How About a Referendum on a Probable, Possible or Preferred Future?

28/06/2016 11:49 | Updated 28 June 2017

Last Thursday, just hours after a Referendum which will have massive implications for the nation's future, I found myself at a World of Work event for teachers interested in students' future working lives. Each speaker represented an organisation active in some way at the interface between education and business. A good few of them were keen to press the point that C21st employers are hungry for young people equipped to deal with uncertainty. In many ways this was encouraging. While rarely spoken of explicitly in UK schools, in leadership circles it is common these days to frame the world's post-modern condition as volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous - VUCA for short.

It's safe to say the economic, social and political climate currently engulfing the UK could serve as a compelling case for teaching about and for VUCA. Indeed, in his post-referendum statement George Osborne specified volatility and uncertainty as two of the three challenges immediately facing the nation. It was hardly necessary for him to spell out the complexity of the matter, while, as if to highlight the ambiguity, he accommodated his own pre-referendum prognostications of catastrophe with the revelation that, in fact, "we were prepared for the unexpected. We are equipped for whatever happens." Leaving aside the reliability of the Chancellor's new found optimism, it's easy see the value to employers of this capacity for what Guy Claxton famously characterised as knowing "what to do when you don't know what to do." In an environment of shifting demographics and markets, and of exponential technological development, knowledge and technical skills clearly have diminishing shelf lives. The fashionability of character education, with its emphasis on resilience and grit, and of learning for creativity clearly have complementary appeal, both preparing future workers for whatever comes their way.

And that's the problem I have with this rather narrow focus on skills. Yes, our young people will need to be reflexive and adaptable, quite probably in ways we can only guess at, but let's avoid, at all costs, instilling any sense of The Future as a thing out there waiting to happen to them, a thing to which they can do nothing but respond. Futures academic Wendell Bell speaks wisely about the 3Ps of probable, possible and preferred futures. That preferred future will have no more substance than a utopian fantasy if we fail to provide all children with regular and thoughtfully designed opportunities to explore the values needed to shape it, plus a sense of their own agency to bring it about. Huge, baffling and disturbing as the UK crisis might seem right now, it's as nothing compared to the environmental, social and political challenges that lie ahead for these young folk. And judging by the quality of our current political leaders, the probable future doesn't bear thinking about. Banging on about the world of work is all very well, but if the world doesn't work, it's all a bit futile isn't it?