David W. Hicks

Teaching for a Better World: Learning for sustainability

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The missing dimension

Figure 1


This figure is a reminder that the curriculum contains both a spatial and temporal dimension. Whereas once the global element was seen as largely absent from the spatial dimension of the curriculum so the future has increasingly been seen as a missing element on the temporal dimension.

It is as vital for children to understand the temporal interrelationships between past, present and future as the spatial interrelationships between local, national and global. Yet, if all education is a preparation for the future when and where are pupils given the opportunity to explore the futures that they would like to see come about? (Hicks, 2006, 2012)



Futures education

Futures education is the term used internationally to describe a form of education which helps students think more critically and creatively about the future. In more detail it:

A history and overview of this endeavour in the UK can be found in 'The future only arrives when things look dangerous' [pdf17].

Futures studies

Futures studies is the name of the academic field which educators can draw on in order to aid such curriculum deliberations. Futures studies as a field of academic enquiry emerged in the 70s. Its broad ranging concerns are addressed in different ways by organisations such as the World Futures Studies Federation and key texts such as the Foundations of Futures Studies (Bell, 2010). The purpose of futures studies is to 'discover or invent, examine, evaluate and propose possible, probable and preferable futures' (Bell, 2010). He continues 'futurists seek to know: what can or could be (the possible), what is likely to be (the probable), and what ought to be (the preferable)'. Dator (2005) elaborates further:

Futures studies does not… pretend to study the future. It studies ideas about the future… (which) often serve as the basis for actions in the present… Different groups often have very different images of the future. Men's images may differ from women's. Western images may differ from non-Western, and so on. One of the main tasks of futures studies is to identify and examine the major alternative futures which exist at any given time and place… another major task of futures studies is to facilitate individuals and groups in formulating, implementing, and re-envisioning their preferred futures.

One of the important links between futures studies and futures education is that both take as part of their initial data the images that society holds of the future, in the first case the adult population and the second in relation to young people [pdf5].

A futures perspective

Most commonly teachers talk about the need for a futures dimension in the curriculum and the ability of students, therefore, to take a futures perspective on personal, local, national and global events and issues. One of the first writers to draw attention to the need for this was Toffler (1974) in his, still very relevant, Learning for Tomorrow: The role of the future in education. His key thesis is that 'all education springs from images of the future and all education creates images of the future'. What this looks like in the classroom can be explored through chapters 3-5 of Sustainable Schools, Sustainable Futures [pdf18], 'A futures perspective' [pdf19] and 'Remembering the future' [pdf8]. Two examples illustrating the possibilities in geography at secondary level are ‘Lessons for the future’ [pdf3] and ‘Four challenges for geographers’ [pdf16].

The future is always with us and must be central to the whole educational endeavour if it is in any way to prepare young people for tomorrow. 25 Things You Need to Know About the Future (Barnatt, 2012), for example, highlights issues such as climate change, peak water, resource depletion and energy issues. A futures perspective is crucially important in all areas of the curriculum from personal, learning and thinking skills, geography and citizenship to science, design and technology. It is also central to education for sustainability [Sustainable Schools], climate change and transition [Changing Climate].


Barnatt, C. (2012) 25 Things You Need to Know About the Future, London: Constable

Bell, W. (2010) Foundations of Futures Studies, 2 vols, New Brunswick NJ: Transaction Publishers

Dator, J. (2005) Foreword, in: R. Slaughter, ed. Knowledge Base of Futures Studies, Brisbane: Foresight International

Hicks, D. (2006) Lessons for the Future: The missing dimension in education, Victoria BC: Trafford Publishing [Free book]

Hicks, D. (2012) Developing a futures perspective in the classroom, in: S. Ward (ed) A Student’s Guide to Education Studies, 3rd edition, Routledge

Slaughter, R. & Bussey, M. (2006) Futures Thinking for Social Foresight, Taipei: Tamkang University Press

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