What if we all viewed our learning spaces, as spaces to make the impossible, possible? Over these past few years, we have increasingly seen, seemingly impossible events and actions become possible. From the climate crisis and mass migration, to the breakdown of civil discourse and a growing divisiveness that can be felt across our world, what once was thought impossible, now has become a reality.
So what does that mean for education? This impossible-possibility environment needs to cultivate the type of thinkers who are imaginative, creative, nimble, comfortable with ambiguity, risk-takers and possess a willingness to slow down and find the human stories that can always illuminate optimistic possibilities.
What if education focused on developing all students as futurists? This does not mean we are asking students to predict the future, we are creating the conditions for students to plan for change, to be adaptable when change arrives and to create change now that can impact the future for everyone. Jane McGonigal is a "a world-renowned designer of alternate reality games — or, games that are designed to improve real lives and solve real problems." She argues that we should all think of ourselves as futurists. We need to create a sense of comfort with the idea that things will change. How will we respond to the change, that is the question. We can all be on the lookout for ways we can be adaptable, flexible and nimble as these changes arise. A great example of being a futuristic thinker comes from a program for refugees displaced from their native homes. From The Conversation:
Tales of a City Tours was founded in 2017 by a former student in the responsible tourism master’s course at Leeds Beckett University, Emily Stevenson, as a responsible walking tour company. The aim was to help tourists, local residents and forcibly displaced people connect with each other.
This example demonstrates how one group is exercising futuristic thinking to the mass migration that is becoming more visible across our planet. Recognizing that migration for a number of reasons will continue to grow, this program is designed to create a sense of belonging while also providing an opportunity for natives to take a different perspective on what it means to live in a certain location. Imagine if our students are able to embrace the impossibilities of our world as opportunities for exploration and investigation.
How might we begin to do this in our learning spaces? Of course it always depends on the context of your setting. Here are a few ideas that might spark something for you.
Create Impossible-Possibility Spaces
Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist!- Pablo Picasso
One way, might be to ask your students/faculty what rules, real or imagined exist that prevent them from being more imaginative? How might we break those rules? Ask them to write/draw the rule they need to break in a way that inspires them to take a risk and break the rules of conformity. An example might be someone who needs to step back to take more time to think about an idea before responding to it. So the rule to break might be- When asked a question, answer right away without reflecting on it. When this rule is written and posted where it can be seen easily, this provides a visual cue to help grow that individual's imagination. The idea is that when that person is asked a question, and they see that rule they need to break hanging on the wall in front of them, they might be more open to saying, "you know what, let me take some time to think about that and get back to you." We need to create spaces where students/faculty feel comfortable breaking the rules of conformity. The only way we can become futurist thinkers, is by being comfortable stepping outside of our comfort zones. We need to break the patterns of how we think, so that we may form new patterns and develop an openness to new possibilities.
Impossible-Possibility spaces are about finding connections others missed. One way to do this is to create a learning space where random connections and juxtapositions can illuminate new paths and connections. The Reggio Emilia approach is an way of teaching and learning born out of a desire to create change and bring a new perspective to education, in the aftermath of WWII in the Italian town of Reggio Emilia. One of the core values of this approach is the 100 languages. The 100 languages is the idea that every child speaks 100 languages and that we, as educators, should celebrate the diverse languages of our children. Taking this idea a step further, what if we looked at what we think is impossible in some of our learning spaces and made it possible. For instance, in a high school biology lab, we might find lab equipment, safety materials, various elements typical to biology exploration. But, what if we also found a piano, paints, books of poetry, hammers, saws, and other elements from outside the biology realm. Why include these items? It is these items that can help students communicate in different ways. Letting the musician take elements of biology and experiment with them in different ways. Letting the artist see nature as a blank canvas. What if the DJ found ways to remix the cells in biology? These are all ways we create opportunities for the impossible to become possible. What we know about change is that it does not neatly organize itself into siloes like our schools are typically organized. Change cuts across all demographics. One way we can create a comfort with seeing the impossible as an opportunity for investigation and exploration, is to provide a wide array of tools. to explore concepts, issues, questions and provide multiple ways to communicate these discoveries.
Another great way to cultivate futurist thinkers is to conduct "fact-flipping" experiences. This idea, inspired again by Jane McGonigal, is about identifying the facts of a given situation or experience and flipping the facts to create an impossible-possibility. You can use this in a variety of settings as well. Let's think about school. Currently, (most) public schools are located inside of a large building. Imagine if we flip that. All schools are located outside? What impact might that have on the community? On the learning? On the way we dress? What impact might it have on the school year schedule? Think of all the ways this flipped fact might impact the self, others and the world. Another example might be to take cars. Imagine if instead of the fact that we all can obtain an individual driving license, we could get a community driving license? So communities would need to come together and go through the process as one to get a license in a given area. Now this individual pursuit is a collective one. How might this impact car buying? How might this impact the environment? How might this impact the economy? How might this impact our sense of belonging? Exploring and investigating flipped facts like these, can help break traditional patterns of thinking and create an openness to new possibilities. Find more ways to cultivate futurist thinkers here.
Imagine if our primary goal in education was to develop the imaginations of our students? Imagination is one of the most marginalized and ignored dispositions in our schools today. Imagination doesn't fit into a culture of compliance and conformity. Our world is desperate for imaginative thinkers. The antidote to a world filled with problems, is a humanity ripe with imagination. But which type of imagiaton do we need? All of them!
Individual imagination- the ability to imagine something might be otherwise. A quick exercise for this might be to pass around a random object. Ask the holder of the object to imagine it has a different purpose that what is given. So if they held a stapler, imagine all of the other things it could be besides a stapler. This quick challenge is a great way to build a fluency for idea generation, flexibility in the way we see the world and so much more. If we want to grow our imaginations, we need to exercise them or risk them going dormant.
Social imagination- imagining a better world for everyone. This is about finding what is unjust, or unsustainable and reimagining it in a way that is better. Maxine Greene writes more about social imagination here. An exercise for social imagination might be to find a community problem and go through the human-centered design process (here is the one from IDEO). Begin with inspiration and find a problem that is impacting a community. Conduct an empathy interview of the people in the community to generate ideas from their perspective. Imagine new possibilities to address the problem and then implement the idea into action. Time can be spent iterating and getting feedback from the users in the community.
Moral imagination- Starting from a place of empathy and building solutions from someone else's perspective. Similar to the human-centered design process from the social imagination section above, this approach to imagination is also a collective one. One way to exercise this imagination might be to begin with the person not the problem. Ask students to get a thinking partner. Ask them to create a problem list sorted into three categories. One is a school problem list, one is a home problem list and one is a community problem list. Each student should come up with a list alone, and then share them and see if there is overlap or sparks to add. The next step, would be similar to above, ask them to generate ideas and implement the ideas into action. Listen to Jacqueline Novogratz talk about moral imagination in relation to philanthropic entrepreneurship.
These are just a few of the many different genre of imaginations. See how many more exist and how you might cultivate those in your space.
This was my first blog post in many years. I am trying to get back into writing some regular posts based on what I am reading, listening to, observing, reflecting and/or thinking about. Please reach out for more clarification, resources or just to talk through ideas. I am always happy to chat.