An innovative class on teaching the future

Inside Higher Ed reports on a fascinating class.  David Hochfelder (SUNY-Albany)  is leading a class on applying historical methods to thinking about the future.

It’s a very student-centered approach.  “Students select a topic of interest that they analyze for possible futures in the beginning of the semester — anything from technology to religion…”  Hochfelder wants to give students a greater sense of responsibility and voice:  “Beyond helping prepare students for the future, talking about it can give students a sense of empowerment they might not otherwise develop.”

One part of student work combines futures practice with social media:

Students then begin a semester-long “scanning blog” to help track developments and trends, and generally bridge — to the extent possible — the evidence gap they have in predicting the future of that topic.

As one commentator reflected, “Creating mini ‘observatories,’ as they are called,within each student, using classic historiographical methods, is not a half-bad idea. It sure shifts the tone from pessimism to realism and sanity.”

This leads to more classic futures work, as Colleen Flaherty describes:

Students eventually complete a trend analysis identifying and assessing the major drivers of change in their subject area, noting how those drivers interact and which are likely to further drive or inhibit change. The final project is an eight-to-10-page paper on how the topic might evolve over the next five, 10 or 50 years. Students are asked to identify their preferred outcomes, as well as one unexpected “black swan” scenario with a disproportionate effect on the topic.

I like the constructivism here, with learners building up their own approaches and determining outcomes.  I also infer some room for creativity in this approach, given the lattitude shown for student topical choice and project composition.

Teach The FutureThe IHE article also introduces the Teach the Future foundation (full disclosure: I sit on the foundation’s board) and describes it in a way that combines social media with professional development:

Teach the Future acknowledges that what’s ahead is fundamentally unknowable, but offers templates and models for helping instructors help their students think about the future in more rigorous and systematic ways than what is simply intuitive. It also crowdsources effective models and teaching materials from like-minded instructors.

Taken together this professional network and university class quietly embodies many recently-discussed trends in teaching: learning-centered pedagogy, social media, crowdsourcing, networked professional develop.

Also in Flaherty’s article is David Staley, tthe author of History and Future, a very good book about using historical thinking to inform futures work.

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