Teach the Future, Guest Post by Peter Bishop

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When should students begin to learn about the future? Should they learn about the future at all?

That’s a rhetorical question, of course, because the future is not yet part of any curriculum that I know of. Nevertheless, the South Park Elementary Center is one of the few schools that have actually taught the future. Jason Legg, a technology teacher, taught three lessons on the future last year with the concurrence of Dr. Furman. Does not sound like much, but it is a big step forward.

Before describing the lessons, let me sort things out. First of all, we all know that history is one of the core subjects in school, from Pre-K through the general education requirements in college, but there is virtually no mention of the future in schools. Why is that?

One simple reason is that teachers have not been taught about the future so they cannot teach what they do not know. Another, more complicated reason is that teaching the future is different from teaching most other subjects. Most teachers focus on the content in their subject, the stuff in the textbook. History is about the periods and events of the past. So students learn about ancient civilizations, the birth of nations, the early 20th century. It’s facts. There are right and wrong answers.

When we turn to the future, however, there are no facts, no right answers. So what to teach? It is true that we do not know the future in the way that we know the past, but that does not mean that we should not learn about it, talk about it, and prepare for it. What we should learn are the skills of futures thinking–how to learn, discuss, and prepare for the future. There is no one “right” future. Rather there are multiple futures which we discover as we use these skills. We don’t expect to get it “right” because that’s impossible. Rather we get a sense and feel for change and how change might turn out. And in doing so, we also identify the parts of the future that we want to advance and the parts we want to decline. By committing to do something about those preferred futures, we impart a feeling of agency that says we actually have some influence on the future. Those are the lessons about the future—not what will happen, but what could happen and what we want to happen.

I taught the future to graduate students for 30 years at the University of Houston. They were preparing for careers as professional futurists. When I retired, I realized that I had been teaching and speaking about the future for a long time, but only to adults. Who was speaking about the future to young people? No one, even though it’s more their future than ours. So I established Teach the Future to encourage and support teachers and administrators to introduce futures thinking in their classes and schools. The first service we offered is a Library of more than 60 lessons and units about the future. A few of those lessons are for elementary students, and that’s what Jason used in his class.

Each lesson focuses on three essential questions about the future –

  • What do you think is going to happen? — The expected future
  • What do you think could happen instead? — Alternative futures
  • What do you want to happen? – The preferred future

Each lesson uses different activities to do it – reading, writing, and drawing.

A typical lesson goes like this –

    1. Ask students to share what they think the word prediction means.
    2. Have students consider how we use prediction in our daily lives.
    3. Hold up the book or the image you have chosen for this lesson.
    4. Ask students to consider what they think the book or image is about, what they think it may be about instead and what they would like it to be about.
    5. Proceed to read the book with the students, pausing as needed to highlight details that would be relevant to consider as one makes predictions about the book.
    6. Keep reading the book with pauses to clarify questions and address observations as needed, until the climax. Ask students to reflect on what has happened in the story so far.
    7. To enrich the discussion further, ask students if they have been in a similar situation to the one faced by the character in the story right now.
    8. Now return to the three central questions and ask students to ponder what is it that they think is going to happen, what may happen instead and what they would like to see happen or what the main character would like to see happen.
    9. Once the story has ended and the actual ending is now known, do a quick recap of the responses students had given to the three central questions and have them compare those to the actual ending.

The writing lesson is similar, but students actually write out their responses.

These lessons and more instructions, resources and examples are contained in the Elementary Foundation Set in the Teach the Future Library. The Library has over 60 activities and lessons, many of which could be adapted for elementary school students.

Pretty simple and straight-forward, but it’s a powerful way to teach about the future, even for the youngest children.

Thanks to Jason and Rob for being pioneers and testing these lessons for us. We look forward to more elementary teachers introducing the future so that students grow up with a simple, yet sophisticated and systematic way to deal with change and the future.

Teach the Future!

Peter Bishop, PhD, APF
Founder and Executive Director
Teach the Future

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