Using Inquiry Learning to Write Stories of the Future

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I was involved in a podcast project called “After the Pandemic: Writing the Stories of the Future”. The aim of the project was to stimulate 8th grade students’ critical thinking about the future of the economy of the world post COVID-19. We have now completed the project, and it’s made me really reconsider how I teach the concept of future thinking to students. Particularly, I have been reflecting on how to encourage a deeper and more critical analysis of current events, and how I can positively use inquiry learning as a vessel for this kind of topic. Hopefully my reflections on the project below will give you some ideas for how your own students can analyze the lessons of the past to write their own narratives for the future.

A Brief Overview of the Future Thinking Project

The podcast project was developed through a partnership with 8th graders and their mentors in two international schools; one in Brazil and one in South Africa. We divided students into groups of 5-6, led by a mentor. We met every two weeks to discuss topics relating to future thinking and future design. For example, we had a lecture from a futurist guest speaker who talked to us about using our current knowledge of the world to predict patterns and trends that might emerge in the future. In other sessions, we brainstormed ways to work around challenges that might arise in a pandemic situation in the future.

The steps of the project included:

  • Uncovering the “ground truth”, whereby students interviewed members of their families and communities. They gained their perspectives on how the pandemic has changed things for them
  • We explored how societies have responded to pandemics and global events historically. Then we made note of the strategies they used with the information they had at the time
  • Thought about disruptions, patterns, and events, and investigated how those make us pause, consider, and plan
  • Created future stories, whereby students wrote narratives of the futures they desire
  • We then recorded a live podcast to share the outcomes of our project

Creating and Finalizing Our Narrative

My group wrote our narrative based on a scenario whereby a 12 year-old boy named Leo, living through COVID-19 in Johannesburg, meets a ghost boy named Gabriel. Gabriel lived in São Paulo during the outbreak of the Spanish Flu. We decided that Leo was an outgoing and adventurous boy. He was a natural leader with a large family. In contrast, Gabriel was portrayed as quiet, shy, and more logical than Leo. He always wanted to be a doctor. His role in our story was to help Leo overcome his struggles and to help him to create a cure.

Our story needed to explain how we would work around an obstacle. The obstacle was that people were not able to leave their homes. We decided that Leo would create a “Medical IA” Company which consisted of an app and a watch. The app could measure a person’s heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature through their fingerprint. The watch was designed with the same concept in mind, and worked in sync with the app. The watch included tiny trays that slid out from the side of the watch. Those trays were for storing small amounts of medicine needed to cure the sickness that the user had.

The idea was that the app would diagnose any flu or disease that is present. If it was unsure, it would take a small blood sample by using microneedles in the watch. Our group said it would take 15 minutes to give the user a diagnosis. After that, the watch would then eject the small glass tube of blood to be washed and reused. From there, the app would recommend the correct medicine. It would also recommend a home remedy for people who were skeptical of the drones.

The Future Thinking Podcast

We met on Zoom and, after a few technological hiccups, the students from each group shared their narratives; some were videos created in Powtoon, others read a story they wrote, and some created presentations on snapbook and powerpoint. All of the students did a brilliant job, and there was a lot of engagement and support from other groups.

It was incredible to witness the effort students put into the narratives they created. It was eye-opening to see students incorporate trends of the future, including:

  • Artificial intelligence (AI) 
  • The Internet of Things (IoT)
  • Wearables and augmented humans
  • Digitally extended realities
  • Robots and cobots
  • Autonomous vehicles

The students also touched on ideas such as oxygen laws, medical drones, and other automated transportation. They also conjured up ideas about solar and stellar energy, districts being divided into skills-based groups, and alert bracelets. Their ideas were so cool! I was completely inspired!

This kind of learning is identical to using scenario-based learning in the classroom. The learning is meaningful because it touches on issues and developments that students care about. It made me think about the ways students participate in the classroom, and what types of projects they participate in. Are they meaningful, or are they simply “performances”? Are we taking their work and ideas seriously enough?

Hart’s Ladder of Participation

These questions got me thinking about Hart’s Ladder of Participation. This term was featured in a 1992 booklet that promoted the U.N Convention on the Rights of a Child. In the booklet, Hart outlines a model that identifies eight levels of children’s participation. The idea was to encourage teachers and those working with children to take a closer look at the nature and purpose of students’ involvement in school and community activities. He argues that genuine participation should not be confused with predetermined roles in projects designed by adults. When students participate in these predetermined roles they miss out on participating in something meaningful and relevant.

Related: How to Make Learning More Relevant for Students

In the lower rungs of Hart’s ladder, he outlines the dangers of students participating in activities that they do not understand; for example, pre-school children carrying political placards, or a process students are “involved in” but with no transparency. He also describes “tokenism”. This is when children appear to have a voice, but don’t have the opportunity to discuss anything with their peers.

“Having rights implies being listened to, as well as speaking, and being taken seriously. Being listened to is even more important than having the freedom to make a lot of noise.”

Every child’s right to be heard, Unicef

As students move up the ladder, they are given more genuine opportunities to understand the intentions of the project they are participating in. They also have the chance to comment on the value and relevance of the topic matter. On the higher rungs, students know that their views will be taken seriously. They are encouraged to become more active in the process and represent their peers. They understand that their contributions are appreciated and welcomed. On the top rungs, students participate directly in the decision-making process. Here is an excellent PDF of Hart’s ladder, free to download.

I have always been a proponent of truly listening to students at every age. It is important to me to take seriously their ideas, inspirations, and thoughts about the world around us. After all, they are the ones who will be creating the possibilities of tomorrow. However, I have fallen victim to “tokenism” in the past. I have ambitiously created projects where I ultimately got the final say in the outcome. Now, I have slowly begun to take a step back and relinquish control. I am happy to let the students take more of a leadership role.

Related: Helping Students See the Value in Their Contributions

Creating the Future

While the students were presenting their ideas, Philipp Kristian Diekhoner, a TEDx Speaker and Global Futurist, listened and took notes. Then, he gave us his feedback on the narratives we presented, and talked to us about future thinking.

He seemed happy that students focused on realistic situations and outcomes. The ideas students had were ones that were entirely plausible in another pandemic situation. Their emphasis on robotics, virtual reality, and drones really impressed him. I know I was definitely beaming with pride listening to the students in my group read their story! It was nice for the students to hear genuine feedback from someone outside of the project.

Philipp talked about the patterns we observe in our daily lives and the way our patterns of thought create illusions. Furthermore, he made connections between our dependence on social media and staying “connected”. The same chemical in the brain that makes us addicted to problematic substances is activated whenever we use digital technologies such as smartphones. He then linked depressive issues to over-exertion in the brain by constantly requesting dopamine. If we want to create the future we should start with our immediate future. For example, the internet has a huge potential to make us miserable. However, if we use it wisely, it can become an amplifier of our causes.

Using Inquiry Learning with Future Thinking

One comment that stuck with me was that our future will be about our needs, not our wants. Philipp explained that once everybody has access to education, technology, and the internet, a level playing field will emerge. I liken this to students in the classroom having access to information, tools, and support to create meaningful change. This is what inquiry learning is all about, in my opinion!

Another topic Philipp touched on was storytelling, which is an integral part of learning for so many students. Many of us learn through symbolism, metaphors, and comparison – all features of a great story. Using metaphors to explain an idea or situation suggests a deep understanding so that it can be told in a relational way. It is like sitting by a campfire. When we create space for sharing ideas, we gain different perspectives and a greater understanding of the world around us. Anecdotes, stories, and fables all create meaning. It is through meaning that we can make change.

Furthermore, he explained that we tend to overestimate the time it takes for the future to arrive, but that we underestimate the size and impact of its power. I really had to let that sink in. We tend to have this idea that wonderful inventions and a new way of life will characterize the next 30-50 years, but it simply doesn’t work that way. I remember being 10 years old and imagining that by 2030 we’d all be living on Mars, which now doesn’t seem all that likely. In the inquiry classroom, teachers need to explain that change takes time, and that planting the seeds early on can make a huge impact when we begin to reap what we’ve sown.

My Biggest Takeaways From the Future Thinking Project

I appreciated the opportunity to be a part of this project, and to be able to listen to both Joe Tankersley and Philipp Kristian Diekhoner. They were both interesting and inspiring speakers; they gave me so much to think about in terms of inquiry learning and design thinking. I came out of both talks feeling invigorated and bursting with new ideas to share with my students.

The students truly inspired me. Their willingness to contribute their ideas about a post-pandemic world, to attend bi-weekly meetings, and to put so much effort into writing their ideal futures into an incredible story was so inspiring to me. Giving students the space and support to share their creativity and visions for an ideal world is a wonderful feeling. It is part of the reason why I love inquiry learning so much and advocate it every chance I get.

By reflecting on our past and present experiences, we can better predict the mindset of future generations. We are always telling stories to ourselves as we sift through our memories and envision our future. Storytelling is a way to make a shared reality from our individual memories and our collective imagination. Students are already using this power of storytelling to help collectively create new paths forward, and I can’t wait to see where they take us next!

Related: Unique Independence-Building Projects

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