Feb. 14-15: Online Days
Feb. 18-22: On-site Days in Washington DC

Anticipating Education Futures for an Improved World

Noah W. Sobe

Loyola University



The message of this short essay is: let’s prepare to be wrong.  Anticipating education futures is valuable, even unavoidable; but this work is significantly impoverished if we only focus on “winning bets” (Miller 2023).  As we navigate among predicted, probable, possible and preferred futures we need strategies to live with indeterminacy without surrendering aspiration.  Broadening our appreciation of possibility is one such promising approach.

The theme of the 2023 conference of the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) “Improving education for a more equitable world” invites us to examine the very ways we think about “now” and “then” – to examine our assumptions for how educational actions serve individual and social purposes later down the line.  This means comingling (a) the futuring dimensions of educational processes themselves, i.e., what we might call “the tomorrow game of learning today”, with (b) the range of possible broader global transformations that include anticipations of how education and society might be different than today.  Drawing from Facer’s useful (2021) mapping of education futures practices, this piece puts “education for the future” and “education in the future” both under examination.

A core premise of much contemporary futures work is that the yet-to-come only actually exists for us in the domain of ideation and imagination (Candy & Potter 2019).  As Riel Miller, one of the founders of futures literacy and former chief futurist at UNESCO, puts it, “the form the future takes in the present is anticipation” (2019, p. 2).  The future is powerful because what we expect, want to happen, and fear will happen shapes our thinking and actions in the here and now.

In this short essay I will discuss different anticipatory practices commonly encountered in the field of education today.  I then turn to the work of two futurists active in education each of whom “correctly” anticipated the recent global health pandemic.  These are David Staley (2018/2022) and Bryan Alexander (2020), and I suggest that we may actually learn more from what they got “wrong” than what they got “right”.  Taking this back to education for and in the future, I will propose that we should always hold the expansion of possibilities as the overarching concern in the anticipatory strategies that enable us to imagine the future.

Education Futures Work Today

Educational activities are riven with temporal propositions that are themselves encased in particular ways of thinking about time / temporality itself.  The banalized bromide “children are the future” says more about the affective investments we have in the future as a cultural concept than any scientific notion of time unfolding (Sobe 2023).  Yet with today’s vogue for attaching “future” and “futures” to almost any education research initiative, policy constellation, or public debate, some clarifying mapping is in order.

Useful distinctions can be drawn between (1) education for producing futures, (2) practices of teaching and learning about the future, and (3) the forecasting work of envisioning how education might be in the future.  These three gestures can be isolated as an analytic exercise, but most educational theory, policy and practice actually intermingles them.  I should also note that this heuristic is based off Facer’s (2021) more nuanced mapping, which also discusses the critical emancipatory projects that seek to liberate education from the future, as well as reparative education that aims to heal futures.

Future-producing is embedded in the straight forwards (and reasonable) expectation that there is change over time and that what we do “now” will have at least some bearing on what happens “later”.  In fact we can say that there is always, invariably some sort of “tomorrow game” to what is done in education (understood as the purposeful organization of learning).  Yet, the tomorrow game takes different forms.  We can identify two contending paradigms of education for producing futures: loosely put, there are efforts that seek to prepare students for a changing world, and efforts that seek to mold students to become agents for changing the world.  The “adaptive preparation paradigm” and the “agentic preparation paradigm” cannot be crisply reduced to a Venn diagram of overlapping and distinct circles (Sobe forthcoming).  Nor would a simplifying spectrum schematization necessarily be helpful either.  The interplay between reactive/adaptive and agentic futures-making is complex, varying, and non-uniform.  At stake are core values, assumptions, hopes and fears about the relationship between schools and the social orders that (both) sustain them and (/or) are changed by them.

These are not new questions.  Social, political and cultural theory has long helped us play the tomorrow game of learning today.  Social scientists and historians – comparative education researchers primus inter pares! – continue to add their valuable empirical evidence to the mix.  From an education futures perspective we want to focus on the ways that these contending and uneven frames and aspirations operate as anticipatory systems and processes.  After all, anticipation is the only actual form that the future takes in the present.

Education is also deeply invested in teaching and learning about the future itself.  Pedagogies to develop “futures literacy” (Miller 2018) and the Teach the Future work done by Peter Bishop (2019) and colleagues are classic examples.  Here the effort is to render assumptions about the future more visible and generate critical reflection.  When a science student learns a “law” or a history student learns about contingency they are learning the future; however, the educational aim in expressly teaching about the future is greater reflexivity.  Facer (2021) helpfully suggests that Arjun Appadurai’s concept of the “capacity to aspire” needs to be more carefully woven into this body of practice – and she usefully warns of the risks of framing futures literacy in capability terms, including the risk of curriculum alchemy turning this into just another “21st century skill”.

Forecasting education in the future is no less “interested” an activity than anything else already described.  Scholars like Janja Komljenovic, Kathryn Moeller and Ben Williamson have contributed greatly to our understanding of the commercial and tech industry investment in plotting some education futures over others.  Speculation on education in the future can also closely map onto the adaptive/reactive and agentic paradigms discussed above.  Some education futures work begins with social, cultural, political, economic and technological change and from this derives ways education in the future will necessarily have to be different.  Other approaches pay more heed to education as a site of cultural production rather than mere social reproduction (Sobe 2009) and envision education transformations that help to constitute and are fully interwoven with all other future global transformations.  Once more, however, rarely will derivative and constitutive education futures neatly Venn, nor can they be laid out on a spectrum.

The intermingling of these three layers of education futures work (for producing the future, about the future, and in the future) can be succinctly illustrated in a brief discussion of two recent leading global education policy documents: the OECD’s 2021 scenarios work and UNESCO’s 2021 Reimagining our futures together report (for a longer comparative discussion, see Sobe forthcoming).

Building greater resilience and appreciation for a future that “likes to surprise us” (p. 11), is a guiding concern for the OECD’s 2021 Back to the future education scenarios publication.  The report teaches that our futures contain unexpected shocks.  It proposes four scenarios as a strategy to prepare for disruptive change.  The intent is not that readers choose the preferred or most likely scenario (though this is a tenet that most actual scenario users honor in the breach).  Instead, the goal is to develop individuals’ abilities to disagree and deliberate, as well as reflect on their own assumptions – with the hoped-for result a more holistic picture, shared understandings, and aligned actions.  Thus, the four OECD scenarios for what education might look like in the future include powerful lessons about the future, as well as recommendations on learning (for policymakers and related education stakeholders in this instance) that will prepare individuals and organizations for whatever the future will bring.

A similar intermingling can be found in UNESCO’s 2021 flagship education futures exercise.  The Sahle-Work Commission report, Reimagining our futures together: A new social contract for education, falls squarely in the category of envisioning desired futures.  With lines like “no trend is destiny” (p. 3) it aspirationally sets out a vision of the future as a space of democratic, participatory creation.  Though quite detailed in its recommendations for education policy and practice, the UNESCO report claims not to be presenting a “roadmap”.  Instead, it styles itself as an “invitation” and call to action, eloquently noting, “we will build a new social contract for education through millions of individual and collective acts – acts of courage, leadership, resistance, creativity, and care” (p. 5).  While the means and methods of UNESCO’s education futures project differ substantially from the OECD scenarios, it similarly intertwines teaching about the future, actions to produce futures, and visions for what education might/should be like in the future.

Whether outfitting ourselves for the future and/or becoming future fit, education policymaker and practitioners will benefit from increased attention to the anticipatory systems and processes we employ.  And, towards that end I now turn to an examination of recent “winning” and “losing” bets in futures work.

Anticipations of Covid-19

The COVID pandemic that began its global spread at the end of 2019 and led to extensive school closures in 2020 and 2021 was no surprise to some.  Famously, tech billionaire Bill Gates (2022) has worried for some time about global pandemics and in the mid-2010s backed several initiatives to bolster scientific and public health structures that would help us address a future pandemic.  Even the dangers of zoonotic contagion (Quammen 2012) were well discussed.  Moreover, a global pandemic that shuts down economies and societies was a feature of any number of foresight exercises over the past 30 or 40 years.  Nonetheless, the events of February-March 2020 had a caught-by-surprise dimension for many.  Like others, some of my earliest reactions to the short-term closing down of economic, social, cultural and educational activities, were to note missed warning signs all around and recommend humility in the face of the unknown (Sobe 2020).  Similar to what one could say about the conjunctive challenges of climate change and the untenable global social inequalities that are also right in front of us, with COVID-19 we were hit by the train whose approach we have been watching for some time.

One obvious conclusion is that even where foresight work is borne out, we can still fall short on the activity and reactivity that anticipation also calls for.  For some, the appropriate response is to double-down on containing uncertainty.  As discussed above, the OECD’s scenario work (2021) recommends tools that better prepare us for unexpected shocks.  Alternately, we can approach uncertainty as propelling us forwards and, as UNESCO’s (2021) education futures work proposed, double-down on mobilizing people, organizations, institutions, countries to collectively imagine and work towards desirable futures (Sobe forthcoming).  Here, however, I want to focus on the argument that we should confidently welcome anticipatory systems and processes that are likely to be both right and wrong.

Education futurist and faculty member in the History Department at Ohio State University, David Staley, has made a name for himself as a cutting-edge thinker on integrating historical and futures thinking (e.g. Staley 2007).  He is the author of Alternative universities: Speculative design for innovation in higher education (2021) and also writes a monthly column for a local Ohio online media publication, the Columbus Underground.  It is here that on 5 June 2018 Staley published a piece titled “What if there were another global pandemic?”  Reading this subjunctive-mood what-if essay in 2023, one cannot help but nod affirmatively to observations like:

  • “our interconnected global networks would make the spread of deadly disease that much easier”
  • “there would be an effort to affix blame, to identify the source of the pandemic”
  • “schools would be closed—supplemented by more at-home and online learning—and businesses would probably insist that employees engage in more telecommuting”

For his part, in subsequent reflections Staley (2022) has cautioned against the headline “futurist gets it right” (p.18).  He emphasizes the indeterminate probability of any scenario actually occurring.  And, he is unstintingly bold in his ongoing writing about what might follow from COVID, speculating, for example, on things such as “zoom globalization” and the possible emergence of a philosophical movement that might take the name “neo-essentialism”.

Alongside the felicitious if also unsurprising strike, it is worth spending some time on the parts of Staley’s 2018 what-if scenario that were somewhat off the mark.  For example:

  • “an enterprising company might get to market quickly with personal filtration/ respiration masks”
  • “airlines would issue filtration masks (for an extra fee) for those who did fly”
  • “like the gas masks [of WWI] global cities would be peopled by those masked citizens who dare walk in public”

As of this writing in 2023, already-available surgical masks (and initially their hand-sewn substitutes) have been the personal protective equipment of choice.  So far, more elaborate personal air filtration systems have not become commonplace.  Yet, what is wrong here is also right.  The COVID pandemic forcibly shed light on the politics of individual versus public health measures.  Masking has indeed become a new feature of life for many.  Though – like all aspects of the pandemic – this plays out against already-existing disparities in wealth, social position, and the world’s highly unequal systems of distributing and regulating opportunity (Sobe 2022).  However, if personal air filtration beyond a filtering facepiece – and particularly the extension of this type of gated-community affordance into broader public spaces – seems plausible or possible to a reader under other (future?) pandemic scenarios, then Staley’s (2018) anticipatory work has even greater use to us.  It alerts us to a possible “then” around which anticipatory actions and reactions might need to pivot.

The second “correct” anticipation of COVID-19 I will discuss here comes from Bryan Alexander, a futurist with a background in English literature who hosts the popular weekly online “Future Trends Forum”.  In January Alexander (2020a) published Academia Next: The Futures of Higher Education which included an invitation for readers to imagine a university after a major pandemic has struck the world.  He asked readers to consider:

  • Whether distance learning would grow rapidly because of perceived contagion risks of face-to-face learning
  • How conferences and professional development might be taken online
  • What academic disciplines would be most likely to grow in the disease’s wake

In this instance the questions were framed as scenario-creation guidance.  And, in broad strokes, they successfully anticipate certain of the dynamics that played out with COVID-19.  In a set of blog posts the month after his book came out – before COVID was fully recognized as a global pandemic and before the extent of closures and quarantines became clear – Alexander (2020b; 2020c) continued his futurist work, speculating that COVID-19 might:

  • Bolster the role of academics as publicly engaged intellectuals and researchers
  • Expand open access and intellectual exchange across national borders
  • Lead to tensions between those favoring online teaching and those opposing

Traces of developments like these are not difficult to identify today.

Nonetheless, again, what was off the mark is actually more interesting.  In his January 2020 book Alexander included the following question in relation to his pandemic scenario:

Would athletes refrain from practice and play from fear of contagion, or would both institutions and the general public demand more college sports as an inspirational sign of bodily vigor in the context of sickness and death? (p. 23)

As of yet COVID has not seemed to prompt any broad cultural examination of the human body’s healthfulness and vitality, though the unrealized possibility of this is itself generative of new insights into humans’ relationships with bodies.

In a follow-up February 2021 blog Alexander reflected on what he got right and what he didn’t.  He noted that his speculation that there would be significant religious responses to the pandemic had not yet emerged.  Alexander also recognized that the virus’ likely zoonotic origins had not altered meat consumption patterns as he had suggested they might.  Interestingly, one point of convergent “error” for both Alexander and Staley (and underscored by each in later reflections) was an overestimation of the capacities of the US Center for Disease Control and the overall robustness of the public health infrastructure in the United States.

We should not begrudge either Alexander or Staley for wanting to draw lessons from their futuring work in the interest of improving the practice of their craft.  Though on the question of codifying anticipation and Futures Literacy “expertise,” it is important to recall Facer and Sriprakash’s (2021) caution at the concurrent “illiteracies” and normalizing disqualifications that can be all to easily also generated.  All things considered, I would maintain that the work of these two futurists show us the value of putting forth “losing bets” in anticipatory work.  In this regard I am responding to a recent provocation from Riel Miller (2023) who cautions against only harnessing anticipation to the optimal and preparatory.  He advises that we not permit ourselves to be:

swallowed whole by the folly and desperation of reducing the not-past, not-present to a knowable prize and all the devastating disappointments that promising impossibility delivers.

Miller reminds us again that the future cannot be known.  It is not hard to argue that our quests for certainty – particularly in the technological modernisms of the 20th century – sometimes get us into plenty of trouble.  While remaining cognizant of the dangers of calculated ignorance-making and the “possibility washing” that occurs when known occurrences like climate change are strategically shrouded in indeterminacy (Sobe forthcoming), a case can be made for more strongly welcoming not-knowing into education futures work.  We might then, as Miller (2022) argues “turn complexity from simply the enemy of planning into a source of endless inspiration.”


Education – the purposeful organization of learning – is a potent cauldron for stewing and simmering future possibilities. And, in our anthropocene age we cannot forget that human anticipation also has major consequences for the living planet Earth and the other species we share it with. Thus how we think about, forecast, seek to prepare ourselves for, and/or manage future possibilities is no idle activity.  It is in fact a world-making, worlds-making undertaking.

The “more equitable world” that participants in 2023 conference of the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) debated and dedicated themselves to is a world that must contain many worlds.  It is a world that will need to be decolonized, less extractivist, and less assymetrical.  And, in imagining educational improvements that we envision as helping to compose these future worlds we need to prepare to be right and wrong.

Certainly, no public or collective resources should be purposefully squandered – though I will confidently speculate that enclosure by private and commercial interests is greatest clear and present danger we face to strengthening education as a public endeavor and global common good.  At the same time, we should not allow ourselves to be hobbled by anticipatory practices conservatively focused only on winning bets.


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Alexander, B. (2020c). Pandemic and academic possibilities: the coronavirus outbreak continues. February 24 2020 blog post available at https://bryanalexander.org/research-topics/pandemic-and-academic-possibilities-the-coronavirus-outbreak-continues/.

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