Futurist Nicklas Larsen explores how the future can be a source for hope, social innovation, and sustainable development together with pioneers in the field.
Q&A with Dr Loes Damhof, UNESCO Chair in Futures Literacy in Higher Education at Hanze University of Applied Sciences (HUAS), The Netherlands.
Our educational system tends to be stuck in ways of teaching from the industrial era that do not prepare students adequately for a rapidly evolving world. While there are promising signs across the world of futures thinking being included in curricula, academia has yet to widely recognise the value of teaching students how and why to engage with the developing field of futures studies. Loes Damhof lived and taught around the world before being acknowledged for her lectures on 21st Century Skills for Communication, Media and Design and awarded the honourable title of Teacher of the Year in higher education in the Netherlands, 2016. This was accompanied by a EUR 50,000 grant, which she spent on building a pioneering futures literacy training programme, and subsequently establishing the UNESCO Chair Futures Literacy in Higher Education at Hanze University of Applied Sciences (HUAS), together with her team. To better understand how we can democratise futures thinking through our educational systems, I met with Loes for a conversation on how this is finding its way into teaching practice.
Loes, how do we bring education into the 21st century?
I think there’s room for improvement with respect to how education absorbs and works with external, present events. Most universities were not prepared for COVID. The moment it hit, everything moved online to continue education as usual, while the entire world around us changed. It was such a lost learning experience, because the pandemic itself has been a great opportunity for students to figure out who they are and to question their assumptions about continuity, their ideas about identity, what it means to be a citizen and how to take care of the elderly. There’s so many beautiful questions hidden in this crisis that could have been woven into curricula to provide meaning to what we are going through. The issue is that education is all about planning and preparing students for certain markets and jobs, and only to a lesser extent about exploration. And by closing our eyes to the present, we end up being not prepared for anything. To bring education into the 21st century, we need to let go of that path dependency, and create more space for failures, pilots, experiments, and explorations.
To what extent can we teach futures like we teach history?
Teaching futures has some resemblance to teaching history, in the sense that neither pasts nor futures exist. When we teach history, however, we do not necessarily teach the past. We teach a certain perspective on specific events, or we teach our remembrance of the past, which consists of the memories we wish to keep, based on artefacts, traditions, and stories that were handed down from generation to generation, so that our youth can move forward. What is important to understand is that these are all heavily curated. Somebody decides what goes into the history books, and it’s often the case that history is written by the victors. When it comes to our ideas of what futures could look like, we also often rely on curated images and stories from, for example, Hollywood, politics, the media and experts’ forecasts and predictions. So the question here is whether we also want futures to be written by the victors, or whether we would prefer a diverse wealth of images of possible futures, as broadly conceived by the youth, who are, after all, the inheritors and creators of our common future.
What is your approach to teaching the future?
Rather than focusing on specific future events or predictions, like colonising Mars, I am more concerned with how we approach time that is later than now, and in that sense, it cannot accept the same premises as teaching history. When I am teaching futures, the point of departure is the Discipline of Anticipation, which is concerned with how we use futures for planning, preparation or explorative purposes when we anticipate making sense of the present.
What is the importance of engaging the youth in how to anticipate futures?
Understanding how we anticipate is important because when we get up, we start anticipating our day, the next week, etc., and for something that plays such an important role in our life, we know very little about it, or how to enhance it. It is often said that what we do and think today shapes the future, but I believe it’s the other way around: How we look at the future shapes how we act today, right? Let’s take an example. There are dominant images of the future coming from a few billionaires right now. We are witnessing a commercial space race, and we can start asking how this will impact how we move forward as a species. It certainly puts forward an image of rich people going to space, but what does it mean for the ones who are left behind? Is that going to be seen as an inspiring part of human capacities, or do we see that there’s something wrong because it requires such huge privilege? I would argue that it comes with dangers for people to realise when the awe has passed. I think it’s important that we learn how to investigate every image that is being put forward in order to be able to diversify singular images of the future. We need to look at how particular futures are portrayed, grasp their origins and ask: Whose future is this?
At what level in the school system should futures thinking be introduced?
Everybody anticipates, so you cannot start too early, in my opinion. It’s not just something for the ivory towers, we need to bring futures to the streets, so it starts with kids. I think it’s especially important for the younger generations, because they still have that incredible imaginative power. So instead of moving students into a certain path dependency, let’s build and nurture that imaginative power even more. Right now I teach Master’s students, but they have not been introduced to futures thinking prior to our training, and they all tend to wish that they had been introduced to it before.
You have been spearheading the development of futures literacy training and research. Can you tell us what this new capability brings to education?
It is increasingly important for students to build resilience, to learn how to collaborate, to use the collective wisdom of a group, to accept different perspectives, and to possess great empathy. I think futures literacy is an incredibly powerful capability to move these skills forward, as grand societal challenges are becoming increasingly more prevalent in research agendas and the curricula of higher education in Europe. This new direction calls for an increased awareness of how students learn to navigate through the inherent complexity and uncertainty of the world we live in. So it is becoming critical for education and research to explore discontinuity and the plurality of ideas. But this is no easy task, as we can become so stuck in our habitual ways of thinking and acting that we fail to see how this impacts on our judgment and narrows our opportunities. I see futures literacy as a possible way to break that gridlock, and as one of the key capabilities of the 21st century.
What are the key design principles when teaching futures?
Anticipatory exercises designed to train futures literacy are often called Futures Literacy Laboratories. These learning-by-doing workshops use the future to look critically at the values and beliefs underlying our anticipations. Cutting across students, faculty members, professionals — basically everybody who participated in our training said that what they really valued was the psychological safety that they felt. Here we apply elements of S. B. Merriam’s theoretical framework about transformative learning spaces. This provides certain design principles such as artistic activities to express yourself in different ways beyond language. We are always making space ‘to land’ and reflect every time you do a certain activity. We don’t rush it, but we make it an expedition into the unknown, and we are able to adapt when something goes off track, and if the participants need something, we listen to them. Individually this may seem banal, but collectively it creates a space of psychological safety, which is important when you take intellectual risks. We don’t always have the luxury to do this, but when we can we also secure diversity and representation, instead of homogenous groups, where it can be difficult to stretch the imagination enough.
You work a lot with reframing — how does that work and what does it do?
We always collect participants’ assumptions from what we call probable and desirable futures by comparing the two, which often boils down to expectations versus hopes. Then there’s a reframe, which is a different way of using the future. It is an alternative story that the participants don’t particularly like, want or think is going to happen, which is supposed to challenge their underlying assumptions and improve anticipatory capacity. If you want certain assumptions to be challenged, you can come up with a story that people can play with. I often use a dynamic reframe, which is based on the assumptions that are in the room, which I like to play with, so that participants start exploring and questioning their relationship with their own assumptions, and ultimately end up looking at the present in a new way.
Please give us an example…
We gave the top management of a university a reframe scenario that asked what it would mean for learning if the university no longer had physical institutions. This seemed a bit off as the university was currently expanding the campus. They played with the scenario and were not necessarily comfortable with it. Then a year later COVID happened, and the discussions about using the city as a campus, and as material, suddenly became more relevant and it was easier to start the necessary conversations because the imagination had been there before.
Where and how can teachers and practitioners find the information, resources, tools and practices to be applied in the classroom?
While teaching futures-related subjects in schools is still a novelty in most parts of the world, important pioneering work has been done by Teach the Future, a US-based organisation founded by Peter Bishop that researches, develops, and designs futures teaching material for primary and secondary education. From UNESCO, who developed futures literacy, we have the UNESCO Chair in Learning Society and Futures of Education at the University of Turku in Finland. In collaboration with the longstanding Finland Futures Research Centre, it has also played a part in pioneering futures teaching by developing the foundation of futures pedagogy, as well as practical tools and guidebooks for upper secondary education. Also, we at HUAS will be launching a new website this summer about our work and how to become futures literate. Finally, I have to mention that over the next couple of years, more than 30 UNESCO Chairs will be inaugurated, and many of these have roots in academia and are devoted to researching, teaching and disseminating futures thinking across the globe.
How can we make sure to face the future in a hopeful way, rather than out of fear?
If you feel that you’re approaching the future with fear, you have to come to understand where that fear comes from. We tend to have this inherent fear of uncertainty because we simply don’t like it, and not knowing can make us scared. Mind you, that holding on to one scenario, one image of the future, may give you security, but it’s a false sense of security. I think it’s important to see that uncertainty is a friend. It’s not something to be scared of or something to eliminate, it’s something to embrace. Not knowing means that there’s still a lot of opportunities. Always try to accept more than one idea of what the future could be, and remind yourself that it does not exist. So whenever you’re confronted by this, ask yourself: Whose future is it, anyway? Take it, put your own vision of the future next to it, and then you alreadyhave diversification.
How do you wish to see the impact of your work?
I wish to see an abundance of shiny eyes from newfound courageto explore the unknown from transformative learning processes. When you see it, feel it, experience it, you know that you are stepping over the threshold into the unknown. I wish to see more spaces where we can stay in that depth for just a little bit longer, while we are vulnerable, and can explore fundamental things without judgment. If we get to a stage where people feel freer to experiment with these kinds of thinking (futures literacy or other learning experiences), people can feel more free and less trapped by systems and fear. And as a result, I bet we will see more experiments that are inclusive, that are about belonging, and new narratives, new dreams, new stories, new books, new talks, new movies, that just have a very different approach to life.
Some advice from your present to your future self?
First of all, I would advise myself to continue to push myself in areas of not-knowing and not to fall for the easy, quick fix, for the ego, a certain destination, or to be bound by productivity. Secondly, continue to practise what I preach, as it makes me the most effective and authentic educator, and on a personal level, I would say: Enjoy life a little bit more and worry a little bit less.