The learners in our schools today face a very different future to that of the generations that have lived before them.
How many times have we read a statement like that – in our curriculum documents, our school charter or newspaper headline about education and the future? But have we really grasped its significance in terms of how we educate our young people, the decisions we make about our curriculum and the ways we model the behaviours and attitudes that reflect our future focused thinking?
I recently had the opportunity to visit a school where I’ve been invited to support the board and leadership team through the process of refreshing their strategic plan. A specific focus for the staff at this school is how they might ensure their strategic goals are future focussed, and how this then translates into what happens in the programmes of learning in the school.
This particular school has a reputation for being innovative and for offering a great experience for its learners, and continues to operate very effectively in terms of classroom teaching and learning. As I spent time in classrooms talking with students and teachers the extent of well structured and well resourced teaching and learning taking place was clearly evident, as was the commitment of teachers and engagement of learners.
But I could also understand why the school was wanting to focus more on the future focus goal in their strategic plan. Aside from some work being done to gain recognition as an enviro-school, there was little explicit evidence of future focused thinking in programme planning or classroom activity. (CAVEAT here – this observation based purely on only two days of observations and interviews.)
The future focus principle has been a feature of the NZ Curriculum for two decades now, and aims to involve learners in exploring future focused issues and encouraging them to recognise that they have a stake in the future and a role and responsibility to help shape it.
Future focused learning, then, must focus on preparing students across all curriculum areas and all learning stages with skills and capabilities to thrive in a rapidly changing and interconnected world. It must connect students with the world in which they live and engage their sense of curiosity, develop critical thinking and empower them through collaborative approaches to problem solving.
Achieving such an ambitious goal simply won’t occur through the occasional or isolated examples such as robotics clubs, school gardens, or futures problem solving events. Nor through a narrowing our focus on digital literacy or careers education. All of these things are valuable in and of themselves, but my belief is we should be striving to achieve a state where there is a future focus to everything we do in our curriculum design – where it is, in fact, an essential learning disposition.
This is because there’s so much uncertainty about the future. The effects of increased globalisation and technological advancements, together with disruptive events such as the global pandemic and extreme weather events we’ve endured recently, are causing a rapid evolution in today’s world and confronting us with challenges and dilemmas that we haven’t faced before.
If we’re to serve our young people well in our education system, we need to ensure they are adequately prepared in terms of their understandings, dispositions and capabilities to be able to contribute in positive ways to shaping that future and to bring new ideas and new ways of thinking to solve some of the big issues that we’re facing in the world.
In an NZCER working paper from the Future-Focussed Issues in Education (FFI) project Rachel Bolstad presents a framework for thinking about the idea of taking a “future focus” in education that I’ve used a lot in my work with schools. It illustrates at least three different ways to interpret the:
- Thinking about students in their future lives: What kind of people do we hope they will be, and how will today’s education help them in their future lives?
- Thinking about the future of schooling, teaching and curriculum: How (and why) might schooling in the future need to be different from schooling today?
- Thinking about education as preparation for young people and communities/society to engage with specific future challenges. For example, what part can or should education play in helping to address serious and intractable problems linked with sustainability, globalisation, citizenship, enterprise (and other issues)?
Bolstad argues that the third way of thinking about education and the future—that is, education as preparing young people and communities/society to deal with specific and complex 21st century challenges (including those linked with issues such as sustainability, globalisation, citizenship, etc.)—is the least familiar to most of us, and as a community, we have very little idea about how to proceed.
I agree. Based on my experiences in many schools now, the focus I see is so often heavily weighted towards the imperatives of ‘now’ – the tyranny of the urgent, driven often by the demands of high stakes testing or introduction of standards agains which the school then becomes measured as being successful or not. It’s not that having assessments and standards are wrong, indeed, they can be useful in providing a sense of progress towards a particular goal and of how well we are doing as a system, but when they become the dominant driver behind what happens on a daily basis in classroom teaching and learning then inevitably the broader focus on competency development and achieving a future focus disposition in learners becomes something that, instead of being emphasised as an aspiration for our young learners, is sadly left to chance.
So how then might we see a greater emphasis given to promoting a future focus disposition among staff and students in our schools. Here are a few questions that might be useful to get the conversation started in your school or kura…
- If we understand that the development of core capabilities/competencies (e.g. critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, communication, character and citizenship) are essential for being future focused, how are we giving emphasis to their development in our programmes, and how are we measuring the success of students developing in these areas?
- Are we committed to seeing the development of future focused thinking as an essential learning disposition, or is it confined to specific events or programme activity in our school? (e.g. robotics competitions, futures thinking challenges etc.)
- Is there an explicit future focused reference in our programme planning? Including a specific prompt for this in planning templates can be a useful starter here and help ensure that this becomes more explicitly emphasised in the teaching and learning that follows.
- As we are embracing the NZ histories curriculum into our programmes in schools, what are we doing to ensure this isn’t simply learning about what has happened in the past, but is also linking authentically and with vision and purpose to what we can do to ensure a better future?
- What use are we making of expertise that lies outside of our school that brings an understanding of how a future focused mindset is at work in the world of work and in important areas such as the environment, food resilience, transportation etc,?
- Where we are using an inquiry model to guide student learning, are students aware of how this can be used to inspire thinking about the future that is meaningful to them and their context – so that it may lead to purposeful action and change?
- How effectively are we (as staff) modelling aspects of future focused thinking in our behaviour and the ways in which we manage learning (e.g. school recycling programmes, school gardens, decisions around what resources to use – incl. plastic, transportation to and from school, decisions affecting the climate of classrooms – heat/light etc.)?
- What are we doing to communicate effectively with our parents and community our commitment to this principle? Do we regard them as partners in this work, and if so, how is this manifest?
These are just some starter questions – I’m sure you may think of more. The important thing from my perspective is that we, as educators, are mindfully engaged with this thinking in our planning and teaching on a daily basis.
Being future focused in our approach to education matters – for the future of our young people and of the planet. It cannot be left to chance.