Educators as Futurists: A Conversation with Stanford d.school Leaders
Q&A 24 March 2021
By Laura McBain, Stanford d.school, and Lisa Kay Solomon, Stanford d.school
Educators who take a futurist’s mindset are looking to cultivate young people as lifelong, adaptive learners, rather than being concerned with teaching what’s immediately measured on a test.
Lisa Kay Solomon
Designer in Residence, Stanford d.school
We recently chatted with Laura McBain and Lisa Kay Solomon of the Stanford d.school. Laura and Lisa bring their experience as educators to help leaders (and future leaders) develop a futurist mindset. Within their work, they are exploring how educators can cultivate this mindset within themselves and their learners to imagine and take action to create a yet to be realized future in which their communities are thriving.
Q. When did you first begin wondering if there was a different way we should be thinking about education?
Laura: I have a vivid memory of teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) during my first year at a comprehensive high school of 3,600 students in Southern California. One of the most surprising things I experienced was the radical difference between what was being taught to emerging bilingual students in comparison to what was being offered in conventional English classes.
In my ESL class, I was told to teach a children’s book the students had read the year before. As I was teaching the lesson, I thought, “This can’t be interesting—how could they not be bored?” It seemed my students’ language development skills were being equated with their intellectual capacity and interests. That was my first insight into the reality that there’s something wrong in education.
Another moment that solidified my work to advocate for equitable education was witnessing the lack of integration during lunch time. The entire student body was completely segregated by race in the lunch area. It was a strange juxtaposition to the attempted integration inside the classroom.
I was early on in my career and had not yet been introduced to culturally responsive teaching or what it meant to create a sense of belonging. At that time, it was hard to put into words what was happening or why it felt off. Looking back, I realize the lunch period was the only time in the day that students had a choice of who they could connect with. It was the only time when they could create a group where they felt a sense of belonging in a 3,600-person school.
I believe that educators are shaping the future. Every day, we consciously and unconsciously make choices that shape the experiences of our young people.
Designer, Educator and an advocate for social justice, Stanford d.school
These were hard truths to learn as a first-year teacher, but these two moments cemented for me that if we’re going to have more just schools, we need to create communities, systems, and experiences where young people feel connected to each other and to their learning, and where they experience opportunities that cultivate their own sense of agency.
Classrooms are often designed based on content, curriculum, and the learning that we, as adults, decide is important. We need to humanize the education experience and listen to what young people need. And, we must see these needs as opportunities to reimagine our inequitable system.
Lisa: About 11 years ago, I had the opportunity to start teaching at a new MBA program in design strategy housed in the California College of the Arts. That was the moment I found myself shifting from a consultant and advisor into an educator who could see a bright future of adaptive learning unfolding.
This 105-year-old arts and design school believed leaders of the future needed to be as comfortable with their creative skills as they were with their critical thinking skills, so the MBA program was launched.
This new MBA, which I’ve come to call a Masters in Business Ambiguity, is a bold experiment in rethinking how we help leaders learn how to create value in an increasingly unpredictable world.
It was based on the premise that we know the world is going to continue teeing-up messy problems—challenges without easy answers that will require us to be as imaginative as we are analytical. And, if we know that, then let’s create educational programs that give people the opportunity to practice those skills in the context of solving real-world problems.
This unique degree infuses an apprenticeship model and critique-based, problem-based learning that we typically get in art and design programs.
Q: How did you go about designing your class within the MBA program at the California College of Arts and what did that experience reveal to you about transforming education?
Lisa: I had the freedom to design conditions that valued generative inquiry, observation, visualization and prototyping skills, narrative-based communication, and collaboration across difference. I learned the power of infusing a growth and learning mindset into an environment that would allow students to take risks and practice the innovation skills that would help them be more creative, flexible, and resilient.
Each semester, the students would apply their skills to addressing real world issues like the future of cities, the future of money, or even the future of voting. The hardest part for the students was the mindset shift—that they weren’t trying to reach the “right” answers but, rather, had to discover their way to new possibilities. I told my students, “The only way you fail my class is if you think you have an answer before you’ve really had a chance to understand the problem.”
In the students’ final reflections, they shared they were not the same person they were three or four months before, and that they had a completely different sense of self and were more ready to lean into tackling difficult problems.
This allowed me to really understand that we could design classrooms and offer learning experiences, at every level of education, that support the kind of skill building and mindset building young people need in order to have agency in a complex and ever-changing world.
Q. Your work at the d.school is driven by the idea of developing people into futurists. Can you define what it means to be a futurist and why it matters for educators to think like futurists?
Lisa: First, it’s important to say that a futurist is not someone who predicts the future or carries a magic eight ball with all of the answers. A futurist is someone who has a long-term perspective; takes an outside-in approach to understanding how the world might change and why; flexes bold imagination around what might be; is a voracious and adaptive learner; and is comfortable navigating seemingly competing, unfolding truths.
In the context of education, educators who take a futurist’s mindset are looking to cultivate young people as lifelong, adaptive learners, rather than being concerned with teaching what’s immediately measured on a test. From the perspective of an administrator or district leader, it’s about getting comfortable asking bigger questions, such as “What is the role of schools?” and “How might teachers foster and model agency, flexibility, and resiliency?”
Traveling to the future is a team sport. It is important to invite other people to travel to the future with you.
Designer, Educator and an advocate for social justice, Stanford d.school
Having a futurist mindset means being comfortable that tomorrow might be quite different compared to today based on unfolding trends, patterns, and external signals. It means getting perspectives from multiple sources, being a sense maker, and having a willingness to change a point of view if new information conflicts with what drove past decisions.
And, it also asks: “If we want to help shape the future, and not have the future happen to us, how do we widen our aperture to the kind of information that gives us the contextual intelligence of where the future may be heading?” Once you start to see the future in this way, it’s hard to unsee it.
Lastly, it’s about developing a lens that really values different perspectives that come together in fundamentally interdisciplinary ways, so that we’re not blinded by expertise, but, instead, constantly in a learning mindset.
Laura: As an educator who’s been a classroom teacher and a principal, I believe that educators are shaping the future. Every day, we consciously and unconsciously make choices that shape the experiences of our young people. We choose how we structure classrooms, and how we facilitate and guide learning. These are design choices.
Being an educator futurist means designing experiences that help our young people feel equipped to shape, design, and build the futures they want to live in. This means moving beyond preparing students for one particular path and, instead, giving them opportunities to visit the future, envision challenges that might arise, and build prototypes that will lead to more just futures.
Q. Why do we need to imagine the future while designing?
Laura: Visiting the future releases us from the constraints of the present, and allows us to imagine something radically different. We’ve discovered a few important lessons in this work.
When we design for the present, we often hold onto the mindsets that replicate the same system and ways of being that we desperately want to get rid of. In visiting the future, we create prototypes that could live in that future. These prototypes give us an opportunity to interrogate the biases we’re bringing to the future.
Traveling to the future is a team sport. It is important to invite other people to travel to the future with you. If we don’t do the work of thinking about and interrogating what’s possible, we will stay stuck in the same place of incremental growth without having the capacity to radically change the system.
Lisa: You can’t move an idea forward if you haven’t imagined it. Even if you feel something is fantastical or unfeasible, you have to open yourself up to the possibility and do some very active imagining.
I’m currently teaching a class at Stanford called Inventing the Future. Each week, we teach the students practices of creativity and futures, and then about midway through the course, they apply those practices to developing 50-year debates about the future—exploring utopian and dystopian possibilities that might unfold from emerging technologies, such as AI, robots, and synthetic biology.
The point is not to get the right answers or tell the other team why they’re wrong. We are guiding students to prioritize seeing multiple narratives and leaning into exploration.
To help young people develop this type of thinking, we need more educators to take a leap of faith and not mark themselves to the past. This work is about envisioning what type of learners and people you want students to be at the end of the school-year because of the learner journey they embarked on.
Are those students going to end up feeling like they understand who they are? Are they going to feel like somebody paid attention to them and their unique interests? Are they going to end up feeling like they had a moment where they could deeply connect with a peer or experience something new and exciting?
Q. How can we engage in futuristic thinking with young learners?
Laura: There are a couple of things we can do within a learning community to facilitate futurist thinking.
The first is to explore multiple perspectives. There are so many voices that are not heard in the classroom. This means opening ourselves up to the stories that aren’t being told, especially the voices of those from historically underinvested and marginalized communities.
Second, we need to help our students sense where the world is going, and then connect that image to help us understand what’s happening in our communities, so we envision what might be needed in the future. As futurists, we need to help our students research the future as equally as they study the past.
Lastly, we have to believe that everyone has a role to play. This past year has taught us that learning happens everywhere and the needs of our communities now and in the future will always be important. Given this insight, will we continue our current path where we only see learning as happening in schools, or will we open ourselves up to the idea that learning happens in communities with educators, learners, parents, and community members?
Q. What does it take to bring futures thinking into our current practices?
Laura: Reimagining is a high-risk exercise, but it’s necessary if we truly care about the young lives we’re in service of. And, the risk of failing our students is greater if we don’t reimagine. Young people deserve access to the best education we can dream up.
It’s important for people to know they aren’t alone, and that there are ways to start changing systems in very radical ways. Shifts like co-designing learning with young people, and changing the nature of the projects they undertake, can be transformative.
What if we allowed learners to go out into the community and think about what’s possible, and have that drive their learning? What if we shifted our language in the classroom away from “I’m going to prepare you for the future” to “I want to help you shape your future”?
Subtle changes in our language, behaviors, and mindsets can enable our young people to create learning journeys based on what’s possible, rather than what’s already waiting for them. This requires educators to be more vulnerable and open to making mistakes. It also requires all of us to be vocal and transparent about those mistakes that are perpetuating inequity, and asking: Why are we maintaining a system that doesn’t serve young people well?
Lastly, the most optimistic idea about being a futurist is that you always have an opportunity to do better. There is endless possibility. There’s an opportunity for all of us to do better—to design with a more equitable mindset and a commitment to making personalized learning more accessible. There’s an opportunity to equip each young person with the agency to both be ready for multiple iterations of the future they might encounter and the capacity to shape futures they can boldly imagine.
Lisa: We recognize that doing this work of living in the future takes courage. I have a lot of empathy towards leaders right now who are being asked to master imagining the future, while managing the challenges of the current moment.
Most leaders have never had a chance to practice many of these skills, which can make it extra difficult, especially when the stakes are high. That may mean making yourself vulnerable in new ways. As leaders, you may have to do things that require stretching yourself, and making hard decisions about what you’re going to let go of, and that’s an uncomfortable but necessary space to inhabit.
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