Anticipating The Future: Imagination And The Long View

“One of the things nearing extinction is the art of longing. As in wanting something you cannon immediately have. If anything positive is to come from the situation the world finds itself in, it is my great hope that speed, instant gratification, and over stimulation are swapped out for longing, imagination and relational connection. For a child or teenager to sit thoughtfully and ponder what is to come, to hope for or envision something amazing, to dream of a place or a future.” -Brian Transeau via A Stitch in Time? Realizing the Value of Futures and Foresight

In today’s world, education and educators are going to need to do a much better and more proficient job of articulating a future that students can begin to envision and anticipate…

Take a minute and let that settle in and percolate.

We live in a world where that has become increasingly important to achieve and even more difficult to provide. We’ve entered a time when the rising tides of ambiguity and uncertainty have made the “future” a much more opaque and unknown proposition. Much like a broken down and ‘out of order’ escalator, our linear and known processes and structures of the past and present are no longer working efficiently, effectively, or find themselves to be viable for the future that is currently moving towards us, often in a turbulent and volatile manner

Which is adds to the importance of what UNESCO shares from their work on Futures Literacy. “Without images of the future that inspire hope and foster collaboration there is a high risk of despair and war.” For which UNESCO continues, “The malaise of poverty-of-the-imagination must be overcome.” Poverty of the imagination. A concept or lack thereof that we are going to need to consider deeply moving forward if our individuals and organizations are going to be able to bring their full selves and thinking to the process of creating more inclusive and better futures.

UNESCO proposes that, “Democratizing the origins of people’s images of the future opens up new horizons in much the same way that establishing universal reading and writing changes human societies. This is an example of what can be called a ‘change in the conditions of change.’ A potent transformation in what people are able to know, imagine and do.”

Unfortunately, in many ways we have replaced our proactive sense of curiosity, wonder, imagination, and amazement with world that is now inundated with a passive acceptance of instant gratification based in Google searches, personalized algorithms, artificial intelligence, in an on-demand environment. We have to come to realization on how we begin to close the imagination gap that keeps us from the realization of more inclusive and better futures and leaves us mired in outdated mental models and maps. Or as futurist Peter Scoblic shares, “One of the conclusions that I’ve come to in my research is that imagination is a woefully undervalued strategic resource; and what organizations can benefit from tremendously is the institutionalization of imagination.”

In many ways, not only is it getting more and more difficult to envision the future, it is getting harder and harder to anticipate it…

It is no longer enough, as individuals and organizations, to just ask what we want to be? Anticipation requires of us that we have to be willing to ask of ourselves and our organizations where we want to go? We have to be willing to release from the short-termism in thinking that pervades the majority of our current contexts’ in order that our individuals and organizations can begin to proactively engage a long view for the future.

As Laszlo Zsolnai puts forth, “Decision-makers who strongly discount things in space and time are interested neither in the solution of long range ecological and human problems, nor in the global impacts of their activities on the natural environment and human communities. Discounting the future impacts of present generations is ethically indefensible because it renders extremely low weight to the interest of future generations.” In other words, an unwillingness to proactively consider the future and how the decisions and actions of our current circumstances has weight and bearing upon that future, is effectively showing an unwillingness to consider our future generations and the world that they will be inhabiting from us and what kind of world we have chosen to make for them. We cannot and must not release our responsibility in the present for creating a better future for those that will come after us.

We cannot choose to defer that future to our future generations…

And yet, we cannot choose to fully define that future for next generations through linear thinking, considerations of certainty, and singular narratives. Rather, we are going to have to be willing to open ourselves and our organizations to the emergence of a variety of futures and a diversity of narratives as we consider taking a long view towards the future.

Or as RSA shares in their paper A Stitch in Time? “A crucial challenge to strategic foresight relates to the idea of legitimate futures. It asks the questions whose future is it? and who has the power to decide about that future?”

It is not enough that we are engaging a long-view for the future, but a long-view that is more inclusive. Or as RSA adds, “By centering goals in our formulations of the future, we are “colonizing the future with today’s idea of tomorrow.” We see organizational vision or mission statements setting our this future in today’s corporate language, but it can only ever be shaped by today’s context and thinking. It is this challenge that anticipating emergence seeks to address. To make sense of, and engage with, emerging complexity we need a different mindset and approach.”

And as Roman Krznaric describes in RSA’s A Stitch in Time? “We have colonized the future. We treat the future like a distant colonial outpost devoid of people, where we can freely dump ecological degradation, technological risk and nuclear waste, and which we can plunder as we please. The tragedy is that the unborn generations of tomorrow can do nothing about this colonialist pillaging of their future.”

Creating more inclusive futures will not only necessitate a diversity of voices and narratives, but engaging the voices and narratives of those that have been long marginalized and often remain at the edges of these considerations and conversations. If the goal is to create better futures, it will not be founded in a command and control stance. For the goal is to create, not conquer the future that our future generations will inhabit. For it is position of creation, not a control and a conquering attitude and stance, that will then allow for emergence, and openness and acceptance of that emergence, in the forming and considerations of those futures.

Or as RSA puts forth, regarding emergence, “If we anticipate emergence, we seek instead to make sense of, and change, the present. We remain open to the emergence inherent in complex systems and, rather than trying to control them, work with them to make sense of the present. As a result, we do not try to structure the future because we are no longer constrained by probability and desirability.”

There is no one future, rather there are futures. Futures that are constantly evolving and emerging. Futures that are often difficult to see, making it even more difficult to anticipate. However, no matter how non-obvious the future is that we are marching towards, we have to create the narratives that not only take a long view towards those futures, but engage an environment that allows both individuals and our organizations to take a more anticipatory stance towards those futures.

“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.” -Noam Chomsky

Aligning for Momentum

“We must adjust to changing times and still hold to unchanged principles.” – J. Carter

As educators, we spend an inordinate amount of time creating or recreating momentum and flow within our system. From the district office down to the individual classroom, we have a tendency to approach education in a year to year, compartmentalized manner. Unfortunately, that same approach, viewed through the societal lens, may be a warning sign that our current system has run its course for a providing an appropriate 21st century education. Furthermore, the focus and magnification from that same societal lens will require us as educators to reflect deeply on current practices to determine if we are even adequately meeting the growing academic and emotional needs of our students. We may have to concede that rapid advances in technology and major shifts in our global economy have left our current approaches to education viewed as either deeply flawed or outdated for our current circumstances.

In an effort to advance our profession, reflection of and on current practices will be an important aspect of the process if our educational leaders are to better serve our students in the 21st century. Engaging in reflective thought, discourse and collaboration will be the catalyst for those same leaders to ask critical questions…questions that initiate new learnings that build capacity and spur forward action that motivates and moves us forward in our efforts to improve our current practice. Leaders who are willing to ‘mine for conflict’ through probing questions, who are willing to face the brutal truth of their current situation and circumstances, who seek collaboration and team-building, who appreciate and request honest feedback, will be the same leaders who bridge the divide from their current situation to an elevated level of learning for those they lead and the students they serve.

Educators must thoroughly appreciate that our world has changed and the work we do is of crucial importance to providing our students the necessary skills and ability to lead a full and abundant life.  We must also recognize that often our unwillingness to stay ahead of the curve hurts our children and decreases their opportunities for the future.  We must begin to analyze and root out those practices that inhibit flow and momentum in our classrooms, schools and districts from year to year. Acknowledging current successful practices, along with incorporating new and innovative strategies and structures should not be just a good start, it should be a requirement.

However, we must understand that this is no easy proposition and will require educators and educational leaders to relentlessly seek out new and innovative ideas and incorporate out of the box thinking.  Innovation of this magnitude will require courageous leaders who are willing to umbrella the possible fall out and shoulder the inherent risks faced from increased sanctions coupled with a growing public scrutiny aligned to high-stakes assessments.

Successful educational leaders will be those who invest the necessary time and effort into building a deeper understanding of systems thinking and will ultimately find themselves better prepared to vertically align programs and initiatives within their school or district.  When we have strong alignment within the system, students have a better opportunity to build momentum with their learning as each progressive year builds on the concepts and learning from the previous year.

When a school or district lacks the ability or willingness to create alignment within the system, we not only hinder flow and momentum for student learning, we actually provide our students with a disjointed and vision-less educational career. When each year is compartmentalized by stagnant, non-negotiable and often inflexible structures such as school calendars, the school day, master schedules, grading and/or homework policies, students begin to see each year as a separate entity in which they have to ‘get through’ to ‘get the grade.’  For many students it becomes a tedious and disjointed process till graduation, if they stay that long.  For most of our students, this compartmentalized, industrial mode of ‘doing’ education has outrun its effectiveness.

Finally, we need to look towards placing those non-negotiables on the table, we have to determine to do different, to work different, to think different, to be different if we are to offer our current students a real vision for their K-12 educational career. While there is no reliable and/or available data, I don’t believe that many of our current high school students can look over their school career and be able to reflect and articulate any type of vision for their many years in the K-12 educational setting. We have the opportunity to change that reality.

Can We Overcome Our Innovation Gap?

Our educational system is facing a multitude of “tipping points” in today’s landscape.  You might say it is both a very exciting and rather difficult and concerning time to be working in public education.

Our world has opened up and been condensed through the relentless advance of technology.  And with that technology, a plethora of research, strategies and ideas has been placed at our fingertips for us to utilize and implement for the benefit of our students.

Yet, even in the 21st century, we still struggle with large pockets of complacency and avoidance to the research and best practices. Often decisions are made in spite of knowledge to current research that not only hinders the progress and growth of the profession, but the very students who rely on us to prepare them for an unknown and quickly changing future.

In 2000, Jeffrey Pfeiffer and Robert Sutton released their seminal work dedicated to improving the ability of organizations to turn knowledge into action, known as “The Knowing-Doing Gap.” While touted as a business leadership book, their work speaks volumes to the various tipping points we are facing in moving our educational system forward into the 21st century. Let’s look at how their work with business organizations can shed light on factors that may be impeding ‘next steps’ to progress…

“Fear helps create knowing-doing gaps because acting on one’s knowledge requires that a person believe he or she will not be punished for doing so – that taking risks based on new information and insight will be rewarded, not punished.  When people fear for their jobs, their futures, or even for their self-esteem, it is unlikely that they will feel secure enough to do anything but what they have done in the past.  Fear will cause them to repeat past mistakes and re-create past problems, even when they know better ways of doing their work.”  –The Knowing-Doing Gap by Pfeiffer and Sutton

A gathering of the world’s highest performing educational systems met in New York to discuss and determine how to best prepare teachers and school leaders for the 21st century. This International Summit focused on how to best improve the teaching profession and methods needed to develop and increase the ability of our school leaders and teachers to prepare our students with the skills necessary to survive and thrive in a 21st century global economy.

While discussions took on varied topics at the summit, a main theme that ran throughout was a focus on strong leadership and the key role that instructional leaders must play in creating and sustaining high performing education systems. Creating these high performing systems would require our instructional leaders to possess the necessary tools and ability to support, develop and evaluate teachers towards increased quality and effectiveness. Alongside leadership and teacher quality, themes such as equity, accountability and building a results-focused culture of commitment were central talking points at the summit. However, it appears that instructional leadership and teacher quality took center stage  in these discussions.

If this is true and leadership does play a central role in the success of our public educational system in preparing our students to thrive in the 21st century, then it is vital that our actions and initiatives match the rhetoric behind this monumental task.

As with any great system or organization, building a culture of commitment requires a foundation built upon and based on trust if it is to be both effective and sustained. If you want those in the system to be committed and results-focused, then it is the responsibility of leadership to create a culture where those themes can flourish. Otherwise, best case scenario, when leadership is lacking, you end up with a culture of compliance that seeps into your organization or system. And for these reasons, we have to determine if the culture we have constructed in education supports what teachers are being asked to accomplish.

What we are asking teachers to do is to be more innovative, integrate technology, equip our students with the skills necessary for them to be successful in a changing and growing global economy. To have a 21st century skill-set.

And in the same breath, we are sending our teachers an incongruent message by incorporating “new evaluation systems” aimed at eliminating ineffective teachers and implementing value-added initiatives that spotlight individual teacher progress for student achievement on high-stakes standardized tests.

So what is the message that is being heard by teachers?

Be innovative at your own risk.  There is no room for failure and/or learning from mistakes. Innovation and building new skill-sets is great, as long as your scores on high-stakes tests continue to increase each year.

While our rhetoric may focus on the importance of integrating technology and preparing our students with those necessary 21st century skills, our initiatives send what our teachers hear as the ‘real’ message. If your students don’t perform well on high-stakes standardized tests then you risk being labeled as ineffective, with the possibility of being terminated from your position.

Do not misread the message here, I am in no way against the use of assessments and assessment data to determine and monitor the progress and achievement of our students. Assessment and assessment data are incredibly valuable tools for determining the effectiveness of our instruction and the level of student learning achieved from that instruction.

Formative assessment is one of the best interventions available to teachers in the classroom for determining progress and next steps. However, as with all good tools, how you use them determines their overall effectiveness.

As instructional leaders, should we be the least bit surprised when we use assessment and assessment data as a hammer and/or evaluative tool and in the same breath demand teachers to be more innovative and wonder why change is limited or often non-existent?

Pfeffer and Sutton accurately point out in the opening quote’ “when people fear for their jobs, their futures, or even for their self-esteem, it is unlikely that they will feel secure enough to do anything but what they have done in the past.  Fear will cause them to repeat past mistakes and re-create past problems, even when they know better ways of doing their work.”

If we continue to send the message that high-stakes standardized tests are the pinnacle of determining your effectiveness as a teacher, we will continue to see our classrooms shielded from new and innovative ways of teaching. The risk of job loss and being labeled as an ineffective instructor will keep teachers focused on “scoring high” and inhibit, rather than increase innovative methods of instruction and learning that prepare our students for the 21st century.

Beyond leadership and teacher evaluation, the summit engaged itself around methods to transform our classrooms and focused on;

  • complex ways of thinking – creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making, and learning
  • complex ways of working – communication and collaboration
  • tools for working – information and communication technologies.

Once again, necessary skill sets for students heading out into a fierce and competitive global marketplace.

However, if we are going to transform education for the 21st century, it is the responsibility of our instructional leaders to incorporate and model those necessary skills in our educational system.

More creativity, critical-thinking, problem-solving, communication, and collaboration will be necessary if we are going to exact positive change for student success. We have to increase our understanding of change and change theory and processes if we are going to be more effective within the educational system. Comprehending that fear is a strong deterrent to change and change efforts is a great first place to start.

As Pfeffer and Sutton soundly express in The Knowing-Doing Gap, “it is easier to encourage questioning behavior, to have people take on new assignments they have never done before, and to create dramatic breaks with the past, in an atmosphere of trust and safety.  Conversely, fear is an enemy of the ability to question the past or break free from precedent.”

If our students are to reap the benefits of graduating both college and career ready and appropriately equipped to thrive in a competitive global marketplace, the decision-making prowess of our instructional leaders must remain focused on developing and sustaining the conditions and cultures that will support and allow forward-thinking and innovative ideas and methods to grow and flourish in the system.