Reflections on the Practice and Potential of Futures Thinking


Read the whole article (pdf) | By C. Ungerleider, R. Daigle, W. Hutmacher, H. Shapiro & T. Bentley |  Published in Think Scenarios, Rethink Education, 2006


Five analysts contributed the following reflections on the practice and potential of Futures Thinking for advancing fundamental educational change, derived from country-based initiatives, at a Schooling for Tomorrow Forum in Toronto, June 2004. Acknowledging the complexity of educational reform, a central theme emerges: the networks of values that support educational systems impede fundamental reform, while the changes that occur are often unintentional consequences of external developments. Agreeing that scenarios have the potential to break this cycle, each author raises specific aspects of this endeavor.


Charles Ungerleider focuses on how to use scenarios to clarify value differences when exploring policy options. All policy derives from values. To enable change, it is necessary to identify the values that support existing structures and practices. New Zealand's "preference matrix" is one way of doing this: They identified and ranked the values and assumptions behind each scenario that they used, gaining an appreciation of the starting points, the forces at play, and common paths of possible developments.


Raymond Daigle says that recent educational reforms have shown limited success because the areas and degrees of change tend to be so tightly restricted. In place of mere reform, he suggests that school systems must be totally reinvented. The challenge is for stakeholders deeply involved in the current systems and practices to invent something that is far-reaching both in time and concept. He says that the use of scenarios, previously been associated with sectors outside education, will help relieve the stasis in education. To derive the full potential of this analytical tool, Daigle recommends bringing in specialists with experience in scenario work to provide technical assistance for the new scenario groups in education.


Walo Hutmacher acknowledges the importance of values in scenario work, while stressing the need to go beyond this challenge. Specifically, he argues that analysis should focus on possible and likely developments, as opposed to what seems most desirable. He thus emphasizes the importance of basing scenarios on facts - such as social, demographic, cultural, and economic trends - and relating these to what is happening in families, communities, and schools.


Hanne Shapiro echoes these positions and calls for broadening the horizons in Futures Thinking and methodologies to uproot existing patterns. She says that the purpose of Futures Thinking is not to get strategic and operational guidance on how to travel from A to B, but to embark on a voyage of exploration, like Alice in Wonderland, bringing participants to areas they have never thought of before. A good start is to spend time on the problem-formulation concerning the precise areas that need to be addressed. Another prerequisite is to include stakeholders from the broader socio-economic environment with different mind-sets and backgrounds, as in the initiative in England, so as to encourage unconventional questions and thinking outside the box. Experienced facilitators are also key to making multi-actor Futures Thinking a learning process for informed decision-making.


Tom Bentley addresses the complexity of systemic change in increasingly diverse societies. He distinguishes between change at the policy level (inward-facing futures) and the broader level of stakeholders (outward-facing futures), such as parents, trade unions, employers. These layers need to be combined in a well-designed collective process of Futures Thinking so as to create the conditions for reshaping complex systems. It includes mechanism to build legitimacy, political support, and acceptance by the various players in the system, to ensure that the process does not get stuck halfway. Bentley gives examples of how SfT initiatives in Ontario, New Zealand and Scotland adapted project design to respond to such challenges.


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