Imagination in the service of education futures
Recently UNESCO released a report that calls for the “reimagining” of the future of education. Such an appeal is easily justified by current events that not only shred existing images of the future but also offer signals that many of yesterday’s ways of doing things are no longer ‘fit for purpose’. Reimagining becomes imperative and so, the question becomes how to do so. Our ability to imagine is certainly innate but the capacity to understand, revise, renew, and direct our imagination often remains under-developed. Our imagination is like any other human capability – if you want it to get stronger it needs exercise. What kind of practice, experimentation, and learning structures are needed in order to be able to reimagine the futures of education?
Initially it is worth considering the sources of our imagination. Why and how, from where and whom, do we find or construct the frames that allow us to describe our constantly changing images of the future? Parts of the frames that enable us to describe the inherently imaginary future run very deep, sourced from the words, myths, and history of a specific place at a specific time. Such frames provide the parameters, the descriptive variables, with particular connotations and values, that then allow us to conjure and interpret our images of the future. Images that induce fear and hope, anxiety and inspiration. The images that are a constant feature of daily life. Indeed, this is one of the reasons why we don’t really exercise our imaginations in rigorous ways, it is so normal, natural, and matter of fact to imagine the future. We rarely question the reasons, sources and implications of these images, we just take the familiar ones, from familiar sources, for granted.
our relationship to the ‘later-than-now’
What this means is that when it comes to reimaging the futures of education it is important to begin by recognizing that the future is deeply integrated into the way we ordinarily function. There is even evidence for the hypothesis that human consciousness is predicated on our anticipatory capacity or the capacity to imagine. This is crucial because it means everybody can access their anticipatory systems and processes, since we use this capacity all the time. In this respect, the many different anticipatory systems and processes that humans deploy so that the non-existent future can take conscious form in the present are similar to another ubiquitous human capability – language. Everyone that can read and write knows that the written word is an extension, perhaps an augmentation, of the human capacity to speak. It is also evident that one of the most fundamental changes that humans ever made to the conditions of life was the invention of writing. More changes, most totally unknowable in advance, arose when the capacity to read and write became more common.
The effort to universalize reading and writing through compulsory schooling has arguably been one of the most powerful choices humanity has ever made – prohibiting child labor while liberating parents to work, empowering strangers (from outside the local community) to transmit knowledge from one generation to the next, inculcating punctuality, assuring deference to hierarchy, and acclimatizing everyone in the playground to the diversity of people they were likely to encounter on city streets and factory floors. Nowadays, universal compulsory schooling is one of the self-evident objectives of the global consensus around the Sustainable Development Goals. But it is important to also remember that it was, in fact, a very radical policy, a disruptive change in many aspects of daily life, knowledge creation and transmission, and power relationships.
Now let’s turn to the human capacity to imagine. One of the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it does not necessarily take a long time to for a familiar image of the future, one that many people use every day, to lose its immediate relevance. For instance, when people could not be physically present in their workplace the image of the future – day to day routines – changed unexpectedly and radically. In this universe surprises that force changes in our habitual images of the future happen all the time. We live in a universe where uncertainty is the only certainty. A universe in which we are constantly obliged to invent new images of the future since we cannot function without being able to imagine our relationship to the ‘later-than-now’. Right now, in the current conjuncture, almost everyone is experiencing the power of images of the future and the need to invent new ones. But what is also evident is that our capacity to imagine the future is relatively weak. Leaving us open to fear and anxiety when the moment arrives to invent new images of the future.
in advance creativity of the universe
we find ourselves perpetually disappointed
One of the reasons that we are suffering the shock of the pandemic as we are – as well as the shock of climate change – is that most of humanity has adopted a ‘colonizing’ approach to the future. As a result, our relationship to the world around us narrows down to ‘conquering’ or winning tomorrow. Preoccupied with imposing our images of the future on others, including future generations, who we are and what we do gets tangled up in manifold illusions of omnipotence and determinism. Cast in the role of being superior to the untamable, unknowable in advance creativity of the universe we find ourselves perpetually disappointed. In desperation, we fantasize that science, the constant calling into question of what we know in light of the unceasing creativity of this universe, will instead be the source of predictive certainty – the slayer of complexity. Only our universe simply is complex – inviting never-ending discovery of the differences that emerge all around us. For humans to embrace life as learning is to be humble and open, able to let go of the past and our obsession with certainty – the desire to always know the future. Learning emerges from living change as the flow of repetition and difference, continuity and dis-continuity.
This does not mean we should cease to initiate and invest in planning. The question is to what end and to what purpose? First, imagine what it was like to live through the shocks that marked the transitions generated by universal compulsory schooling. Was it planned? After the fact it seems easy to tell the story of prescient choices aimed at paving the way for industrialization and urbanization. The perfect hindsight of what is seen as ‘functional’, the cog in the machine – the path to the outcome, makes it seem like people knew what they were doing. Sure, transition or a departure from what is already known is within grasp – that is making change. Only there is no telling what kind of world the change will be part of… formulas for atomic bombs and biological weapons, calls for emancipation and expressions of previously unimaginable forms of beauty. Transformation is not planned because it cannot be known in advance. Unknowability is what defines transformation. Think of it, humans share genetic code with fish, but we are not fish.
Now, imagine a world most people do not already know. One where learning is about wisdom rather than the prescient preparation of cohorts to conform to the already familiar behavioural and institutional imperatives of bureaucratic industrial societies. What happens when we imagine experimenting with discontinuity – breaking from custodial schooling, elite reproducing credentialism, and the productivist rationale of shaping cogs (called innovators, these days) for tomorrow’s machines? Can we imagine learning sourced in the desire to know? Learning, pulled by the need, hunger, and experience that makes ignorance evident, an incessant invitation to discover, experiment, question, appreciate the nourishment of the unknown and difference.
Here we are far from the education we know so well, pushed by those who know in advance, know better, know the future as they think it is supposed to be. A ‘wisdom world’ is an imaginary scenario that is reprises long-standing critiques of schooling and describes, in abstract terms, a transition away from the inefficiency of compulsory schooling organized in cohort classes of boredom looking for proofs of obedience and conformity. But can the transition to another image of the future actually be planned? Is the problem simply insufficient dreaming and daring? Are the reforms just too timid or constrained by dominant power structures, habits, and fear? To put the question again, where is the dividing line between planning, pretensions of knowing what is best for tomorrow, and another reason to harness our imagination, one that embraces not-knowing?
I do not know, since I believe that the only way to gain such knowledge is by gaining an understanding of contexts that currently do not and cannot exist in those parts of our world dominated by planning. Which means that the pertinent question is what can be done to take transitional steps towards a different balance between planning and spontaneity, between the pursuit of certainty and the experience of meaning as it emerges? Although even asking this question sparks the further question: can we plan non-planning? From where I sit, as a ‘practicing futurist’ for the last 30 plus years, the difficulty is not imagining a transition from push to pull learning. There are after all many examples of communities that embraced and reproduced experiential and performative wisdom paths for learning (primarily what we today call indigenous communities). So many transitional and policy options inspired by past experience could be marshalled to facilitate experimenting with ‘alternatives’.
the conditions that facilitate the
exercise of the human capacity to be free
What is much more difficult, indeed impossible, is to know what might be the outcomes of redressing the imbalance between, on the one hand, goal driven conceptions of human agency/identity/ethics, and on the other hand, a capability enabling openness that, from the point-of-view of better futures, abandons the construction of tomorrow. Yet, if we contemplate maturity models of change, experiential pathways to wisdom and emergent appreciation of value/meaning in context, the obvious gift is to actually live, in the present, the conditions that facilitate the exercise of the human capacity to be free. Attempting to impose the past on the future is not being generous, but vainglorious and presumptuous. Planning ways to oblige children to imitate their parents is not an expression of confidence in the capacity of future generations and it utterly fails to take into account the only certainty – which is change. The self-justifying and self-aggrandizing rationale that it is for their own good that we burden the future with our strictures, monuments, and rituals is no gift. Worse, such efforts end up reproducing our shame filled past, millennia of horror perpetrated against life in all its forms.
Okay, that is the bad. What is the good? I am convinced that the alternative is not so hard to grasp or understand, even if it is quite difficult for it to prevail against existing entrenched interests, fears and lack of capability. The answer is play, or to make it sound a bit more ‘official’: experimentation. Again, this is not new. Many educators, considering both the theory and practice of learning, have advocated much more play – mostly because play is probably the most effective and efficient way to learn but also, if thought of as experimentation, it is about ‘science’ as the broad human engagement with understanding the universe we live in. What do humans do when we interact with the world? We invent tasks, spark curiosity, and begin to experiment, to pull information and knowledge to our sensing and sense-making efforts. We start to play with ideas, play with things, play with each other. Inventing and playing games is learning, it is an invitation to exercise our imaginations, to experience science.
What is wonderful is that play is always at hand and so too learning. Only we often fail to turn the gaze of our attention in that direction. Right now, thanks to our prodigious ability to invent tools, we could be playing much more – the virtual world is an amazing ‘terrain’ for simulation – games and play. Now we can collaborate, explore and invent in ways that distance and the stakes of physical interaction made too costly and dangerous. We are able, if we so choose, to use play and simulation to forge social relationships that create value and meaning in people’s lives, day to day, together, and intergenerationally. But making this workable depends, in part, on gaining a better understanding of how our images of the future influence what we see and what we do and to find an approach that allows us to diversify and appreciate the immense richness of the world around us in specific contexts, in specific places (physical and virtual). This is not some sort of universal, trans-temporal, and homogenized general model of what it means to live a life. Rather, the proposition is about finding ways to live more fully, right now, in context. From this angle, the supply of learning is inexhaustible. Furthermore, it exhibits increasing returns to scale. Increasing wisdom means you are getting better because you are learning through experience. You know what matters, you know what works, and you become better at it.
our imagination beyond the confines of
continuity and colonizing tomorrow
For me, this is the immense opportunity and wonderful provocation of the world we are in right now. The sustainable development goals are yesterday’s aspirations. Even climate continuity locks in images of the future based on the past (which is no apology for the willful and blind destructiveness of our species, nor for accepting a continued build-up of CO2). The challenge today is to explore what it might mean to free ourselves from the industrial, indeed the monumentalist pasts that have so alienated many of us from meaning as it emerges in this creative universe. My hunch is that to become resilient, that is willing and able to change, able to adopt a diversification strategy towards transformative continuity, it is necessary – although certainly not sufficient – to stop thinking so exclusively and obsessively about targets and dates. The time has come to cultivate and liberate our imagination beyond the confines of continuity and colonizing tomorrow. At the most profound and powerful level, imagined futures are what shape our perception of the world as it emerges, as we live it. And it is imagined futures that are the key to becoming better at tuning our consciousness in to the previously unknowable, nameless, novel phenomena that make our universe fertile.
What does this mean for education as we know it and for the futures of education that we imagine? I do not and cannot know. But I can repeat the case for liberating learning from the predictive, colonizing imperatives of the past. And I can speculate that by cultivating the human capacity to imagine the future for different reasons (not just to reach goals or make things ‘better’), in different ways, and in different contexts, we will gain more experience using our imagination. And I can observe that by exercising our capacity to use imagined futures to see the world differently, letting go of yesterday’s goals, trends, imperatives, we become better able to sense and make-sense of change, welcome not-knowing, and turn complexity from simply the enemy of planning into a source of endless inspiration. Education may have been an indispensable input into the transition from rural agricultural to urban industrial life and a key factor in improving the efficiency of production in many spheres of human activity. But industry and productivity, as overwhelmingly dominant and inescapable as these activities may seem now, are only one, narrow and in many ways very wasteful way of putting the human capacity to learn into practice. Maybe imagining the future of education is about its demise?
Riel Miller is one of the world’s leading authorities on the theory and practice of using the future to change what people see and do. He previously led the OECD International Futures Programme and from 2012-2022 served as Head of Foresight and Futures Literacy at UNESCO. Currently his Is a Senior Fellow at the University of New Brunswick (Canada) and the Ecole des Ponts (France), and a Senior Advisor at the University of Stavinger (Norway).