The Value of Future Scenarios in Classrooms

When speaking recently at about some of the benefits of futures thinking in education, I went a little off-script and shared an anecdote. I was really nervous, but in hindsight the brief divergence from the written plan may have resonated more deeply than anything else I’d prepared. I’m reprising it below, with some further reflections.

A friend and I were having dinner last year when she began to describe to me a school project her grade 7 and 8 students had done, here in Toronto. The project had to do with environmental degradation, and while I don’t recall all the details, I do remember her saying that the whole thing ended on a bit of a sad note. She explained how the students had done a lot of research on waste management and recycling, and then synthesized their findings. When it was all said and done, they’d basically come to the conclusion that the world as we know it is headed toward hell in handbasket. She described it as having had a depressive effect, after what had been a pretty in-depth investigation.

She and I then spent some time wondering about why, as teachers, we even give kids these ‘projects’ – where they undertake research in order to share what they’ve found – with little to no actionable elements. The bare bones of this particular assignment was to have the kids go through the effort of finding a bunch of depressing information, put it all together, and that was about it.

How often do we do this? How often does the work we give kids ask little more of them than to track down information, synthesize it, maybe add an introduction or a conclusion to tie it together, and voilà? Back in my Teacher-Librarian days, I used to mention to kids when they’d balk at the word ‘research’ that they were already researchers. Most of them tended to spend some of their free time looking up information about things that interested them, and were pretty skilled at finding all sorts of cool stuff tucked away in the nooks and crannies of the Interwebs. In the case of the school library, they were being asked to go use those same skills to look up something on the computer that either I or their classroom teacher had requested they look for – the only difference was their degree of engagement, and the particular type of rigour expected around the work. Really, though, our middle-school students already know how to gather information, because they’ve been doing it since they could type into a Google search. It’s just not enough to simply ask them to do that. To those who argue that they need to learn to discern the validity of sources, or to look beyond Wikipedia, I say: you’re right. But the acquisition of those skills alone does not justify these ‘flat’ projects and assignments. We can make room for the learning of critical researching skills as part of a larger arc of a complex project – they’re not an excuse for having an assignment focus only on information gathering. Yes, I write that humbly and with a touch of self-deprecation. I’ll acknowledge it’s easy to think critically about the holes in our teaching when, right now, I’m at a safe distance from a classroom. But I digress.

In my presentation last week, I used the story of the sad recycling project to help illustrate the power of futures thinking and scenario generation as tools for learning and inspiration. What if, say, we invited the kids to explore the landscape of waste management as a problem-finding exercise?

Then, what if instead of having them simply ‘report back’ their findings, we prompted them to go a little further?

It might look something like this:

  1. They could then extend their search to look at whether there is evidence of any change, innovation, opportunities, and obstacles in their chosen realm and make note of them. Futurists call this scanning for signals and trends.
  2. They could produce a series of possible scenarios of the future – set however soon-or-far into the future they’d like – that describe several different fictional possibilities, depending on what they uncovered in step 1.
  3. They could share and analyze the scenarios, comparing them against their own wishes, hopes, and fears, and determine which is the most desirable, least desirable, most likely, least likely, and so on. They could use the scenarios to gather data about other people’s interpretations.
  4. They could take their findings and consider what steps could be taken now, and in the time between tomorrow and their projected futures, to start to develop ideas about how we could get there.

In amongst these steps are multiple opportunities for creative collaboration, experience design, play, writing, analysis, experimentation, debate… I’m giving the bare-bones breakdown only of how a simple ‘research project’ could be tweaked to have a futures focus.  The list doesn’t end a ‘4’, as there is potential to extend it to include different modes of production, reflection, dissemination. The kids themselves would have lots of ideas.

In some ways, what I’ve described is really connected to PBL (Project-Based Learning), with the added step of scenario generation. It’s that crucial piece that I really want to highlight here. I encourage teachers to consider the value in supporting students in envisioning possible futures. This is the dreaming-before-doing bit: the part where young people get to imagine possibilities, and then use their own invented stories and ideas as launching pads for the generation of possible solutions. Scenarios are empowering as both an exercise in creative production, and as a tool for scrutiny: stories about possible futures can be used as measuring sticks for the present. Questions can be asked of the scenarios, and then questions about the scenarios can be asked of ourselves.

Thinking about my own daughter, I’m excited by the prospect of her learning experiences being dominated not by ‘information gathering’, but by opportunities – with support – to explore possibilities. Arguably, there is a sense among many of us adults that there is little we can do to affect change. The last thing I want to do is pass down that feeling to kids by simply burdening them with information that makes them feel helpless and without hope. Sure, they’re inheriting a mess, but how are we helping if our ‘teaching’ evokes feelings of boredom or defeat?


 

If you’re intrigued by the idea of scenarios, here are 4 ‘snapshot’ scenarios I wrote as part of the presentation mentioned in the opening paragraph. They are unusually brief, but I hope prove useful in conveying a sense of what scenarios are all about.

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