In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Future-Focused Education

  • Introduction
  • Futures Studies and Education
  • Global “Megatrends”
  • Rethinking Schooling’s Purposes for the Future
  • “21st-Century Learning”
  • “21st-Century” Skills, Dispositions, and Competencies
  • Critiques of Future-Focused Education

Education Future-Focused Education
Jane Gilbert
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0258


‘Future-focused education’ is not an easily definable or coherent body of knowledge. It is best described as an emerging cluster of ideas, beliefs, theories, and practices drawn from many sources, within and outside education, that are mobilized in different ways to support different purposes. The unifying idea, if there is one, is the contention that major change is needed in education if it is to meet future needs. However, there is little consensus on what these needs are or how they are best met. Educationists started to talk about future-focused education thirty or forty years ago, but although we use many new words, our education systems have not changed very much. In today’s context, future-focused education work has several very different strands. In one influential strand, education’s links to work and the economy are foregrounded. This work emphasizes the skills people need to participate—and drive economic growth—in today’s knowledge-based, networked economies, and argues that education’s purpose is to develop them. These skills are many and varied. In some work they are called the “4Cs”: creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication. But references to a range of other ‘soft’ skills— for example, innovation, agility, entrepreneurship, digital literacy, and design thinking—are common. Learning is also emphasized: Education’s primary purpose is to foster ‘learning skills’ and the ‘disposition’ for independent, lifelong learning. Other strands of future-focused education work are strongly critical of the focus on work skills and learning. For some educationists, this focus is linked with, and driven by, the demands of global capitalism, not by educational considerations. Others say that it is based on impoverished views of both education and the future. Educational futurists argue that major change is needed to build the higher-order, more ‘evolved’ forms of thinking everyone needs to function well in a world characterized by uncertainty and complexity. In other strands, educationists explore how changes in the meaning and use of knowledge, increased cultural diversity, and the sustainability movement strongly challenge prevailing notions of curriculum. Others have worked on reorienting traditional curriculum content to be not an end in itself but a context for building “learning power” and the “C-skills” of creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, innovation, and so on. In policy contexts, future-focused education is rhetorically linked to many other concepts, including personalization, inclusion, school-community partnerships, sustainability, citizenship, enterprise, digital literacies, computational thinking, innovative learning environments, and competencies. For space reasons, not all of these concepts are covered here.

Futures Studies and Education

The future-focused education literature references concepts drawn from the broader academic field of futures studies. Some of the citations below are introductions to this field’s key ideas. Others discuss the implications of these ideas for education’s future. Futures studies is a well-established (50-plus years) body of work that distinguishes itself from approaches designed to forecast, react to, or “proof against” future trends (Dator 2014; Gidley 2017). Instead, a key idea is that, by definition, the future cannot be known in advance. We cannot assume that current processes and assumptions will continue much as they are now: rather we should be assuming, and preparing to work with, uncertainty and a multiplicity of different possible futures (Sardar 2013; Gidley 2017). This view considers our futures as something created through the thinking, actions, and choices an entire population is making now, in the present (Facer 2011). A major subgroup of futures studies develops methodologies for decolonizing the assumptions, epistemologies, and cultural biases that inform prevailing notions of ‘the’ future (called in Inayatullah 2008 “used futures”) to make space for new choices and new capacities to emerge (Inayatullah 2008; Milojević 2005). Concepts from futures studies literature have been picked up in scholarly work on future-focused education. Keri Facer’s work is a strong example: her 2011 book makes the case for education’s role in fostering our collective capacity to imagine—and build—our preferred futures. Gidley 2016 combines work from futures studies thinking and adult cognitive development theory to set out a new framework for education designed to foster the kind of higher-order, more ‘evolved’ thinking needed for working in uncertainty, multiplicity, and complexity. Gidley, et al. 2004 reviews work in three broad areas: exploring new concepts of education (and critiquing the old); developing new approaches to teaching for or about different futures; and exploring young people’s ideas about their futures. However, because this is still an emerging field, it is fair to say that the uptake of futures studies concepts in education is patchy and sometimes superficial, at the level of what Slaughter 2002 refers to as ‘pop’ futures. Change is overstated or undertheorized, obvious external trends are referenced, and technological ‘solutions’ are emphasized. Similarly, the analysis of futures thinking in education in Gough 1990 shows the prevalence of superficial understandings of futures concepts and tacit or taken-for-granted assumptions of the future as a more-of-the-same version of the present.

  • Dator, J. 2014. Four images of the future. Set—Research Information for Teachers 1:61–63.

    This short paper outlines Dator’s four generic “images of the future” (components of the Manoa Method of alternative futures visioning). The four images are: "continued growth" (the dominant image, assumed by governments and other organizations); "collapse"; "disciplined society" (often associated with sustainability); and "transformation" (deep, abrupt, unpredictable change, precipitated by human-induced processes that are now well under way). Dator argues that education should be preparing people for all four futures.

  • Facer, K. 2011. Learning futures: Education, technology and social change. London: Routledge.

    This book questions prevailing stories about education’s future as bound up with the need to adapt to an increasingly high-tech, globally competitive world; instead it takes the view that these stories originate in narrow views of technology, the economy, education, and society, and are likely to amplify existing inequalities. Argues that education needs not to “react” to outside developments, but to be able to build our collective capacity to create the future we want.

  • Gidley, J. 2016. Postformal education: A philosophy for complex futures. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

    This book maps out a radically new educational philosophy designed to prepare young people for uncertainty, accelerating change, and complexity. Integrating work from adult cognitive development theory, futures studies work on “mega-trends of the mind,” and philosophy with various “evolutionary” pedagogies, Gidley sets out a framework for fostering a new, higher-order, more evolved form of thinking which, because it transcends Piaget’s “formal operations” stage, is known as post-formal reasoning.

  • Gidley, J. 2017. The future: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This book synthesises developments in the academic field of future studies over 50-plus years. A key theme is the development of concepts and tools, not for forecasting or proofing against the future, but for working with uncertainty and multiplicity. The case is made for more human-centered (as opposed to “techno-utopian”) approaches to futures thinking, and for evolution of our consciousness as a necessary precondition for our collective survival.

  • Gidley, J., D. Bateman, and C. Smith. 2004. Futures in Education: Principles, practice and potential. AFI Monograph Series 5. Hawthorn VIC: Australian Foresight Institute at Swinburne Univ. of Technology.

    This monograph consists of two long papers. The first, by Jennifer Gidley, reviews research on futures thinking in education in three areas: research exploring young people’s ideas about the future, research on futures teaching in schools, and scholarly work that uses futures tools to explore new models of education. The second paper, by Bateman and Smith, maps the uptake of futures concepts in the practices of Australian schools.

  • Gough, N. 1990. Futures in Australian education – tacit, token and taken for granted. Futures 22.3:298–310.

    This paper critically discusses the way ‘the future’ is represented in educational contexts. Three patterns are identified: references to tacit futures, in which assumptions about the future are unstated and unexplained, but nevertheless present; token futures, which invoke futures concepts rhetorically to rationalize decisions made on other grounds; and taken-for-granted futures which describe ‘the future’ as if there were no alternatives. This severely limits our capacity to imagine—and create—different futures.

  • Inayatullah, S. 2008. Six pillars: Futures thinking for transforming. Foresight 10.1:4–21.

    Sets out the framework for Inayatullah’s futures thinking methodology, a process designed to deconstruct the assumptions, epistemologies, and cultural biases that underpin prevailing images of the future. Inayatullah calls these “used futures”: ideas about the future that have been borrowed, repeated, or recycled from elsewhere or the past. The aim is to decolonize current thinking, to create the conditions within which new choices can emerge and new capacities can develop.

  • Milojević, I. 2005. Educational futures: Dominant and contesting visions. London: Routledge.

    This book is a deconstruction of the way ‘future’ ideas circulate in discussions of the demise of industrial-age education. It argues that futures thinking in education is underdeveloped, tokenistic, and overly linked with notions of technology that privilege […] which are effectively colonizing our futures. The book poses various alternative frameworks for education’s future, drawing in particular from feminist and Indigenous scholarship.

  • Sardar, Z. 2013. Future. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

    This book is an accessible overview of the major concepts and methods used in the field of futures studies. It explores the shift from the older, unidirectional model of ‘a’ singular future to a focus on pluralities of futures and on thinking aimed at envisioning, inventing, or creating new possibilities for alternative and preferred futures outside current assumptions and constraints. An extensive list of key texts and other useful resources is provided.

  • Slaughter, R. 2002. Beyond the mundane: Reconciling breadth and depth in futures enquiry. Futures 34.6:493–507.

    In this paper Slaughter outlines his three-layer typology of futures work. The first layer he calls “pop” futurism: superficial, undertheorized, media-friendly work, usually emphasizing scientific and/or technological “solutions” to current problems. The second layer is problem-oriented futures work: serious investigation of how organizations should be responding to the near future’s challenges. His third layer, critical/epistemological futures work, looks beneath current thinking to deconstruct deeper processes of meaning-making and paradigm formation.

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