Students don’t always feel very optimistic about the future. From artificial intelligence to climate change to polarization, they might feel stressed, helpless, or hopeless about what’s to come. Change can be a frightening thing, and with so much happening in the world, it’s normal to feel a bit apprehensive. This is especially true when changes can feel heavy or are presented in a negative light.
We want students to own their future and be optimistic about what’s to come. This can mean having language to help students think about the future, navigate change, and understand how what we do today shapes tomorrow. We don’t know for certain what the future holds, but when we talk about what we want the future to look like, it opens up our minds about what we could do today to achieve that future.
Understanding futures literacy
Futures literacy is defined as the ability to better understand the role of the future in what we see and do. To sum up UNESCO’s description, futures literacy encourages us to use our imagination and agency to prepare, recover, and invent as changes occur. It can be a tool to help students take ownership over their future and develop strategies so they might build the future they want.
One of the easiest ways to get started with futures literacy is to engage in some basic futures language. The concepts naturally help us to start reimagining our world. Here are a few introductory terms to get started:
- Foresight—methodologies we can employ to help us uncover what the future might look like
- Signals—insights (e.g., a change, idea, or innovation) that point to an alternative way of doing things in the future
- Scenarios—stories we create to describe different alternative futures
For instance, we might ask students to engage in foresight by asking them to imagine what they think the world will look like in 2050 (e.g., they might draw, sketch, write, or discuss this in a group). Once they’ve finished, ask them how they came to their conclusions.
Students will naturally describe various signals—new technologies, current happenings, etc.—they observed that helped lead them to this specific future they’ve created. From there, ask them if that’s the future they want or if there would be a way to make that future better.
This will encourage them to create new scenarios—or alternative futures. Have them discuss what might need to be done differently today to achieve that new future. And voilà—you’re already engaging in futures literacy.
When students understand that the future isn’t set in stone and that our actions now determine tomorrow, it helps them to create a North Star to the future they want to work toward and to better understand the steps they (or society) might need to take to achieve that future. This understanding offers them a useful lens to think differently about the possible futures in store and how we play an active role in creating our futures. Students learn that the future shouldn’t be explored passively as something that is inevitable.
Futures literacy also benefits students by enabling them to flex a wide range of skills. Beyond facilitating the four Cs (critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration), UNESCO highlights the many skills that students gain from developing their futures literacy. From confidence to agility to resilience, these important skills help students to thrive amid change and to be optimistic about the future. They help build agency and strategic thinking so that young people can work toward their vision.
In addition to using futures language, there are a variety of other methodologies, tools, and games that might engage students (across the grades) to more holistically think about our world and what it might look like going forward.
For example, The Thing From the Future is a free and downloadable print and play that helps students think differently and deeply about what the future might hold. The cards help students use their imagination to describe objects that could come from different types of futures. Don’t be deterred if some futures turn out to be negative. Most students want to avoid those as well, and it leads to a great dialogue to ensure that we have a future that’s bright.
Other resources include Teach the Future, a network connecting educators engaging in futures literacy, and School Envisioned: Education 2027, a game from the d.school at Stanford that can help us to rethink the future of school.
Change is a constant of life. Futures literacy equips students with skills to embrace change rather than resist it. The future is now. Our actions today will contribute to the type of future we want tomorrow. It’s important that we give students an opportunity to think about the type of world they want to live in—and that we take strides today to ensure we materialize that world.