Leading in uncertainty

Image – from cover of CSE publication

“It is the absolute duty of educators to look forward in an informed and balanced way to a future very different from the past; one that, though they may not themselves experience it fully, their students undoubtedly will.”

Valerie Hannon and Anthony McKay, 2021 in Five Signposts for the Future of Educational Leadership

I received quite a bit of feedback after my previous post about how we prepare for and respond to disruption in our education system. Some were appreciative of the perspectives I shared and the links provided, while a few expressed skepticism about what they felt I was saying, suggesting that the disruption isn’t nearly as large as the hype that surrounds it, and that we simply need to be ‘sitting each one out’.

Such varied responses illustrate a part of the challenge we face and the complexity there is in trying to focus on what the future might hold and what our response as an education system might be.

In my post I referred to the OECD’s Scenarios for the Future of Education – a document I’ve referred to regularly to inform my own thinking. I personally like the concept of scenario thinking because instead of trying to predict or forecast the future, they enable us to see the big picture and create the opportunity for us to debate the relative merits of various assumptions and ideas we have about the future.

So today I was interested to come across a recent publication from the Centre For Strategic Education that was written by one of the co-authors of those scenarios, Tracey Burns.

In this paper Tracey argues that futures thinking is an essential component of leading educational systems in increasingly uncertain times, and that we need to build long-term, strategic thinking in education and reinforce futures thinking to help identify potential opportunities and challenges, and stress-test against unexpected shocks. This can help us be better prepared, and to act now.

The paper provides a succinct, yet rich introduction to the changing context of our current world, identifying various drivers and forces before referring to the four scenarios from the OECD paper as a way of helping us engage meaningfully in the debates about what the future might hold. As Tracey points out, there is no ‘one future’, there is no single path that can or must be taken towards the futures of education – rather, the future will unfold and just how that occurs will depend on our ability to engage with and respond to the tensions that ‘pull’ us in different directions. Acknowledging and discussing these tensions is necessary for strategic thinking and planning, says Burns. She shares the following table titled “Seven Tensions and Paradoxes“:

What Schools for Tomorrow? page 15,

I’m not going to try and précis the paper here nor repeat what is already written – it’s well worth downloading and reading for yourself. Instead I simply want to draw attention to this list of tensions and paradoxes and suggest there’s value in using these as a focus for some worthwhile discussion in your staffroom or professional learning group. For example…

  • where on a continuum for each line does your school currently operate? What evidence do you have to support your argument?
  • where on a continuum for each line would you prefer to operate? Why?
  • what would it take to make the shift?
  • what are the roadblocks or things that get in the way of achieving this? How might you address these?
  • based on your conversation, which of the OECD’s four scenarios do your responses lead you to ‘lean into’? Is this what you might have expected before you considered the tensions and paradoxes here?
  • how might you take this conversation wider?

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