Exploring a Future World with Students

Dr Simon Taylor, University of Waikato

School curriculum has been criticised for lacking authenticity in terms of a future focus and having little to do with issues relating to living in a future world. James Dator, a Hawaiian futurist argues that future-oriented thinking should be incorporated into all subjects, and that learning programmes ought to provide opportunities for students to discuss and design their own future. I too, have pondered the question, Do we give students the time, resources, opportunity to identify and pursue their own vision for the future? I believe it is critical that as educators we ensure that every student develops the steps and strategies to not only achieve their dreams but to envision their own future. The following are some examples of how to explore a future world with students.

Learning outside the classroom

Many schools in New Zealand provide education outside the classroom (EOTC) programmes, for example through field trips to museums, industries, shopping centres, and other places in the local community. These environments are used to develop student’s understanding of the past and present world, but I see this as a wonderful opening to envisage a future as well.  There is evidence to show that opportunities to understand a community provide a springboard for effective student interaction, dialogue, and agency to design and create future ideas. We know that students come to school with pre-existing conceptions and misconceptions of what a future could look like, however, new understandings can be developed when students share their views and knowledge about outside-of-school environments. This opportunity is sometimes missed and could easily be incorporated into an outside classroom experience.

Making models

An inquiry process designing and building a diorama model of a future house and community can emphasise communication and argumentation, and this moves students’ thinking forward through specific forms of talk. Diorama modelling can locate the learner in an imaginary habitat, where personal perceptions of scale and role-play are employed as sensory experiences. A key strategy to modelling is to encourage student autonomy and agency, through physical co-construction of a diorama, envisioning homes and a community in which students and their families would want to live in the future. This can probe students’ knowledge in a unique way, using talk and composition as a window into their developing knowledge about their future. The photo below depicts a diorama model designed and built by a group of Year 9 students of how people could live in the year 2100.

Why modelling?

Learning to model a future involves making meaning of representations, and engaging with symbolic depictions of real issues set in real contexts. Modelling is a competency for students to manipulate illusionary spaces where they can develop new solutions through the process. This can open conversations with teachers about the notion of students being future citizens, where they have the opportunity to develop innovative solutions and initiate their own questions.  These strategies provide students with increased opportunities to interact with teachers, peers, experts and scientists, and hence contribute to a shift in power relationships between teachers and students.

Taking action is empowering for young people

Taking personal action to envision a future is to acknowledge that action begins with personal reflection, and where there is awareness of alternative viewpoints through dialogue.  A criticism of some school programmes is that the topics can be heavily focussed on content knowledge and specific skills, rather than giving students an opportunity to explore a range of perspectives involving a real issue or context.  At times, traditional subjects in schools can tend to focus on the content behind the issue, without properly equipping students with the ability to create meaningful action or change in their learning. More in-depth knowledge of an issue does not necessarily create motivation to change a problem. This could create a sense of hopelessness in students. I believe one way for learners to develop competencies to create meaningful change is for them to identify the problem or issue for example: Petrol fuelled cars are to be phased out for the future. Students next steps are to develop an understanding of the root cause of the issue. This often includes societal/cultural/economic factors, or car use behaviour/ public transport perceptions. Students then develop strategies for change involving community/collaborative input. Teachers can explore with students opportunities to encourage cooperation, analyse power relations, and link to political/sociological studies. Finally, students are enabled to develop an alternative vision of the future. Investigating how other cultures/places address issues, can motivate students to enact change close to home.

Developing a preferred future

Rather than ‘doom and gloom’ outlooks, students could develop knowledge from all curriculum areas, and consider a wide range of future scenarios to emphasise that the future is not “fixed” or inevitable. One issue for teachers to address with students is the fact that contemporary and national economic systems are premised on the idea of continued economic growth, in order to keep the cogs of the economy operational.  However, the planet’s resources are limited, and the true environmental costs of current human economic activities, including the costs to future generations and to other species, are not accounted for. Ultimately our current behaviour is not sustainable. This suggests that students and indeed all people, need support to collaborate, create, and envision their preferred futures, and develop their thinking around alternative models for humanity to adapt and thrive in any scenario they are faced with in the future.

Dr Simon Taylor is a Lecturer at the Tauranga campus of the University of Waikato, and he teaches in the secondary initial teacher programme. His research interest lies in the areas of science education, student perspectives in secondary and tertiary environments, futurist learning, youth empowerment and education design.

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