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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

Tripping the Switch: The 12 Critical Uncertainties of International Education

A few weeks ago, I found myself reflecting on the deep future of international education. It led me to assert the following:

Looking into the deep future requires a degree of imagination, the courage to tell different stories, the playful wandering down different pathways that may eventually turn out never to exist.

But then I realised I had no idea how to engage in this kind of futuristic storytelling; because it is necessarily founded upon what we don't yet know. If I extrapolate from what I see around me, I can well imagine what schools are likely to be like in five or maybe ten years from now. To strain my eyes and try to look forty years into the future, however, there are simply too many variables at play to accurately predict anything at all.

Rather than give up, though, I decided to look around at what happens in other industries. What I discovered was that the problem is an interdisciplinary one, but also that there are some common protocols out there to ensure that this far off horizon can be mapped without simply resorting to the realm of make-believe.

The key, it appears, is to develop different stories of scenarios based by first identifying the key forces that will impact how the future plays out. These forces can also be referred to as "critical uncertainties" - things that, literally, may go one way or another.

Having identified these critical uncertainties, the game of scenario planning is to play with different combinations and imagine how life would be if we switched an individual or group of uncertainties in one direction or another.

So what does this mean for narrating the deep future of international education?

Below is one possible visualisation of the uncertainties we may be facing over the coming decades.

An illustration of the 12 critical uncertainties of international education
Critical Uncertainties: A way of mapping the long term future.

What I'm learning is that even with only 12 critical uncertainties, and there are clearly so many more variables, the story gets complicated pretty quickly. But for the sake of argument, let's imagine three: (1) The international school market, (2) The role of the teacher, and (3) The school campus. There is one story in which the idea of the traditional expatriate family disappears, the teacher remains central to the learning experience of students, and schools are still tied to physical learning spaces. Trip the switch on each of these variables, however, and another future emerges in which the expatriate population grows, virtual learning environments become the norm and the teacher, as we traditionally understand it, is increasingly irrelevant.

Scenario planning in this way offers no judgement about which future is better. Neither does it suggest which future is more likely to occur. What it does do, however, is begin to break down the void into manageable alternatives that we might decide we want to embrace or avoid.

Cover photo by Mikkel Bech on Unsplash.


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