Close this search box.

Futures Thinking for Education Programs

December 1, 2020

By: Katherine Prince

Even as we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, we are also living through an era shift. Driven by exponential advances in digital technologies and characterized by significant social, economic, environmental and political shifts, this era shift is requiring us to reconsider many aspects of how we live, work and learn. Digital, hybrid and socially distant, in-person learning put specific form to the idea that established approaches to teaching and learning might need to change for a while or long term. Students’ experiences of pandemic education and our own responses to the ways systems have adapted underscore the importance of being clear about what we want for the future of learning.

To explore this era shift further, download KnowledgeWorks’ Navigating the Future of Learning forecast.
Download Now >

Recently, I had the chance to keynote during Connect 2020: The NACEP Digital Forum about the changes contributing to this era shift and education’s increasingly crucial role in supporting the healthy development of young people, effective lifelong learning and community vitality.

Leading the way to the future requires coalescing around shared visions that are informed by an understanding of emerging changes and future possibilities. We can harness inbound change – the kind of change that happens to us – to shape the future of learning through the visions that we pursue and the actions that we take. Those visions and actions constitute outbound change, or the kind of change that we initiate, and which reflects our values.

Forces shaping learning

The drivers of change from KnowledgeWorks’ Navigating the Future of Learning forecast describe current inbound changes that promise to shape education over the next decade. When I asked participants to indicate which driver of change seemed most relevant to their current role or program, their choices stacked up as follows:

Toxic Narratives – 34%; Automating Choices – 24%; Civic Superpowers – 20%; Accelerating Brains – 12%; Remaking Geographies – 10%

To highlight their top three drivers of change:

  • Toxic Narratives invites us to revisit definitions of success while preserving high expectations for student learning
  • Automating Choices exhorts us to find ethical ways of using increasingly smart technologies in education – and knowing when and how not to use them
  • Civic Superpowers encourages us help learners of all ages and backgrounds use their voices and to explore ways of sharing power and broadening the frameworks that we use to gauge the education outcomes.

Making sense of future possibilities

After I presented on these drivers of change, Dr. Kayla Westra, NACEP’s board president and dean of curriculum and instruction at Southeast Technical College, and I chatted about a range of topics and planning considerations related to these changes and to ways of making use of insights about the future in one’s context.

First and foremost, it is always difficult to look up from the press of the day-to-day and consider future possibilities. In this turbulent and uncertain time, it is especially difficult to do so. One thing that can be helpful is to compare our stated and enacted visions, checking whether the actions that we are taking align with what we say we want for the future. Taking even a few moments to reflect on our visions can help us make sure that we continue to guide our learning communities and organizations in the desired directions. We can also use a systems thinking tool called the vision deployment matrix to compare our current reality with our desired future and to analyze the gaps between the two.

For more information on understanding our current systems and how to change them, see The Education Changemaker’s Guidebook to Systems Thinking.
Read More >

Even a relatively short exploration of future possibilities and their implications can help groups get clearer about what they want to bring about and what they want to avoid. Identifying desirable and undesirable attributes of the future of learning can help people working in different organizations remember what the broader team wants the future to look, feel and sound like. That rich picture of the shared vision, or preferred future, can help guide individual action toward a common end.

Recognizing that K-12 and postsecondary education administrators rarely receive formal training in strategic planning and futures thinking and that systems’ and institutions’ capacity in these areas tends to be low, groups can approach strategic inquiry and strategy development as an organizational learning journey. Working within some agreed parameters, individuals could take responsibility for learning about specific tools or approaches and guiding colleagues through the process of applying them. This collective exploration could develop capacity for strategic thinking and improve groups’ ability to identify near-, mid- and long-term strategies and actions. Planning for multiple time horizons can make the often-daunting task of responding to the changing landscape relatively approachable, as illustrated below.

Graph titled Planning for Multiple Time Horizons. The horizontal axis is time, with points of Now, Transition, Future, and the vertical is strategic fit (degree of strategic fit with external environment). the first line, 1st horizon, starts at the top of the strategic fit in now, dips down to the bottom during the transition phase, and remains there. The 2nd Horizon starts in the middle of the strategic fit line and moves up to the top during the transition phase and moves back down to the middle during the future phase. The 3rd Horizon, "pockets of the future embedded in the Present," starts at the bottom, and moves up during the transition and keeps moving up through the future transition, the point labeled Visions of the Future.

We can inform such planning by considering how past, present and future forces can help us move toward – or hold us back from – our visions. Positioning the drivers of change that are pulling us toward the future (the inbound change described above) alongside current and historical factors can help us make informed plans for pursuing our visions and for refining our plans for various time horizons. A strategic foresight tool called the Futures Triangle supports people in weighing these factors.

Choosing our ways forward

These are just some of many tools and processes for applying futures thinking to education programs. While we are holding many of our longstanding assumptions about education loosely in response to the press of COIVD-19, we have the opportunity to reimagine education instead of returning to what used to be normal. Time is limited, but leaders at all levels of education systems and institutions can lead the charge of co-creating the future alongside parents, families and communities.

Even when we are not intentional about it, our actions shape the future of learning. We would do well to make deliberate choices about what we want it to look like.

Explore the futures thinking tools in the Futures Thinking Now series and begin your journey of change.


Katherine Prince
Vice President of Foresight and Strategy

Related Resources

Consider the countless opportunities for AI to enhance educational opportunities but also the ethics of using it as a solution…

Jason Swanson
Senior Director of Strategic Foresight

Artifacts from the future can help learning communities support their vision for the future.

Jeremiah-Anthony Righteous-Rogers
Senior Manager of Strategic Foresight

Technology is a tool, but teachers are the key to personalized learning. We answer some questions and address misconceptions.

Matt Williams
Executive Vice President, Chief Program Officer