Why long term futures thinking is important
My role involves me speaking with some incredible people: finding out what they’re up to; how they are helping to create and shape the future; what they are concerned about and what implications they see for education – for the people they work with and employ, the skills and competencies they see as important, and how possible futures challenge current ideas of education. But why does investigating 15+ years into the future help with this?
The majority of organisations that I have spoken with have, at most a 5 year vision, many a 3 year strategy and all a 1 to 2 year plan – so having conversations about 15 year futures is difficult and often the first conversation is about justifying why long term futures work is important and why it is worth investing the time to talk about it. In the world of education where there are so many competing time pressures – with such a range of timescales – I thought it useful to state some of the specific values of long term futures thinking. I’d be please if others added to the list (I will as the programme develops).
1. Who is education for?
The ‘formal’ education in England lasts from 4 – 19, that’s about 15 years of formal education. Young children making the most of the ‘back to school’ shopping trips for stationery and daps getting ready for the first year in Reception class will be leaving secondary school in 2023, potentially leaving university in 2026 and entering the world of work. If one of the aims of education is preparing the young for the world and for work then having an idea of what they’re being prepared for might be quite useful! Investigating the sorts of changes that might occur, socially and technologically is important then in informing the sorts of skills, knowledges and aptitudes that we need to foster in formal schooling. Having an understanding of the possible future of work and employment similarly could inform the curricular needed, the qualifications understood by industry and the options young people will have. Preparing young people for the world outside of formal education means that we need to be informed about what that world will look like when they leave formal education.
2. Informing immediate actions
I mentioned in an earlier post that one of the main criticisms of big investments such as BSF is that they’re too short-sighted in terms of investment, essentially rebuilding current schools, rather than really investigating what education and schooling is for at the beginning of the 21st century. In the same post I mentioned cones of uncertainty – that if we can think hard about long term futures (where our thinking is less certain), as we regress that information in time to shorter term futures, our cones become denser with information and more certain. The final step then, having investigated the wide range of possible futures, is to make decisions that take into account the preferable futures, probable futures and possible futures so that our immediate actions and investments are as fully informed as possible.
3. Creating preferable futures
Throughout BCH we talk about futures, rather than the future. This is because our collective actions got to create the future we will inhabit – there is no set future that we’re all mindlessly stumbling towards. The notion of agency then, the ability to act in the world, is a really important reason to think about long term futures. Which parts of the evidence BCH is highlighting do you welcome? Which parts make you shudder? Then what are you going to do about it? What actions or investments must we put in place to ensure that the future that is realised is the one that we want? Having a good understanding of possible futures can inform our actions to create the desirable futures.
4. Systematic thinking informing current actions
Ahh, you say – but you’re not telling us what will be in 2025, you’re making observations of what could be. How can we make reliable decisions now based upon observations rather than statements of fact? The short answer is that BCH is a systematic approach to looking at evidence, trends and opinions in understanding a whole range of probable, possible and preferable futures. It is not about future gazing but about creating informed stories of the future upon which we can test current plans and policies. Linking back to point 2, if we use a systematic and reliable approach to thinking about the future we can be much better informed about the decisions we need to take now.
5. Rapidity of change
Almost every education/technology conference I go to and most of my RSS feeds remind me of the speed of change, how practices and tools change with new developments, new possibilities and new demands. Moore’s Law continues to hold true; Web 2.0 tools are being created more quickly that bring a new set of tools to my browser each day; personal communication devices are being developed with more functions etc etc. Yet balanced with this are the arguments that education is not bringing about the ‘transformation in practice’ that is called for. We need to be aware of what things are changing quickly and which are remaining constant. At the heart, we need to ensure that we’re aware of what we want to remain and what changes we want to take advantage of. To me this is about developing an understanding of the shared values of education – being clear about its purpose and therefore how different changes might help us realise them. Starting with the Children’s Plan as a central way of doing this, we can question how the aims of the plan can be realised in different futures, and of course which aims will be challenged.