Future of Education Speaker Series Episode 1 – Students thinking about future skills

As I’ve mentioned various times on this blog, I have had the good fortune of working with about 70 Co-op students throughout the pandemic. They were students who would mostly have gone out to their engineering or kinesiology placements, but could not due to the pandemic. They’ve been wonderful to work with. The students I’ve worked with in the past had mostly self-selected into the work that we were doing. These students had not. They were doing their best (like so many of us) to make the best of a Covid situation. I learned a lot from them…

One of the things we’ve worked on extensively… is about what it means to be ‘prepared’ for the world that we have in front of us.

This Friday at noon EST (April 29th, 2022) my students will be presenting the results of their Futures thinking activity. They have been tasked to consider what skills they might need to succeed in the future. They started with the trends that are part of the SSHRC future challenges and built from there. It is capstone presentation at the end of their four month work term in the Office of Open Learning at UWindsor. Join us. We’d love to hear from you.

Why are we doing this?

I do my best to have my student employees do meaningful work. I also try and do the kind of training that might make the experience worthwhile to them. One of the key focuses of that training in the last two years has been the gap between their expectations of what it means to work and what I am actually asking them to do. I have found that I need to spend significant time making students believe that I am actually looking for their ‘opinion’ and not ‘the right answer’. They struggle (at first) confronting things that are uncertain. They want a clear question with a clear answer.

This experience led me to take a closer look at the ‘future preparation of students’ conversation. Whether we are talking about 21st century skills, or preparing people for future jobs or whatever… what are we preparing them for? Is confronting uncertainty a 21st century skill? Are other people in my field seeing the same things from students? What other things should I be trying to prepare them for that haven’t occurred to me that I’ve overlooked? How many of those are the results of my own embodiment and privilege? What, eventually, does this mean we should be doing to change what and how we teach?

I don’t know. I know that I care about the work I’ve done with my students and I believe that there is some kind of disconnect. Over the next ten months I’m going to be hosting a series of conversation to talk about it. I’m planning an open course for the fall. I’m also currently applying for funding for a conference in February of 2023. Stay tuned.

A few thoughts going forward.


You might believe that uncertainty is the product of our current times (pandemic, war in Europe, housing and oil prices, climate change etc…). You could see the next 20 years as a time of potentially unprecedented uncertainty. You might also believe that the abundance of access to voices and information have unveiled the uncertainty that has always lain underneath the veneer of the post WWII ‘clear objectives’ global north west. Either way. I feel pretty comfortable suggesting that many of the new challenges our OOL students will be facing in the next 20 years don’t have ‘answers’ and, frankly, the ones we’re handing on (eg. poverty) don’t have ‘answers’ either.

I think that preparing people for uncertainty is different than preparing them for certainty. I was talking about uncertainty a few weeks ago and was told that we need to ‘teach the basics‘ so that people can even enter the conversation. We need to teach the certainties before we teach the uncertainties. I hear it. We were making the same criticisms of whole language learning in the 80s. I just have this feeling that this conversation about uncertainty and what we can do for it is important.

Futures thinking

Futures thinking is a method of examining current trends through the lens of the future. It is NOT prediction. Take your time machine back 5 years and make some guesses… your predictions were probably wrong. If they were right… no one listened to you.

Futures thinking is about creating ‘possible futures’ that give us a chance to discuss our current trends outside of the current disagreements we may have about them. We combine trends and think about what would happen if they became a dominant trend in our culture. What if, 20 years from now, housing prices went up by 500%? What if advances in cyborginess gave us all unlimited mental storage?

The possibilities are endless, but the future is not the thing. The real advantage of taking a futures approach is the chance to think about the trend. The outcome is a better understanding of what we should be doing in our world right now.

What do I hope to get from this?

Well. I have this conversation that I want to be in. I can’t find it… so I’m hoping to start one version of it and find the others that are already ongoing.

I’m also hoping to pull together the wisdom we come across. We’ll see how things develop, how many voices decide to join. It’d be great if that October open course actually became a MOOC. I’d like that. We’ll see.


For sure come to the presentation on Friday. For now drop a comment on this post if you’re interested. I haven’t quite settled on the platform for communications (what with the recent unpleasantness in the social mediasphere).

Teaching for uncertainty vs. teaching the basics

I had a really great time at the #DLsymp22 conference this week. It was my first time back face 2 face, and while i had a few butterflies before I walked up on stage, it all felt pretty natural. I had forgotten how much fun it was to be with a few hundred passionate educators where the things that I care about are the things that they care about. Good times.


The talk I gave was the first run of the stuff I’ve been working on for the last two years. I started writing a book in the summer of 2019 that became, eventually, about uncertainty and its relationship to learning. A book, that, frankly, needed to get rewritten a few times considering how the people’s sense of ‘uncertainty’ was impacted by the last few years.

I framed the talk around the needs of the young people coming out of our education system. What do they need to learn ‘for’. I’ve had the opportunity to spend a lot of time around 20ish year olds the past couple of years (I’ve had 70 Co-op students work with me) And their plight, and the way I believe they’ve been misunderstood has become a real focus of my time. What are they facing and what do we need to do to help them face it? What does our education system need to ‘be’ to get them there?

The first question I asked the crowd was what they thought students were learning for…

Q1. What do you think our students are learning for? What should they be good at when they’re done school?

It’s a great chart, with lots of words that I think are super-important in the process of helping students get ready for what they are going to be facing going forward.

The middle part of the talk was about how I have this suspicion that our education system contributes to a particular ‘syndrome’ that is quite the opposite of what you see in that wonderful list of things to learn. Quaintly named, I’ll admit. But I’m calling a hat a hat on this one… to avoid confusion.

I have consistently struggled with student employees, early on in their work term, with assuming that any problem I give them – or questions I ask them -has a clear answer. That they can get their job ‘right’. Maybe more importantly, many (most?) seem to believe that I actually already know the answer to any question I ask them… like I’m playing some kind of game by not telling them the answer.

Like they are still playing the game of school. The game where a teacher has something they want you to do, they know what the ‘answer’ is, but they just won’t tell you. Good, compliant, high achieving students, are the ones who figure out what the teacher wants and gives it to them. They are rewarded for learning compliance. (note: compliance is not on the list of things we say we want them to learn, and yet it is often what we reward most.)

The next question (further into the talk) that I asked was about what they thought students would be facing. This was not the cheeriest part of the talk. We are living through a time right now where at least 4 things I would have considered black swans (war in Europe, oil prices, climate change, pandemic) in 2010 are happening at the same time. If you include things like housing prices, that number goes up.

I asked the ‘future of our learners’ question through the lens of uncertainty. I defined uncertainty through the lens of the ‘ill-structured problems’ or, kind of, the lens of wicked problems. A problem where one some or all of the question, the process for addressing the question or the solution are unknown or unknowable. The list is pretty scary.

What are some real world problems without clear answers?

So many of these real world issues are and will remain uncertain. There’s no ‘solution’ to poverty. There’s only hard work on pieces of the problem, a problem that gets super messy to define if you start to think about it.

The disconnect

If the world our students are facing is full of uncertain problems, can we prepare them for that with right answers? Obviously I don’t think so. And it’s not even about leaving room for ‘failure’. In order to fail at something, someone else has to know what success is… and sure, I can’t fail to fix my water tap, because it’s still leaking when I’m done. Sure. There are definitely problems we can fix. A lot of the big ones, though, are not things that ‘fix’.

But we need to teach them the basics

People were really nice to me about the presentation. Many, clearly, were just happy to be together in a big group again. Some people pointed out some very important equity issues with including more ‘uncertainty’ in our teaching. One teacher asked if adding more uncertainty would lead to more anxiety in students or less, because they’d have more practice with uncertainty. Awesome question.

One gentlemen (quite jovially) accosted me later that day and said “but, obviously, we have to teach the basics! They can’t be involved in this if we don’t teach the basics first!”

I should be better prepared for this objection… I’ve been hearing it for 15 years. At least. But it always sets me back a bit. I’m not suggesting that students should have to learn to identify letters or colours. But i don’t really think the ‘basics’ should be the ‘point’ of learning in most cases.

I think of my journey through carpentry… is hammering a basic? Is it drilling? What about joinery?

I’m not saying any of those things aren’t important, but I’ve learned them in the context of building things, of understanding what they’re useful for, not by hammering 1000 nails into a board so the nail head was perfectly flat.

I’m sure my hammering would be BETTER if i did the 1000 nails thing. But there’s more to hammering a nail than getting the nail flat. Safety. wood grain. wood type. time. So many things that bring context to it. Most importantly I’M NOT A CARPENTER. Most of our students will never need to be ‘amazing’ at anything we’re teaching them.

I don’t wish for a world full of super-scientists, I wish for citizens who understand enough about science and statistics to respond ethically to a pandemic. I wish for citizens who can handle uncertainty and still make good decisions.

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