Looking for the future in a blue sky

The national debate signals the beginning of a shift in policy from caution towards experiment, says Michael Peters.

HE accent of the national debate on educational futures is refreshing for at least two reasons: first, there is little blue sky thinking in education, as policy is often driven by an HMI best-practice model that tends to ignore research, scholarship and overseas experience; second, because the formal state apparatus is so enormous, it is difficult to effect significant change of the whole enterprise. Policy-makers tend to err on the side of caution, especially when the lives of young people are at stake.

Yet there is evidence that we are on the edge of a new era of experimentation: the promise of traditional state education has not been fulfilled and it now faces erosion from non-traditional competitors; knowledge production and learning have undergone massive technical transformations; and, edu-cation has been rediscovered as being central to the new global knowledge economy.

National education systems have experienced a huge growth in participation and demand, leading to the phenomenon of "massification". This growth is, in part, the result of demographic changes, but also of deliberate policies designed to recognise and harness the economic and social importance of "second chance" education and "lifelong" education. In a competitive global economy, the accent has fallen on the development of human capital.

Education has become more market-orientated and consumer-driven as a consequence of funding policies designed to encourage access at the same time as containing expenditure. As a result, costs have been transferred to the students themselves or their parents. In addition, there is the challenge of the new technologies which, effecting a shift from "knowledge" to "information" and from teaching to learning, threaten to further commercialise and commodify education, substituting learning systems for the traditional forms of pedagogy.

The introduction of technology-based learning systems is blurring the boundaries between on-site and distance learning. It is transforming the nature of scholarship and research, and brings in its wake many problems for knowledge workers. Some policy-makers see ICT as the means by which the problem of growth and expansion can be overcome in an age of steadily reducing state subsidy (and unit costs). The virtual classroom is heralded by techno-utopians as the answer.

The study of futures is a relatively new constellation of fields and disciplines that address the impact of world trends and develop visions of the future with the idea of bridging business, education, science, technology and government. This new area has had a strong impact on policy in its two predominant forms of scenario planning and foresight.

Scenario planning has emerged during the past 40 to 50 years as a generic technique to stimulate thinking about the future in the context of strategic planning. It was initially used in military planning, and was subsequently adapted for use in business environments and, most recently, for planning political futures in such countries as post-apartheid South Africa, Colombia, Japan, Canada and Cyprus.

Scenarios are succinct narratives that describe possible futures and alternative paths toward the future based on plausible hypotheses and assumptions. The idea behind scenarios is to start thinking about the future now in order to be better prepared for what comes later. In this sense scenario planning is based on an imaginative kind of learning.

Educational futures is very much about challenging the kinds of mindsets that underwrite certainty and assuredness and, therefore, is about re-perceiving the world and promoting more open, flexible, proactive stances toward the future.

Developing scenarios that perceive possible futures in the present can help us avoid situations in which events take us by surprise. They encourage us to question conventional predictions of the future, help us to recognise "signs of change" when they occur, and establish standards for evaluating continued use of different strategies under different conditions.

What the Scottish national debate needs, in addition to the collection of views about the purposes of education - an essential democratic function - is a strong strategic sense of direction which may be derived from an accent on educational futures. Perhaps it is time for educational foresight?

Michael Peters is research professor of education at Glasgow University.

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