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Teaching futures

“In urging that we teach a geography of the future, I do not mean to say that we should give up teaching the geography of the past – but we should make the past the servant of the future. If the future is unavoidable, let us at least not walk backwards into it.”

Rex Walford, 1984

Topics on this page:

Teaching geography for the future | A futures-oriented geography curriculum | Students’ hopes and fears for the future | Teaching futures: implementation in the classroom | Planning to teach future-oriented geography lessons | Reading

Teaching geography for the future

Rex Walford urged teachers to have a ‘futures dimension’ in their curriculum as long ago as the 1980s. He argued that it was important for geography teachers to be concerned not only with how places and the environment are in the present and were in the past, but also to be concerned about what might be changed in the future and with what impact.

The rest of your life will be spent in the future and the future starts today. What kind of future do you want:

  • as an individual?
  • as a member of society?
  • as a geography teacher?

A futures-oriented geography curriculum

Near the turn of the millennium, David Hicks spelt out for geography teachers the decision they face when planning a geography curriculum:

‘A geography of the past or a geography of the future, which shall we choose in school? Backward looking geography deals with the issues and problems of the late twentieth century, the agenda that teachers themselves grew up with. Forward looking geography explores the issues and dilemmas of the early twenty-first century, the agenda that our students will have to live with. Will we choose the old century or the new? (Hicks, 1998)

Education is about preparing young people for adult life, and an important justification for teaching a ‘futures-oriented geography curriculum’ is to prepare them to live in a changing world. David Hicks argues that it is as vital for young people to understand the temporal interrelationships between past, present and future as the spatial interrelationships between local, national and global. 

He encourages us to help young people think more explicitly within our geography curriculum about the future and how their local area, UK and the world might look.

  • PowerPoint: A Geography of Hope, 2013 GA conference, David Hicks discusses how issues such as peak oil and the limits to growth will assure a very different future for students. He asks, What role should geography play in preparing young people for such a future?

Futures education is about helping students to think critically and creatively about the consequences of present actions on the future. They should explore both what is probable as well as what is preferable. They should consider what is desirable from their own viewpoint, as well as that of their community, wider society and the world.

In order to consider alternative futures they must understand the economic, social, political and cultural influences which shape people’s perceptions of personal, local and global futures. A number of topics could be used for a ‘futures’ study e.g. energy, food, transport. Any of these would allow students to investigate and make sense of the situation as it is today and envision alternatives looking forward to meet their own and others’ needs.

Morgan (2006) points out that education must prepare students for the future by equipping them with skills which help them to adapt to change and uncertainty. He stresses the value of students constructing their own knowledge, such as through geographical enquiries.

He also notes that the ability of students to reflect on their learning is important, so metacognition should be an important part of futures pedagogy. Other key components of teaching a ‘futures’ geography are the recognition of how patterns and processes change through time, clarifying values, critical thinking and decision making.

Biddulph et al (2021) makes a strong plea that knowledge and understanding are not forgotten when students are imagining their alternative futures. They comment that ‘it matters that processes such as the greenhouse effect are understood, and that they do not just become slogans or icons designed to elicit only certain kinds of emotional response’.

Hicks (2017) urges us to find the nearest examples of zero-carbon initiatives in transport, energy, food or housing and provide students with opportunities to experience and visit them, – the next fieldwork perhaps?

Students’ hopes and fears for the future

Young people want their voices to be heard in relation to the future. Recently, many have been inspired by Greta Thunberg (2019) and by social media. COP27 in 2022 had presentations from young people’s perspectives.

The following articles show how students are concerned for the future environment and its quality and they often express a desire for environmental improvement, especially a safer and cleaner environment. 

They have concerns and anxieties about the future and the majority of students think that school should teach more about the environment. There is also evidence that they draw on both local and global perspectives in their aspirations for the future.

  • Read Hicks (1998) which discusses research into students’ hopes and fears for the future and includes teaching activities that you can use with your students and read Barratt and Hacking (2000).

The Table shows the hopes and fears of 11-, 14- and 18-year-olds in England and indicates that students have an interest in the future at the personal, local and global level. However, there is a worrying decline in optimism throughout the secondary phase. This research was completed by David Hicks and Catherine Holden in 1995.

Students’ hopes and fears for the future

FocusAge 11Age 14Age 18
Personal

Fear of violence

Hope for good education, good job, material well-being

Desire for happiness

Fear of unemployment and ill-health

Most interested in their personal future

Hope for material success, good education, good job

Happiness per se

Fear of unemployment, poor health, money worries

Positive that things will be better than now

Local

Keen to see the local area improved (less pollution, more recycling, less traffic; more facilities for the homeless, disabled and children)

Sometimes confuse local and global affairs

Fear of crime

Fear that local area will become too developed and/or rundown

New technology and immigration blamed for unemployment

Television blamed for increasing crime

Least positive age group about conditions improving locally

Fear of crime and unemployment

Hope for increased prosperity

Feel strongly that there will be less racism and greater gender equality

Hope for increased environmental awareness

Sceptical of the influence they can have

Aware of systems ‘out there’ that control things but don’t feel part of the process

Aware of political dimension but feel powerless

GlobalFear of increasing poverty and increasing pollution

Hope for eradication of global poverty and pollution

Key areas of concern include global warming, ozone depletion, deforestation, nuclear war

Least positive age group about conditions improving globally – but this age group desires it the most
VisionsCommitment to improving the environment and to learning about global issues highest at this ageLess optimistic than 11-year-olds about world conditions improving and ambivalent about whether they can do anything themselves to help make the world a better placeAware of systems ‘out there’ that control things but don’t feel part of the process – sceptical of the influence they can have

Source D. Balderstone (ed.) Secondary Geography Handbook, Sheffield: The Geographical Association p 280.

Talk to students in your school in different age groups from 11 to 18.

  • What do they think about the future?
  • Do their concerns differ according to the students’ age?
  • How optimistic are they?
  • What changes would they like to see in their locality for the future?

Talk to other teachers about children’s environmental concerns.

  • Do the findings of other teachers agree with what you found out from your students?
  • Do they differ from the findings reported in the readings above?
  • What does this tell you? – have the hopes and fears of students for the future changed in the last 20 years?

Teaching futures: implementation in the classroom

Futures work in geography often focuses on three questions:

  • Possible futures – what may happen?
  • Probable futures – what is most likely to happen?
  • Preferable futures – what would we prefer to happen?

These questions can be developed in a wide range of contexts e.g. from the local area, school grounds, coastal management, population growth, energy or tourist development.

To implement this in your classroom:

  1. Firstly, get your own thinking clear. Can you interpret trend analyses? What do you know about disaster risk reduction and management? Can scenario analysis help? What are preferred futures such as the UN Development Goals or the London Plan?
  2. Secondly, young people can be anxious about the future and experience ‘eco-anxiety’. How can you avoid triggering this when you teach about the potential impact of climate change?
  3. Thirdly, find out about how young people have explored ideas of geographical futures.
 
  • Read Roberts (2023) chapter 13 to find out about probable, possible and preferred futures, eco-anxiety and examples of school case studies.
  • Read Alcock (2024) who emphasizes the importance of fostering hope in geography teaching when preparing students for the future. He explores various curriculum choices and ways of creating a more hopeful geography through balancing our failures with historical ‘successes’. He advocates a geography curriculum that encourages critical thinking, optimism, and action toward creating a better future.

The geography teacher has to structure ways for pupils to investigate and imagine alternative futures. Some activities that are often used are:

  • Geographical enquiries: extend the usual questions about a place (What is it like? Why is it like this? How did it come to be like this?) by adding the question ‘How ought it to be?’.
  • Consequences: give students an initial stimulus (e.g. a new supermarket is being opened) and ask ‘What are the future implications of this?’ See the Futures wheel activity in Johnson (2003) for the negative (or positive) consequences of a development.
  • Forecasting: use statistical data to project future trends. Population is a common theme where forecasts can be used as a starting point for thinking about the future. See Roberts (2023).
  • Scenarios: stories which are examples of different possible futures. See Roberts (2023) and the example of the Yorkshire Dales in Morgan (2006).
  • Future priorities: involve different views of the future, e.g. the students’ perceptions for the future of their locality (see Barrett & Hacking 2000) or consider alternative priorities indicated in local plans.
  • Envisioning: actively imagine preferred visions of the future. Try out the futures ‘fieldwork’ activity described in this Hicks (2001).
  • Recurring events: considering the potential future risk of a hazard. See Roberts (2023).

Planning to teach future-oriented geography lessons

Discuss with geography teachers in your school how to help young people think more critically and creatively about probable and preferable futures?

Consider how to apply some of these ideas in your own teaching

  • Use ideas from the Hicks (1998) article to plan some lessons looking at ‘change’. Ask students to consider and record those changes that they are aware of in their own lives, their local community, in Britain, and the world. Consider how you can continue this activity to incorporate questions about the future by asking questions such as: What is the probable future here? What is the preferable future here?
  • Think how you can introduce Hicks’ ideas of using timelines and probable and preferable futures by extending some of the topics you are planning to teach into the future.
  • Explore with your classes some of the activities suggested in Roberts (2003) Chapter 15 such as: consequences, forecasting, scenarios, priorities for the future, wild cards and values enquiries.
  • How did you help your students to clarify their visions for a more sustainable future?
  • What are the potential pitfalls of offering a futures perspective in your teaching?
  • How did looking forward to the future help your students to clarify their geographical thinking?

Reading

  • Alcock, D. (2024) ‘Grounds for hope in geography’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Barratt, R. and Hacking, E. (2000) ‘Changing my locality: conceptions of the future’, Teaching Geography, January.
  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) ‘A futures-oriented geography curriculum’ Sustainable development and Global Citizenship’’ in Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition. Abingdon: Routledge, pp 269–75.
  • Hicks, D. (1998) ‘A geography for the future’, Teaching Geography, October.
  • Hicks, D. (2001) ‘Envisioning a better world’, Teaching Geography, April.
  • Hicks, D. (2007) ‘Lessons for the Future: a geographical contribution’, Geography, Autumn.
  • Hicks, D. (2012) Sustainable Schools, Sustainable Futures: A resource for teachers, Godalming: WWF UK for a discussion of these ideas. Chapter 3.
  • Hicks, D. (2017) ‘Zero-carbon Britain: looking to the future?’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Johnnson, A. (2003) ‘Empowering students with futures geography’, Teaching Geography, October.
  • Morgan, A. (2006) ‘Teaching geography for a sustainable future‘, in Balderstone, D. (ed) (2006) Secondary Geography Handbook, Sheffield, Geographical Association.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition, Sheffield: Geographical Association, Chapter 13.
  • Thunberg, G. (2019) ‘You did not act in time‘ speech to MPs, Guardian, 23 April.

References

  • Hicks, D. and Holden, C. (1995) Visions of the Future: Why we need to teach for tomorrow. Trentham Books.
  • Walford, R. (1984) ‘Geography and the future’, Geography, July.