Wednesday 27 March 2019

@NearFutureTeach Scenarios and Getting many brains to think as one

I went to the final presentation of the Near Future Teaching project at Edinburgh yesterday. I've been interested in what's happening at Edinburgh for a while because it looked to me like a good way of getting teachers and learners to talk together about teaching and to think about the future. As with many things like this, the process of doing this kind of project is all important - sometimes more important than the products.

I'm familiar with a scenario-based methodology because this is what we did on the large-scale iTEC project (see;jsessionid=491AB3788AEB8152821138272A35C5E4) which was coordinated by European Schoolnet. Near Future Teaching has followed a similar plan - identification of shared values, co-design of scenarios, technological prototyping/provoking (using what they neatly called "provo-types"). iTEC took its technological prototypes a bit more seriously, which - on reflection - I think was a mistake (I wrote about it here:

During iTEC I wasn't sure about scenario-building as a methodology. It seemed either too speculative or not speculative enough, where the future was imagined as seen using lenses through which we see the present. We're always surprised by the future, often because it involved getting a new set of lenses. I was talking to a friend at Manchester university on Monday about how theologians/religious people make the best futurologists: Ivan Illich, Marshall McLuhan, C.S. Lewis (his "Abolition of Man" is an important little book), Jacques Ellul. Maybe its because the lens that allows you to believe in God is very different to the lens that looks at the world as it is - so these people are good at swapping lenses.

After Near Future Teaching, I'm a bit more enthusiastic about scenarios. I spoke to a primary school teacher who was involved in the project, and we discussed the fact that nobody is certain about the future. Uncertainty is the great leveller, teachers and learners are in the same boat, and this is a stimulus for conversation and creativity. Its not a dissimilar idea to this:

But then there is something deeper about this kind of process. Uncertainty is a disrupter to conventional ways of looking at the world. Each of us has a set of categories or constructs through which we view the world. Sometimes the barriers to conversation are those categories themselves, and making interventions which loosen the categories is a way of creating new kinds of conversation. Introducing "uncertain topics" does this.

In his work on organisational decision-making, Staffford Beer did a similar thing with his "syntegration" technique. That involved emerging issues in a group, and then organising conversations which deliberately aimed to destabilise any preconceived ways of looking at the world. Beer aimed to create a "resonance" in the communications within the group as their existing categories were surrendered and new ones formed in the context of conversation. The overall aim was to "get many brains to think as one brain". Given the disastrous processes of collective decision which we are currently witnessing, we need to get back to this!

Having said this, there's something about the whole process which IS teaching itself. That leads me to think that Near Future Teaching is closely aligned to the methods of Near Future Teaching. Maybe the scenarios can be dispensed with, almost certainly we have to rethink assessment, we have to rethink the curriculum and the institutional hierarchy, but the root of it all is conversation which disrupts existing ways of thinking and established coherence within a group.

If we had this in education, Brexit would just be a cautionary tale.

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