Why futures education needs to be in the school curriculum

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The mind seeks but cannot find the precise place and hour. We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and we are a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life

The Social Conquest of Earth, EO Wilson (2012, p. 7)

By its nature, education is futures focused. Education is a unique characteristic of humans that enables our species to ensure future generations have the benefit of the knowledge and experience of preceding generations; it is the way our culture is shared and the evolution of human society is advanced. The twenty-first century is presenting humans with global challenges and exciting opportunities. If the challenges are unaddressed, they will lead to diminished well being for future generations and damage to the many global systems with which we are interdependent. The opportunities that accompany these challenges can be leveraged by our human capacities for education: education that affects us intellectually, emotionally, spiritually and culturally. This thesis considers how the school curriculum can enhance human capacity and contribute to achieving improved and sustainable world futures.

A need for a futures-focused curriculum is well recognised (Bishop & Hines, 2012; Gidley, 2016a; Slaughter & Beare, 2011), with the future featuring prominently in aspirations for education. Dewey is paraphrased by the Brookings Institution (2011) as stating that if we teach today’s students the same way we taught yesterday’s students, we rob them of tomorrow. In Learning for Tomorrow: The Role of the Future in Education, Toffler (1974) stated that ‘all education springs from some image of the future’ (p. 3). In Foundations of Education, Ornstein and Levine (1989) described education as a means of perpetuating the culture and providing the tools necessary for the wellbeing of future generations. All societies share these common aspirations for education to enable their betterment, their enhanced wellbeing and a sustainable future.

However, despite insightful pioneering work, the incorporation of futures education into the school curriculum has been problematic and disturbingly limited. Without a well-developed futures focus in our communities, existing global challenges—such as growing inequality, climate change, environmental considerations, the incidence of war and terrorism, and economic stability—are likely to increasingly threaten human wellbeing and the stability of our global systems. A compelling case for action is provided by Steffen, Broadgate, Deutsch, Gaffney, and Ludwig (2015) in The Trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration, whereby the escalation in socioeconomic indicators has been mirrored by disturbing earth system trends over the last 260 years.

To address existing global challenges, education must be an agent to promote futures thinking and proactive behaviours in the community. The inclusion of futures education in the school curriculum is a means by which futures thinking and constructive behaviours can be developed. Futures education includes any studies with a stated and direct aim of enhancing student interest in and understanding of the future—their own future, their local community’s future and the global community’s future. In Lessons for the Future: The Missing Dimension in Education, Hicks (2006) described futures education as promoting the skills and understanding that are needed to think more critically and creatively about the future. He described futures education as enabling students to understand the links between their own lives and those of others (both from the past and in the future); increasing understanding of the social, political and cultural influences that shape people’s perceptions of futures; developing the skills, attitudes and values that encourage foresight; and taking action to achieve a more just and sustainable future. The concepts that can constitute futures education are outlined in The Future Only Arrives When Things Look Dangerous (Hicks, 2012) as follows: understanding the global challenges affecting the state of the planet; developing the capabilities to manage change; having awareness of differing views of the future; exploring and envisioning alternative futures; understanding the links across past, present and future human actions, including one’s own actions; and understanding the implications of establishing sustainable systems for current and future generations.

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