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The future is unpredictable. We know that. So, when we try to design learning experiences that “prepare students for the future,” we have to recognize that we don’t always know what they’ll need. In this article, I explore the counterintuitive reality that the best way to prepare students for the future is by empowering them in the present.

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The Future Has Never Been Known

In 1984, psychologist and political scientist Philip E. Tetlock began a project to see how well expert researchers could predict the future. Over the next two decades, Tetlock gathered 82,361 probability estimates about the future. The end result was staggering. Expert researchers, with access to classified information and connections to powerful change-makers, were dreadful at forecasting the future.

There was, however, a silver lining. Tetlock found a group of researchers who regularly outperformed their peers. These experts tended to be flexible thinkers and more open to new insights. They also had seemingly disconnected interests that they drew upon. He called these researchers “foxes” for their nimble, flexible approach. According to Tetlock, foxes “draw from an eclectic array of traditions, and accept ambiguity and contradiction.”

He called the other group hedgehogs because they tended to stay burrowed down in their knowledge as experts in a single subject. In other words, if we want to know about the future, we  need to ask, “What does the fox say?” That’s right, I made a bad dad joke right there.

Six years later, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity launched a contest to see how well research teams could forecast the future. While most teams chose well-known experts,  Tetlock and Barbara Mellers created the Good Judgment Project. Instead of choosing experts, they asked for volunteers and chose a team from the 3,200 applicants. Here, they focused on people who had diverse interests and tended to read works in unrelated disciplines.

The Good Judgment Project team crushed the competition. So, what made this team different than everyone else? First, they were intellectually humble. They knew that the future was unpredictable and thus they were more likely to seek out other opinions. Furthermore, they were divergent thinkers. Rather than viewing information as isolated and siloed, they made connections between ideas and disciplines. Finally, they were curious.

One of the top team members described the team as “curious about, well, really everything.

If this doesn’t surprise you, it’s because this curiosity is what we, as educators try to cultivate in our students. This is what happens every time teachers do projects and experiments and debates that inspire wonder and creativity in their students.

While it might not seem like a big deal, these are the experiences that inspire students to become the innovators of the future.

It’s easy to choose futurism over innovation and forget just how clueless we humans are about the future. As teachers, we can’t predict what Artificial Intelligence will look like in the upcoming decade. We can’t predict what new disruptive technologies will change our world. But we do know that our students will need to be foxes rather than hedgehogs and as teachers, we can craft the learning experiences that empower students to become those foxes.

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This is an idea I explore in the following video. I’ve been experimenting with this idea of a longer weekly video that blends together sketch videos, visuals, and me talking in front of the camera. I’m calling it “different from day one.” If you like the video, would you consider clicking the “like button” and subscribing to my YouTube channel?

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Our Students Need Soft Skills

In recent years, there has been a major push to “prepare students for the future.” It might be a computer programming class or a robotics program. While these programs are great, the value isn’t in learning highly technical skills. It’s in learning the soft skills that students will need in an unpredictable future. Programming is important because it teaches logic and problem-solving. However, those same skills can be learned by playing chess. Robotics is vital for collaboration, problem-solving, iterative thinking, and engineering. But those same skills can be learned through a low-fi maker project.

Our students will need to be flexible and nimble. They will need to be divergent thinkers and collaborators. In other words, they will need to be foxes. But to be this way, we need to empower students in the present.

This begins with a place of student ownership. When students own their learning, they become self-directed learners who can navigate the challenges of an unpredictable world. Here are a few ways to make this happen:

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Notice that there is a very counterintuitive reality at work here. If we prepare students for the future, we often slip into novelty — which fades fast the moment the context changes. However, when we take a vintage innovation approach, we prepare students for an uncertain world by focusing on the timeless soft skills that they will need in order to navigate the maze of an uncertain world. Here’s what I mean:

  • In a world of constant change, students will need to be divergent thinkers.
  • In a world of Artificial Intelligence, students will need to be philosophers. One thing computers lack is wisdom. They are inherently programmed, which is why our students need to think philosophically.
  • In the digital world, students will need to use analog tools. Similarly, in an automated world, students will need to do physical prototyping.
  • In a connected world, students will need to be empathetic. The best design is often fueled by the deeply human element of empathy. When students learn empathy, they become better collaborators and communicators. But more importantly, they become better humans.
  • In a world of instant information, students will need to be curators
  • In a globalized world, students will need to embrace the local
  • In a world of virtual reality, students will need to study nature
  • In a distracted world, students till need to engage in deep work
  • In a world of infinite possibilities, our students will need to be curious.

This is not an either/or idea. We want to see students learn how to code and how to use modeling software with 3D printers. But we also want them to make things with duct tape and cardboard and find inspiration in biomimicry. Notice that these skills are not new. They were needed when humans were hunter-gatherers and they will be necessary a thousand years from now.

Check Out the Book

This is the third article in a series about vintage innovation. Parts of this blog post include excerpts from my upcoming book Vintage Innovation, which will be released in January. It will be a highly visual, engaging reading.

I’ll also be releasing the free Vintage Innovation Toolbox sometime in early January. For early access to the toolbox and for updates about the book, please fill out the form below:


John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

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