This classroom-based case study describes how futures thinking was introduced in a small, culturally diverse year 9 science class. Of 20 students, half were New Zealand European, almost a third Maori and the remainder East Asian.
The class was described by the school as ‘lower mixed ability’, and only four students out of 17 passed an end-of-topic test just prior to the futures lessons (three students had been absent for the test). There was significant disengagement in science learning, with many students choosing to not participate in class activities.
The class size had deliberately been kept small by the school in an effort to make classroom management easier. As is common in this context, class attendance was very erratic.
During the six futures lessons, only five of the 20 students attended all lessons, and four of the students were stood down from school during this time.
Since the success of the futures thinking lessons was going to depend, in part, on the teacher’s content and pedagogical knowledge, the class was taught by SLH Director Cathy Buntting. Cathy is a familiar personality in the school, and she attended seven science lessons prior to teaching the futures lessons in order to develop rapport with the students and get to know their interests and classroom habits and behaviours.
The futures lessons
Introducing images of the future
In order to introduce futures thinking and ground the lessons in contexts with which students were familiar, the first lesson consisted of two parts. First, a series of examples of past predictions were displayed and discussed, for example, delivering airmail using parachutes (predicted in 1921) and a surprisingly accurate prediction from 1900 – a vision for Skype (see Prediction #10, Ladies Home Journal, 1900; see also incorrect predictions about the future). The focus of the discussion, led by Cathy, was on how difficult it can be to predict the future but that often science or technology is involved.
In the second part of the lesson, students were shown photographs from three movies set in the future and asked what images of the future these movies evoked. Whole-class discussion focused on potential impacts on society as well as identifying some of the science that might be involved. For example, the movie Total Recall predicts a highly automated society living and working in extremely tall buildings with little access to nature. This stimulus was used as the basis for discussing materials development and power generation (to enable such tall buildings to be built and supported), where and how food might be produced and the potential impacts on people when they are disconnected from nature.
Next, students worked in small groups to choose a movie with a future theme and identify three predictions about the future that it portrays. The students were able to access computers for this task, and many of them watched movie trailers.
In the second lesson, students reported back on the movies they had chosen and images of the future portrayed in their chosen movie. Movies included Looper (set in 2074, includes time travel), Iron Man 2 (time unknown, includes powered armour), Total Recall (set in 2084, involves memory replacement), Avatar (set in 2154, involves interplanetary travel and avatars genetically matched to their human operators) and Oblivion (set in 2077, involves interplanetary travel).
During the discussion, Cathy kept steering the focus to possible features of the future world, science understandings that might be needed and social implications. She also deliberately created opportunities for all students to participate in the discussion in an effort to retain their engagement and focus.
Identifying trends, drivers and relevant science knowledge
During the second half of lesson 2, Cathy led a whole-class discussion on past, present and possible future cell phones in order to introduce students to ‘trends’ and ‘drivers’ as concepts (see Teaching Futures Thinking). Cathy created a bridge into this part of the lesson by pointing out that, while it can be difficult to predict the future, we can nevertheless develop possible scenarios by examining the present situation and changes that are likely to shape future developments. In order to stimulate discussion about trends in cell phone development, a YouTube clip of an advertisement from the 1980s was played, and a YouTube clip of a futuristic cell phone advert was used to initiate discussion about possible future developments in the cell phone industry.
Notes were written up on the board to record class discussion:
Cell phones: past, present, future
Past: bulky, heavy; cords; telephones only (single function); expensive
Current: thin, light; multifunctional – phones, apps, internet, games, cameras; wide range; LCD screens
Changes (trends): more portable; cordless; increased functionality; increased accessibility; a fashion item
Reason for change (drivers): market share – companies developing new ideas to sell more phones; consumer demand; new technologies (LCD screens, touch screens, changing battery sizes)
Future possibilities: transparent materials – new materials; holographic displays; on or in our bodies
Science involved: signal transduction; electronics; sensor technology (touch screens)
The third and fourth lessons were used to reinforce the concepts of trends, drivers and possible futures, once again using whole-class discussion focused around stories, images and movie clips to recap the earlier lessons as well as consider possibilities for driverless cars and future foods. Cathy summarised student responses on the board. Students also had worksheets developed from the futures thinking toolkit on which they could record their ideas.
Through all the discussions, Cathy maintained an emphasis on the scientific knowledge that might be needed to underpin future developments. In order to reinforce this, she used narratives to introduce science developments that had been necessary stepping stones in developing modern technologies. For example, LCD screens depend on the late 19th century discovery that cholesteryl benzoate has two melting points, and between these, it has properties of both liquid and crystals.
The purpose of this and similar narratives was not only to engage students in some of the stories of science but to emphasise the importance of scientific discoveries in many contemporary technological developments.
Short explanatory movies about possible futures were also selected because of their references to the underpinning science. The social context and implications were also discussed in all of the examples that were talked about, for example, the reliability of self-driving cars and the challenge of feeding a growing population.
Pulling it together
In the fifth lesson, students were tasked with choosing a context in which they would explore the past, the present, trends, drivers, possible future developments and the underpinning science. In the following session they would share their ideas. The students helped negotiate the assessment framework. As a class, it was decided that at least three trends and drivers were needed, as well as two possibilities for the future and two aspects of science that would inform future developments.
The students had access to computers, and there was a mix of individuals and pairs or threesomes working together. Key to the discussions was choosing a suitable context and then being able to effectively search the internet for relevant material (digital literacy). Cathy circulated around the class, interacting with all students about both of these issues, helping students to refine their topics, suggesting terms to use in internet searches and then helping students filter the results to identify useful information.
For example, two students wanted to explore future fashion. Cathy reminded them that they would need to think about links to science and suggested that they investigate how fabrics have changed, why there have been these changes and what new materials might be developed in the future. However, she quickly realised that the limited background knowledge of the two students would significantly impact their ability to make progress – they were almost immediately distracted by references on the internet to ‘cellulose-based fibres’ and ‘synthetic fibres’ and did not have sufficient understanding of different materials such as cottons, linens, polyesters and nylons. Because of this, Cathy suggested that they choose another topic. Her guidance was critical in refining the context for investigation – from specific singers/bands that would become more popular (their first idea) to ways in which music is accessed (‘changes in the music industry’ resulted in a particularly fruitful internet search).
For students who very seldom experienced lessons where they need to work independently of the teacher, with ready access to computers, there was a high level of on-task behaviour. Although some groups complained about the amount of reading that was required to identify information relevant to the task, they persisted with encouragement. Discussions among the student groups tended to be animated but focused, and several students found fascinating images of past and possible futures related to their topics. One student lead his group’s discussion about future possibilities for televisions by drawing on his father’s experiences as manager of a large electronic appliance store and telling the others about some of the new televisions that were about to be introduced into the market.
In contrast, a group of four boys were significantly disruptive and were repeatedly asked to focus on what they were doing. Closer examination suggested that these boys all had very low levels of literacy and digital literacy, and searching the internet was an extremely challenging task for them.
The presentations of student work in the sixth lesson were deliberately low key so as not to force students to take on a role of speech maker in front of the class, which many would have found intimidating. Two students had prepared a PowerPoint presentation to which they spoke, although the remaining students sat at their desks and read out their ideas. Cathy collated these on the board. This process facilitated the creation of a visual artefact that all students could access. It also enabled important learning conversations between the student offering the idea, Cathy clarifying this idea and other class members contributing refinements. Cathy used these conversations to introduce and reinforce technical language, for example, ‘market share’ rather than ‘sell more than other companies’, and ‘multifunctional’ rather than ‘decent phones’ or ‘has lots of apps and things’.
While the majority of the class participated actively in the discussions, a small group of students (all of whom had missed earlier lessons) were disengaged and disruptive throughout the lesson. It was encouraging to notice, however, that one of these students still chose to contribute his ideas despite overt pressure not to do so.
In total, five different future themes were developed: cell phones, cars (both with substantive additions to ideas previously discussed in class), televisions, future food and the music industry. Of these five, the best developed was past, present and future ideas associated with televisions.
Televisions: past, present, future
Past: big boxes; originally black and white and no sound; limited channels; pixelated; bunny ear aerials; analogue
Current: flat screens; multiple channels; surround sound; high definition; UHF aerials; digital; recording multiple channels; remote controls
Changes (trends): larger, thinner screens; increased quality; increased choice; analogue to digital; multifunctionality; greater user choice and control
Reason for change (drivers): increase market share – people want to buy ‘the
latest’; reducing cost; new technology
Future possibilities: 3D and interactive experiences; voice and movement-activated; multiscreen displays
Science involved: LCD screens; sensor technology; electronics –sending and downloading the digital signal
In order to gain insights into students’ views of ‘science’ prior to and after embarking on the futures lessons, a short questionnaire was administered at the beginning and end of the six lessons. From the beginning, students’ views were positive about science, in spite of their high levels of disengagement in their school science lessons.
For example, of the 16 students who completed the questionnaire before the futures lessons, all 16 agreed or strongly agreed with the statement ‘I like finding out about new ideas in science’. Nearly all (14 out of 16) agreed or strongly agreed with the statements ‘I think science can be interesting’ and ‘Science is important for New Zealand’s economy’. Fewer – 11 out of 16 – agreed or strongly agreed that ‘Science is important in my everyday life’. Given the positive perceptions prior to participating in the futures lessons, it is not surprising that no attitudinal gains were evident when the questionnaire was administered after the futures lessons, except that three students ranked ‘Science is important in my everyday life’ more positively than they had done previously.
Similarly, students’ responses to how much they had enjoyed the futures lessons did not reveal any clear trends. Half the students indicated that they had enjoyed the lessons ‘a lot’ (eight of the 16), and half had enjoyed them ‘a little’. Similarly, half indicated that it was the topic that had been most important, and the other half indicated that it was the teaching style. The teaching style was described as ‘fun’ and ‘cool’, with specific mention made of how the teacher had included all students in the class discussions (e.g. ‘she talked to everyone’) and summarised discussions on the board (e.g. ‘I like the way she set it out on the board’).
Revisiting the class 5 months later, Cathy asked the students what they remembered about the lessons they had done with her. She was impressed by the extent of their recall, particularly about some of the broad areas of science that had been discussed (solar panels, network connections, data management, signal recognition). Students were also able to participate in discussions about trends and drivers, giving examples. Perhaps most encouraging was that students recognised that the lessons had been ‘science’ lessons, despite the emphasis on discussion (and no lab work), that their English teacher had been present in all the classes, and that there had been considerable discussion about social implications. Interestingly, some students went on to talk about whether the lessons had been science or technology and what the differences between these might be.
This was the students’ first guided foray into the world of futures thinking, and it was encouraging to see how many of the students not only engaged in the process but did so enthusiastically. Student engagement was generally high throughout the lessons, and some students specifically commented on how they had valued the way their ideas had been included. Taking students’ ideas into account also meant that the learning conversations remained grounded in experiences with which students were familiar.
Identifying the relevant science was a key goal because futures thinking had specifically been introduced as a way to engage students in thinking about science and its relevance for future developments. Formative interactions were critical in supporting students to explore their thinking and develop their learning in this area.
This case study has been adapted from Buntting C., & Jones A. (2015). Futures thinking in the future of science education. In: Corrigan D., Buntting C., Dillon J., Jones A., & Gunstone R. (eds). The Future in Learning Science: What’s in it for the Learner? The Netherlands: Springer.