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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Foresight, futures and changing contexts

Lindsay Rae

Futures and leadership

Thinking about and planning for the future is at the core of leadership. This remains true regardless of an organisation's size, structure or the realm in which it operates. The need to maintain a future focus, and to think carefully about how to approach the task, is vital in education and operates at a number of levels.

By definition, every educator is a leader. As leaders, educators must concern themselves with considering and shaping futures. A great deal of the pedagogical task and the human relationship between teacher and learner is concerned with nurturing and shaping young people to influence and manage multiple futures. While questions and debates about the purposes and values of assessment and evaluation tend to dominate the thoughts of professional educators, the intuitive test that citizens generally apply to our education system is what beneficial impact it has on the adult lives of the learners.

Variations in teaching styles and even in school culture do not diminish the centrality of leadership to the educator's work. Educators who see themselves as facilitators are leading as much as those who see themselves as instructors - perhaps more effectively.

Principals, entrusted with the task of leading the operational work of educators, face a doubly complex engagement with futures. They need to oversee and support teachers' work in helping students prepare for the future, as well as creatively engaging in a partnership with teachers, parents and others to form future-focused structures and processes. This concept may seem somewhat vague, but it encompasses such recognisable tasks as managing career pathways, building school communities, developing institutional robustness, securing financial sustainability, planning for succession and working with accountability processes.

Futurism and foresight

For all of us the link between leadership and futures is a clear one. Of vital importance, however, is the distinction between futurism and foresight. Many excellent writers in the field use these terms in a variety of senses, but for the present a simple distinction will suffice.

Futurism impels us to map out the likely course of future events and plan to meet the challenges and opportunities such a course will present. This may involve thinking forward from the present, but equally futurist is a characteristic methodology of educational organisations - the vision statement, road map or strategic plan. Deciding 'where do we want to be in X years' and then planning backwards on how to get there is a variation on the futurist approach.

Foresight, on the other hand, involves establishing the range of possible futures, and gathering and organising the necessary intellectual and material assets to prosper in all of them. Most professionally run organisations engage in contingency planning, disaster planning or preparing for deterioration in the operating environment. However, a foresight-based approach to futures demands more. It actually involves a complex, even chaotic, series of analyses that can sometimes defy linear logic and may not produce clear conclusions. An element of creative imagining is also indispensable.

People are at the core of maximising the benefits of such an approach, which cannot be fully realised by a one-off planning exercise. The conventional management structures of educational organisations inhibit such an approach, precisely because they are usually founded on an understanding of the future based on prediction rather than possibility. Individuals cannot make their fullest contribution to developing futures in an organisation that requires them to work only within narrowly and precisely defined roles, emphasising constraints ahead of possibilities.

Engaging foresight with leadership

For principals, leaders of education systems, scholars, researchers and writers, curriculum leadership encompasses a broad range of work organised around the task of improving learning outcomes, which is really another way of saying enabling and equipping learners to shape better individual and social futures. It is this purpose that creates a close congruence between the apparently diverse work tasks involved, and shapes our individual efforts into a shared enterprise.

This task can only be satisfactorily addressed if leaders focus on futures and embrace a foresight-based approach.

For individual leaders, this demands a particular psychological orientation. Broadly speaking this embraces three sets of attributes - a set of capacities, knowledge and interpersonal operating styles; a set of attitudes and values; and a set of emotional engagements and commitments. These attributes were neatly summed up by the late A.F. Davies in the title of his brilliant work on political leadership - Skills, Outlooks and Passions. It is not a question of psychological profiling or suggesting that only those who fit a certain personality type are capable of being leaders. Rather it is about how a leader will approach and succeed in their task. This demands self-awareness and optimising the fit between the leader's capacities, values and commitments and the leadership task they are entrusted with.

For educational leaders as a community, a conscious engagement with notions of futures and foresight is essential. Across a range of tasks - both to do with the structures and workings of our organisations as well as the way we approach curriculum content - this approach needs to be taken seriously and embedded at a systemic level. The sum of individual efforts will accomplish much. But we will not fulfil the potential that exists unless our collective tasks are also predicated on accepting responsibility for futures and moving beyond the prediction-based model of futurism towards the possibility-based model of foresight.

This is true in education to a greater extent than in any other realm because of the transcending nature of our primary task - the development of young people's capacities is our main investment in our communal capacity to build sustainable societies, ones that can build futures in the future.

A.F. Davies, Skills, Outlooks and Passions: a psychoanalytic contribution to the study of politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.


Subject Headings

Educational planning
School principals