Futuristics in K-12 Classrooms

A challenge for globalization: Teaching young learners how to scan the horizons by Arthur B. Shostak

Do yourself a favor. Casually ask youngsters in your school system to share their expectations of the future. A few, of course, may reveal dark anxieties, and some may offer only an opaque silence. Most, however, will quickly earn your smile as they invite you to time-travel with them to a Buck Rodgers and Jetsons-like world, a scenario rich in adventure, manageable risks, rococo fun and near-limitless opportunity.

Youngsters nowadays have grown up learning “protect tomorrow!” lessons from “Barney” and “Bill Nye the Science Guy.” They have been tutored by unforgettable futuristic movies like “A.I.” and “E.T,” by science fiction serials and “Star Trek” reruns and by future-oriented series on cable TV (including material on The History Channel). Of course, they’re also influenced by many over-the-horizon sites on the Internet.

Never before have so many had as many communication resources with which to feed their natural curiosity about tomorrow.

A Futurizing Approach
As helpful as this is in keeping America in the forefront as one of the world’s prime innovators (ever more Nobel Prize winners, distinguished inventors, trend-setting products and services, etc.), it brings with it an over-looked hazard of significance. Never before have so many impressionable youngsters had as great a need for help in separating the wheat from the chaff. All forecasts, all visions of tomorrow — as we adults know full well — are not of equal value.

Our schools can help here in three major ways: (1) We can teach youngsters how to distinguish worthy from poor or even dangerous forecasts; (2) we can nurture optimism concerning the future, as this is a vital source of America’s “can do!” spirit (the envy of nations everywhere); and (3) we can upgrade their awareness of tomorrow’s job market and employer expectations of them, the better to improve their chances of success.

Not incidentally, we also can help a small number of students consider preparing for careers as professional forecasters, a job title in high demand by Fortune 500 companies, all levels of government, industry associations, nongovernmental organizations and other strategic components of society. In a world of ever-more rapid change and ever-shorter response time, these creative youngsters may yet prove one of the most valuable alumni of this (or any nation’s) school system.

We first have to “futurize” your school system — that is, make the art of futuristics a comfortable and constructive part of its culture. While there is no one all-purpose blueprint for accomplishing this, seven sequential steps are especially worth consideration. In combination they should help a futurizing program earn both early appreciation from significant others and the long-term continuity it will need to prove its full worth.

Clarifying Goals
First, you need to recruit a champion from the ranks of people who report directly to you. This staffer should be a self-identifying futurist (a person who finds tomorrow’s possibilities a compelling interest). A natural salesperson, he or she also should be a creative thinker and an energetic doer. Above all, this change agent should agree to stay committed to the matter for at least five years so as to ensure accountability and follow-up.

Additional Resources

Arthur Shostak, who serves as a contributing editor for the Utopian Thought section of The Futurist magazine, recommends these resources for school leaders:

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Second, your new lead futurist should establish a Futures Committee and ask every relevant school to send a forward-looking staffer, a teacher, an influential student and a parent volunteer. It would clarify educational goals sensitive to the locale, goals that might commit all to raising future consciousness, boosting confidence in America’s ability to shape a finer future and helping learners (youngsters and adults alike) gain new craft as forecasters.

Third, committee members would set out to ask their peers what horizon-gazing activities they already engage in and why. And what success or disappointment do they experience? Likewise, they would research what other future-focused schools are doing. (The magazine Edutopia can help.)

Fourth, the Futures Committee would help curriculum experts design classroom exercises, adjusted by age, to help youngsters assess alternative methods of “telling” the future — including misleading approaches like astrology, legendry, mysticism and Harry Potter wizardry, along with much more responsible tools such as computer modeling, the study of history and the scientific method. The committee then could encourage teachers to adapt any appropriate modules in their courses.

Field Testing
Fifth, with these tasks hopefully accomplished in its first year, the Futures Committee could start the second year by establishing a rolling three-year plan for Futures Education Progress (reviewed and revised at the beginning and end of every academic year). An engaging youth-relevant and horizon-scanning theme could help knit the student body of every school into a united community-of-learning. Attention one year could focus on “Jobs of Tomorrow: Looking Five and Ten Years Out.” Other possible themes: “Accelerated Climate Change: Facts and Implications” and “Solar Energy: How Soon and So What?” Artwork in school hallways, the presentations of student theater groups and the school media would all be expected to share the year’s focus.

It helps to start with a focus on the changing job market as parents, taxpayers, local news media and other consequential parties appreciate this sort of down-to-earth futures matter. Fortunately, resources are plentiful on many such themes.

Sixth, the committee could patiently, diplomatically and persistently advocate certain field-tested futures-learning programs it has independently assessed. For example, WebQuests, a website with more than 1,500 activities sorted by subject and grade level, requires a youngster to draw most or all of the information sought from the Internet, thereby promoting creativity and higher-order thinking. Typical is the Martian Haiku Quest, a 15-minute Internet-based lesson that asks learners to team up, do the research about the history of Mars, write a Haiku about the planet and its relationship to Earth and present all of this to the class (http://webquest.sdsu.edu, http://bestwebquests.com).

Other outstanding candidates for adoption include the Future Problem Solving Program (www.fpsp.org), Future Lab Expo (www.futurelabexpo.com) and offerings of the Institute for Global Futures (www.FutureGuru.com). All promote 21st century skills, such as higher-order thinking and technological literacy. (See additional resources)

Finally, your Futures Committee could plan a biannual futures fair. Modeled on science fairs, it could be scheduled on three consecutive weekday evenings with the entire community invited. Every grade could operate a booth in which it offers some creative learning experience rooted in the future.

Early grades could offer their drawings of space colony life. Middle school youngsters could share balsa-wood models of ultra-green housing available only five to 10 years in the future. High school students could show experimental videos, websites and virtual reality tapes designed to thrill and teach. School workshops on auto repair, computer repair or electronics could show off the latest materials and tools, and the athletics program could demonstrate candidates for tomorrow’s leading sports.

Area businesses could take booths to boast about products and services hopefully available five to 10 years out. Area restaurants could offer samples of foods-of-tomorrow and approved vendors could sell educational games and toys that boost knowledge of future-shaping matters (biotechnology, environmentalism, nanotechnology, etc.) — all sensitively geared to different learning abilities and styles.

A film festival might round it all out, one that could have an entire school, including parents and siblings of enrollees, watch together and later discuss future-oriented films made by the students themselves. These, in turn, could later be shared with schools around the country and the world.

In this way, a school system could ably brand itself as farsighted, as soundly futuristic. A futures fair would help forge valuable links with influential members of the community and nurture a healthy optimism among students and staff alike.

With a small profit gained from renting space to vendors and area businesses, the Futures Committee could buy for the school library a top 30 best future-focused books of the year. It could cover the cost of an annual library subscription to The Futurist, Future Survey and Futures Research Quarterly, the top three publications of the 15,000-member World Future Society. With adequate funding, the committee could help cover the cost of some top-rated seniors attending the annual meeting of the World Future Society.

Ambitious Goal
Once a track record of success becomes clear, and a futures approach earns deserved accolades, your Futures Committee might campaign to have the school district become the nation’s first to create a magnet high school with futuristics front and center. An encouraging beginning has taken shape with the High School of the Future in Philadelphia, the Media and Technology Charter High School in Boston, the Jacobs High Tech High in San Diego, the Millennium High School in New York City, the High Tech High-Los Angeles, the Bay School of San Francisco and others. But none to date have made futuristics their central concern.

Electives in a school based on futuristics might address artificial intelligence, biotechnology, conflict resolution and mediation, disaster relief, gerontology, nanotechnology, singularity, sustainability or war and peace. Local, city, state, regional and federal government agencies, along with nongovernmental organizations and proprietary firms, might be asked to create shadowing opportunities for students or, better yet, apprenticeships with key planners and others responsible for practical, bottom-line-oriented forecasting.

Your new Futures Magnet School could offer some virtual courses and tweak the state’s basic curriculum to incorporate lessons on components of futuristics — computer modeling, discovery learning, environmental impact assessment, forecasting, social impact assessment and technological assessment. The curriculum would emphasize emotional intelligence, lateral thinking and meditation, along with creativity, playfulness, resourcefulness, resiliency and risk-taking.

Hallways could sparkle with student art on futures subjects, along with artwork from the covers of science fiction and science magazines. Attention would be paid to outstanding overseas organizations, most of which have sterling websites — the Science Center in Osaka, Japan, major solar power sites in the Middle East, the Technion in Israel, Icelandic thermal heat plants, Dutch wind power installations and so on. Youngsters would gain an early appreciation for how futuristics can promote national and world well-being, while discovering promising career pathways.

Empowering Effect
For too long K-12 schooling has lacked an emphatic and rewarding focus on the future, even though futurism should be everyone’s “second profession.” In our bold new world of ubiquitous computing, versatile electronic books, computers as wearable items, exotic virtual reality labs and Buck Rodgers-style educational aids, we are in a good position to change this.

Given the extraordinary global challenges facing all of us, school systems must do more to help young learners master the art of horizon scanning, in all of its empowering aspects.

Arthur Shostak is a professor emeritus of sociology at Drexel University in Philadelphia and former director of the university’s Center for Employment Futures. E-mail: shostaka@drexel.edu