When does the future start?

Photo by Tomasz Frankowski on Unsplash

“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”

Mother Theresa

This week I visited a school that had been struggling in the past couple of decades, but since the appointment of a new principal five years ago there has been an amazing transformation in almost every way imaginable. Students are wanting to come to school now, there’s no difficulty attracting staff, the learning programmes have been changed to be inspiring and learner-centred, and the tone of the school as you walk around reflects a culture of genuine caring, collaboration and pride in the school.

While this is without doubt something to celebrate, and due credit must be given to the vision and leadership of the principal and team, there is still one thing that needs urgent attention – the buildings. Under the previous regime the buildings had been allowed to deteriorate providing a less than desirable place to learn in. Leaks in many roof areas, poor insulation and poor lighting all contribute to this – plus the fact that the buildings were constructed in the 1950s and reflect the architecture of the time, and that the land the school is on suffers from flooding from time to time.

The buildings are now the next thing to be addressed, and I’d been invited in to provide some advice on this. Options being considered include everything from a complete re-furbishment through to a totally new build. As with all of these decisions there are many things to consider, and that consideration takes time. And so it may be some years yet before the tamariki in this kura, and the teachers who teach them, are able to work in the sort of environment they deserve, one that will support the type of learning they are now so energised about, and will make them feel proud to be there.

In the case of this school, the problems it has faced have been brewing for some time, decades in fact. A complex range of issues contributing to the gradual decline overall, and thus no ‘single point solution’ or quick fix to turn things around.

I understand this. But I could help also reflecting on the fact that for every five years of delays in decision making and failure to achieve change, that is another generation of young people who will have passed through that institution and graduated without the benefit of the sort of education that the vast majority of students elsewhere in NZ enjoy. The words of the principal of the school were in my ears at the end of the day… “Sometimes the kids who need the most, get the least.”

Those who know me will understand that I can appear impatient about making change happen at times. I can’t help but want to see the change immediately – as I blogged about recently in the post We all want trees now. In that post I reflected on the fact that the seed for the tree I want now should have been planted 20 years ago – and indeed this is the case.

So why do we continually find it so difficult to anticipate, plan for and achieve the change that we know needs to happen? And all the while, generations of learners are subjected to the torment of having to put up with conditions that we know aren’t optimal for their development, and at times, are actually doing more harm than good?

Professional futurists argue that when it comes to innovation, social change, strategic planning, and creativity, 10 years from today is the timeframe we should be looking at. The reason appears to be that a ten year horizon provides us with the mental flexibility to believe that it is enough time for things to change dramatically. In addition, it provides sufficient time for the process of innovation and adoption to take its course, and for the future state to become a reality.

In a recent article in Slate Magazine, futurist Jane Mcgonigal explains how in her workshops she asks participants: “If the future is a time when many or most things in your life will be different than they are today, how long from now does that future start?

Mcgonical argues that we need to work with a ten year horizon, and lists a wide range of innovations that we’re familiar with that have taken ten years to achieve. If this is so, and her case is well supported by others in the field, then we need to become much better at planning with a ten year horizon as she suggests. Rather than lament what isn’t there now, and continue with our pitiful cycles of 3-year strategic plans and 1-year action plans, we need to be imagining more aspirationally across a longer period of time.

The problem is that it doesn’t appear that thinking like this comes naturally for most of us. In addition, ten years is well beyond the tenure of most Boards of Trustees, principals and Ministry of Education bureaucrats, and is certainly well beyond the term of office of any political party. This all reinforces the short-cycle thinking and planning that is characteristic of the work we do.

So while it’s appropriate that we are focused on the things we need to start doing now – the real future starts when what we’re seeking to achieve becomes a reality. For the students in the school I visited, the future starts when the buildings that provide a safe, healthy environment that supports the sort of learning they are doing are actually in place – not the day we start thinking about the plans. Planting a seed isn’t the future – the future is when the tree reaches maturity, but as with the tree, every day we delay is a day added to when the future begins!

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