyone with how brilliant kids are, when just given permission to run with the ball? This, for me, came at a time when I needed that kind of a feel-good story.

In this article, Frank Hutchison talks about futures thinking and schools. It’s a decent primer to get you thinking consciously about how we perceive ideas around past, present and future. In a recent TIP class, Stuart asked the students, “How many of you have taken a history course?” All hands went up. I suspect you know what happened when he asked how many had studied the future in any kind of a considered way. Hutchison’s ideas may begin to convince you that we need to rethink the imbalances of past/present/futures-focused learning.

Have you ever known a teacher who got really flustered when a student outsmarted them? This book excerpt about just how smart kids are will school them a little in why they need to get over that arrogant paranoia. We need to stop thinking about young people as ’empty vessels’. It’s damn embarrassing. “[Y]our classroom is not the place for you to be brilliant (in a ostentatious kind of way, that is). It’s where your students get to be. If your delicate ego can’t handle this, well, I hear they’re looking for managers at Jamba Juice.”

Sometimes you just need to take a breath and look for something different than what you’re used to seeing. Behold, mainstream educators (and parents of kids in mainstream schools) everywhere: the Sudbury school model. Check it. I’m not backing this model, to be frank – but am interested in widening my perspective on models for learning. Sudbury shakes things up a little.

Not remotely convinced? Need a little evidence to sway you into contemplating a model that puts our innate curiosity into the driver’s seat? Peter Gray, author of the compelling book “Free to Learn“, describes in a nutshell his research into the value of play to learning (or, perhaps, how they are analogous). He has studied in-depth the Sudbury model and can speak directly to your doubts.

My colleague Nihal Ahmed showed me this outside-the-lines school in San Francisco. Brightworks is a learning community, where they call their teachers collaborators. It looks damn fun. Dayum fun!

When considering our general understandings of education, perhaps we need to think beyond schooling and also about societal values and priorities. If, really, our school model is an industrial model, then surely how it came about is connected to a set of values relevant to society during the industrial era? How, if at all, do we need to shift schooling and ‘organized learning’ to better reflect and build upon the values we collectively hold dear today and going forward? Empathy is getting a lot of press. Jeremy Rifkin’s classic RSA animate on the subject will fill your brainbox with goodness.

While we’re at it: the Atlantic has a very interesting article on how we co-opt these kinds of deep concepts into trite bites. What are we doing wrong that allows for empathy to become a catchphrase?  School is often shallow – I feel we need to go deeper.

An NYT Sunday Review article might get you thinking on the role that an individualistic society plays in elevating certain values, and smothering others. What kind of a world do we want? What are our preferable futures? What role does the culture we offer children play in how their lives will unfold over time? Despite ‘globalization’ and what we naively assume it implies, if we look carefully we’re graudally being confronted with the paradox of collectivistic and individualistic social and societal structures. We need to look away from the mirror and look around a little, don’t you think?

Working with kids to explore ideas about futures, we talk a bit about ‘S-curves’ and the evolution of a technological, environmental, economic or other trend over time. The shape of change is often similar overall, and it’s valuable to reflect on how the seeds of some ideas grow into fully-fledged artifacts, movements or approaches, while others wilt underground. Social change can, too, be seen through this kind of curve. This summarizes, briefly, the arc of social change. I tuck this away in the back of my mind, because I feel on some levels that the seismic shifts we need to see in the world of kids’ learning may eventually take this shape. Where is educational transformation on the curve these days?

Changing gears a little: have you read much about the role praise plays in learning? It may not be what you think. Brainpickings (I site I love because it connects me with lots of thought-provoking books to read, and gives me compelling summaries when I don’t actually get around to reading the books) highlighted Stephen Grosz’s “The Examined Life”. I spend a lot of time thinking about how, societally, we seem pretty ok with putting kids together in schools, segregating them from a young age into the ‘cans’ and the ‘cannots’ and then acting surprised that behaviours reflect these imposed, often cruel roles. We then admonish the ‘cannots’ further for their lack of conformity both academically and socially. If you want to talk about why it’s abusive and criminal, I’ll go there (just let me know). It may be at the root of why the system started to kill me inside and I now take anti-anxiety medication.

Last year, I began strolling regularly with a friend. We tried to carve out time to go for long, brisk walks – often after work. The quality of our side-by-side conversations was excellent, and I miss them. Stumbling upon this article about the connection between movement and creativity has me, yet again, looking at the desks ‘n rows model and just shaking my head in disbelief.

Those in favour of Do-What-You-Love have come under some scrutiny lately, and I’m not going to discount those critiques. However, sometimes you just need a good pick-me-up or, frankly, a slap in the face about what the hell you’re doing with this one-and-only life. When needing either of these things, I highly recommend sitting with the ideas presented by Paul Graham about how to do what you love.  Delicious food for thought.

While we’re at it, Brianpickings is back with some highlights from Roman Krznaric’s “How to Find Fulfilling Work”. Crusty teachers need to think on this, both for themselves and for the young people with whom they’re charged. This is not merely an individualistic question – it’s a broader social question that begs us to consider how we got to asking it in the first place.

Does struggle mean learning? What do you think?

Integrative thinking is not about teaching kids what to think about, but helping them learn how to think. Is it a good idea? I don’t know. But at least there’s talk about shaking things up a little. And, frankly, teaching will be officially be the most Boring Job Ever if it’s about telling people what should be in their brains.

Get this: there is something called ‘narrative truth’. The idea here is that rather than remembering the past without bias (and therefore, in theory, with some kind of objective historical accuracy) we alter our memories of experiences so that they conform – to whatever degree – to our mental models of what we value, appreciate and believe. It’s sweet, in a way… but also limiting, don’t you think? From a futurist’s perspective (and I’ll take Jake Dunagan‘s permission here**, and just call myself that because I can – heehee) we limit our openness to change by remaining invested in repeating an ongoing narrative without questioning it. We – often unconsciously – assume the futures will unfold in a certain way, and therefore avoid considering the roles we play in actually shaping them. Here are some arguments in favour of ‘revising our inner storytelling’.  You can extrapolate from this how these ideas relate to education, schooling and the path we pave for kids.

This past week, one of our TIP students wrote to us at the end of class (we do a ‘parting thoughts’ activity on a cue card at the end of each day, asking students to share with us whatever they’d like, in a few lines of text and/or drawing – and we write back each night) saying she’d been really challenged by an activity that asked her to be creative. She claimed that in her high school – where she’ll be in her final year come September – that she is never required to be creative. She used the word ‘never’. Most of her reflections this past week have been centred on her excitement at tapping into her latent imagination, in a school-like context. She has shared with us how exciting it feels to be accessing those parts of herself. WHAT? I threw up in my mouth a little when I read her initial confession, and subsequently felt brokenhearted for every high school student in America who can echo her experience. I’m not being melodramatic. Our imaginations, I believe, are our most innately beautiful gift next to our capacity to love. Ok, I’m writing that off the top of my head – but it sounds about right, no? Isn’t our inner freedom to imagine just about the most wonderful thing? I will boldly state that I hate a world where imagination has no currency. Some compelling ideas about how we rail against creativity-numbing in the workplace can be read here.

Would any collection of musings on the futures of education be complete without considering the ADD/ADHD epidemic? Maybe. Again, my heart breaks for our world where we try to bridle children and shame and/or drug them for not conforming. What’s the S-curve of ADD, anyway? How can we, with any kind of conscience, maintain an educational model that drugs, chastises, and otherwise shames young kids for being the way they are? If we’re seriously up to the task of learning through struggle, then we need to consider our necessary struggle ahead as educators, parents and members of society-at-large if we’re going to make education the value offering it has the potential to be. We are not there yet as long as this is the paradigm. I’m suspicious of big pharma. And I’m ADD as hell when shit is dull. “In September 2005, over a cover that heralded Kirstie Alley’s waistline and Matt Damon’s engagement, subscribers to People magazine saw a wraparound advertisement for Adderall XR. A mother hugged her smiling child holding a sheet of paper with a “B+” written on it. “Finally!” she said. “Schoolwork that matches his intelligence.””

Jumping off from there – I don’t have a link to anything about why grading is questionable, but I’ll park that for another post if you’re curious. Authentic feedback to students, though, I will never, ever knock. For the record.

Lastly, I read a book this year that had me use up a whole pack of page-marking stickies. It was called “Presence“, co-authored by Peter Senge, Betty Sue Flowers, Otto Scharmer and Joseph Jaworski. While it’s proof-positive that writing a book between four people is an exercise in awkwardness, the content – for me – overrode the writing’s cheesiness factor. This book sums up on intellectual, emotional and spiritual levels the value in creating systemic change – and that it’s possible. For me, it was a very hopeful book.

Going forward, I’m currently reading about personality disorders in support of a research project of Suzanne’s, exploring the relationships between time perspectives and socio-economics, planning to dig into Ivan Illich’s “Deschooling”, and hopefully indulging in some fiction to counterbalance all the overt thinky-thinky. What I would love, of course, is if you were to share here some of your inspiring and thought-provoking recommendations.

“Schools are designed on the assumption that there is a secret to everything in life; that the quality of life depends on knowing that secret; that secrets can be known only in orderly successions; and that only teachers can properly reveal these secrets. An individual with a schooled mind conceives of the world as a pyramid of classified packages accessible only to those who carry the proper tags.” ― Ivan IllichDeschooling Society

With respect,



*Those who know me personally know that my interests and commitments span far beyond the topics and ideas captured here. I acknowledge that there are many social issues I have not touched on in this post, issues that absolutely impact and are relevant to questions around educational transformation. My apologies for what may be my unchecked ‘narrative truth’ when it came to selecting these links on this particular day, in this particular dorm room, in this particularly humid state of North Carolina. I hope, over time, to round out what’s shared on this blog to better reflect the multitude of ‘branches’ that stem off from the idea of education.
**Jake is a contemporary of Stuart’s, and he skyped in to talk to our TIP class about what it is to be a futurist. When one student asked, “How do you become a futurist,” his (paraphrased here) answer was: you call yourself one. 🙂


  One thought on “Looking Back on the Futures of Education

  1. Aldona Satterthwaite
    June 22, 2014 at 11:46 am



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