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Aurora Institute

New Innovation Spotlight Episode – Adopting and Applying a Futures-Thinking Mindset in Education

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Courtney Belolan, Matthew Shea

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Lead Change and Innovation, Learn Lessons from the Field

Each year at our annual Symposium, Matthew Shea and Courtney Belolan manage the Voices Hub. It’s a recording space set in the Innovation Corner where attendees can drop by and share their thoughts, lessons learned, and process the ideas they’re getting through the conference. Over the next several weeks, we’ll share some of the most thought-provoking and engaging conversations. In this interview, Jason Swanson, of KnowledgeWorks, offers a fascinating look into the world of futures-thinking and its application in the transformation of K-12 education. 

Matt: Our guest today is Jason Swanson of KnowledgeWorks. He is the director of strategic foresight. Welcome.

Jason: Thank you. It’s nice to be here.

Matt: That sounds like a great title.

Courtney:  Well, why don’t we start with telling the listeners a little bit about yourself and what you do?

Jason: KnowledgeWorks is fairly unique in that we have the internal capacity to really engage in futures thinking or strategic foresight. So we’ve been kind of taking these longer and deeper looks at ahead for learning since 2006. So I am part of a team of essentially professional futurists, and we spend all our time really doing like one of two things broadly. So that first bucket would be content creation. We keep a pretty rigorous publishing schedule, where we’re publishing forecasts on the future of learning. Typically, we work in three year arcs or three year publishing cycles. [At] the beginning of that cycle, we’ll publish a document; it’s typically a numbered forecast. This would be sort of our 30,000-foot view of what’s happening in the world. So what are those big drivers of change that are acting to shift how we live, how we learn, how we work? And then we’ll begin to make assumptions about those changes, develop images that relate back to the future of learning. From there, we begin to ask questions around implications. So we start with that. Then in the remaining years of that cycle, we’ll do deeper dives. Consider them tighter aligned forecasts on specific domains not just learning writ large, but credentials or blockchain or virtual reality, early childhood education. So we’ll take a deeper look into those. And again, same thing: we’re looking at change. We’re making assumptions about where those changes are headed. We’re articulating a broad range of futures and really deriving sets of strategic questions for stakeholders. So that  block one.

Over in category two, and we’re not writing about the future, we’re talking about it. We travel around and engage in what I would call sensemaking. You as a stakeholder, you get a forecast. You’re like, “this is awesome. What do I do?”

Courtney: Now what?

Jason: Fair question. So, we do workshops, we do keynotes, we do talks.  We occasionally design simulations or experiences of the future so you can go kick the tires on alternative futures and decide what you like and what you don’t like about that. [We] design artifacts from the future, too: tangible representations of things that you can hold and see. Really kind of whatever it takes.

Courtney: Sounds like a lot of fun.

Jason: It is the most fun job I’ve ever had, for sure. So I’m here at this particular conference. We did a pre-conference workshop. We spent three hours with 45 or so educators and education stakeholders to really work the future, to talk about change, to interrogate their visions for the future of learning. So, we’ll say, what do you think the future of learning [is]? What’s your vision for this? What do you want out of all this? Can we take it beyond just, “we want learning to be personalized,” right? That’s awesome, but that tends to be a strategy or a tactic to get you to the future. So let’s talk about how it should feel and how it should look and what feelings should it evoke. Can we add some nuance to that? Then can we think about change. We spent a lot of time talking about change, and then we pulled some content from a recently released publication of ours, it was a strategy guide. And we said, okay, so we’ve got this vision. This is where we want to go. We talked about change. Here’s a set of five big strategies that we saw for transforming learning to get to this vision. So let’s work with those, and let’s develop your own. We’ll see where we land in three hours. So we did that. And then I’m just coming out of a session that we did with some friends from North Dakota about thinking about the future of work very broadly and using those as inputs to think about profiles of a graduate and really looking at [it] from a superintendent’s perspective. How do you operationalize this stuff? What’s it mean to really put this to work? So I’ve had a great time. This is my first time at iNACOL, or Aurora Institute, right? Yeah, it’s great. I look forward to coming back.

Courtney: So right now in your first bucket, what are the deep dives that you’re working on?

Jason: Currently, we are working on a guide for systems change. It’s rooted in systems thinking and systems dynamics. In education right now, people are really fond of talking about transformation, and systems change, and then if not, they’re talking about theories of change. We looked at that, and we said, “Oh, this is really interesting. What can we contribute to like this growing movement for changing the system?” And we realized in looking at a lot of this is there’s not an awareness of how systems operate, and that we’re part of systems and what it means to shift, you know, an entire system. So we’re working on that right now. We’re working on a forecast retrospective, too.

Courtney: Wait a minute, that sounds like an oxymoron, a forecast retrospective?

Jason: It totally is. So one of the benefits about doing this work for as long as we’ve been doing it, is a lot of the forecasts that we’ve written, we’re hitting the time horizon. So specifically, our second major comprehensive forecast, that 30,000-foot view that I was talking about earlier, was for 2020. So we’re going to go back into that. We’re going to look at a lot of those drivers of change, and we’re going to ask questions about, you know, are those drivers still present? What themes are still happening now in 2019 or 2020 as we get to this horizon? So not so much looking at it from the standpoint of “were we right” because there’s no right in this. We like to say that we’re in the business of depiction, not prediction. So if I were to predict the long-term future with any sort of accuracy, the assumption then is it’s predetermined, right? So conversations like this are like meaningless. It’s just going to pan out the way it’s going to pan out, but the world doesn’t work like that, right? So, we’re making assumptions about things. We need to make and manage those assumptions and by doing that, we want to depict a wide range of futures. We want to look back and say, “what are those themes that were pressing at the time? Are they still pressing?” Not so much like, “oh, we predicted this.” There’s no value in that. There’s a lot of value though in probing the unknown, and to say, “okay, what are the ways that we believe the future would be different?” And as part of that, what do we think will change? What do we want to change? And what might change, and how do we plan for that and think through that?

Courtney:  What were the trends that were around that are still here today?

Jason: I’ll just speak to this really, really broadly. So that forecast, like a lot of our forecasts that have come out after that, looked at accelerating technologies. Obviously, something we’re still contending with. It asks some really interesting questions about the future of work, but through the lens of the maker economy, which is really interesting. I think some of the assumptions we made then about how widely spread the maker economy were maybe off the mark in terms of making. But looking at an economy in transition and how things like making and other kind of emergent forms of learning can help get somebody ready—still, that’s a theme we’re all grappling with. Looking at data, and the spread and ubiquity of data, and how that can inform teaching and learning and assessment. Look at all the adaptive learning folks that are in this room right now. So, still a pretty heavy through line. That was kind of cool to see. Really broadly, those themes are still prevalent. They’ve maybe manifested in different ways. So that’s fun, but still in its very nascent stages of doing this. We’ve settled on the vehicle we would use to kind of tell these stories, but it’s always fun to take a look back. Sometimes you cringe, right?

Courtney: I can’t believe we said cars would be flying.

Jason: Yeah, like, where’s my jetpack? But you know, at the same time, it’s really valuable to ask these questions because the future will be different than the present. The lives that these young learners that are coming through these systems will lead as adults be drastically different than ours, just like ours are different than our parents. And the only constant is change, right?

Courtney: I think futures work is incredibly interesting, and I’ve talked with some people a little bit about teaching futures thinking to learners. Something that strikes me that I wonder about, is exactly what you’re talking about how, in futures thinking, there’s multitude of pathways and options. How do you work with people to embrace that mindset?

Jason: That’s a great question. One of the challenges of our team, as related to the field, is a lot of our audiences and the participants in our workshops don’t always know they’re coming into a futures-thinking workshop. You see this paper and it looks great, and you download it, and then all of a sudden, your admin’s like, “we’re going to do this great thing. We’re working on these things.” That in and of itself is a challenge. It’s like the surprise factor: “oh, so this is what I’m here for.” But I think that we take great care in those situations to be as holistic as possible. What needs do you have that we could meet from a futures perspective? So what do you grappling with? How could this line of thinking help resolve that? Sometimes, maybe it’s not the right application of the word; we might not be the right people for you. That’s square one.

And then, it’s to come in and to give people a common language for talking about change. We never want to enter in a situation where I’m saying, “Hey, Matt and Courtney, this is the future.” That’s totally disingenuous. The very first thing you’ll hear out of our mouths is the future is not a fixed point. Let’s navigate this together. Let’s put this in your own context now that we have this language around change and have you do this sensemaking and the meaning making and thinking through how do you handle these implications. I think that that helps by being that guide on the side rather than that sage on the stage and really listening, truly, to what people are grappling with. Not everybody comes out with that futurist mindset, nor should they. I think that we all have a responsibility to look at the future and to be informed by it. Not everybody needs to be a “professional futurist,” but we all should be futures literate. But people actually have to work in the present. They need to keep the classroom going and the school afloat, too. So there’s a tug. There’s the push and pull of the future in that sense. And I think we all need to honor that.

Matt: This has been a very interesting conversation. Excellent. Well Jason, thank you very much for your talk today. Thank you.

Matthew Shea and Courtney Belolan are educators who run the Personalized Learning with Matt and Courtney podcast and manage the Aurora Institute Symposium Voices Hub. Jason Swanson is a futurist and Director of Strategic Foresight at KnowledgeWorks.