Writing Stories of the Future with Inquiry Learning

biospheres at the eden project

I am currently involved in a podcast project called “After the Pandemic: Writing the Stories of the Future”. The aim of the project is to stimulate 8th grade students’ critical thinking. They will do this by thinking about the future of the world post COVID-19. We are about halfway through the project, and it’s made me think about the types of activities students participate in. It’s also made me think about how we can better incorporate current events in the classroom.

Below, I’ve shared my experiences with the project so far. You will find some ideas for how to encourage a deeper and more critical analysis of current events; I also will share how students can write stories of the future using narratives and inquiry learning as the vessel. Hopefully it will give you some ideas for how your students can write their own narratives for the future.

Overview of the Podcast Project

This podcast project is inspired by the Institute for the Future project titled After the Pandemic: Writing Stories of the Future. The podcast project is being developed through a partnership with 8th graders and their mentors in two international schools; one in Brazil and one in South Africa. We have divided students into groups of 5-6, led by a mentor. So far, we’ve had 5 meetings to discuss the overview of the project and the information we’ve gathered.

The steps of the project are:

  • Uncovering the “ground truth”, whereby students interview members of their families and communities to get their perspectives on how COVID-19 has changed things for them
  • Looking into the past and exploring how societies have responded to pandemics and global events historically
  • Collecting signals by becoming aware of present disruptions, patterns, and events, and exploring their effects on us
  • Creating future stories, whereby students will begin to write their narratives of the future they desire
  • By the beginning of December, we will be hosting a live podcast to share the outcomes of our project

Collecting Present Stories

The first component of the project was for students to interview a few people in their family or community about their experiences with COVID-19 to get a sense of the “ground truth”. For example, students have talked to a parent or community member about what life feels like for them at the ground level. Since everyone has a different view of the current situation, students were tasked with developing questions to find information. Some examples of questions included “What did you not know or think about before the crisis?” or “What surprises you?” Other questions included “What dilemmas do you notice?” and “What makes you stop and think?”

This step has been important because it’s allowed students gain insight into how people of different ages, incomes, and backgrounds have dealt with hardship. They’ve begun to understand the wide-reaching effects of lockdowns, increased safety measures, and the difficulty of not being able to see family or move around as much. This has been really eye-opening for me. The pandemic has truly highlighted the cultural differences that exist. For example, understanding the impact that government and religion have had on family’s decisions to isolate.

As a supplement to their interviews, students were also asked to research how societies around the world dealt with pandemics of the past. Students researched events like the Black Death, the Spanish Flu, and the HIV/AIDS pandemic. They were to consider what was done in the past, what the major decisions were, and what we can learn from them. Many of them really enjoyed this! Furthermore, this information collecting has been useful for students because they’ve been able to piece together the patterns of crises of the past. It has helped them to understand why the world has reacted the way it has in the face of COVID-19.

Related: Easy Ways to teach Events that Occurred at the Same Time in History

Just recently the students on my team met and shared their interview information. They shared stories of how their families and communities have responded to COVID-19 and how they’ve been adjusting their everyday routines. It was amazing to witness the kindness and empathy shown by the students. It really brought the pandemic into perspective.

Detecting Patterns and Signals of the Future

This past week we were treated to a lecture from Joe Tankersley, a futurist and storyteller who worked for Walt Disney. In that role he designed and implemented projects that focused on and incorporated the future trends and goals of entertainment, creativity, and technology. Now, he works as a consultant who helps organizations design and implement narratives that will shape the future. He uses trend analysis, scenario-building, and experiential media to shape the future for organizations and students. (Learn more about Joe here)

The lecture was enriching because it helped students understand that our visions for the future do not follow a linear path. Rather, we need to reimagine ways to use what’s available to us now to solve foreseeable problems. For example, we are beginning to implement the use of VR in senior care homes to help treat dementia and alzheimers by providing seniors with the ability to relive historical events or try new experiences. Furthermore, seniors who use VR can experience things like “shared travel experiences”, companionship, and immersive, calming environments that they may otherwise be unable to experience in real life.

Joe also explained to us the importance of trends and how they will impact our decisions and developments in the future post-COVID. We discussed issues like climate change, pollution, the ageing population, sustainability of our food, and other topics that were relevant to the students. This kind of learning is identical to using scenario-based learning in the classroom. The learning becomes more meaningful because it touches on issues and developments that students care about and that will affect them in their lifetimes.

Related: How to Make Learning More Relevant for Students

Writing Our Narratives

We are now in the process of writing our narrative for the future. My team has come up with a great 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. Using the research students gathered, we discovered that the Spanish Flu came to the São Paulo area in September of 1918 as a result of an English ship entering the port city of Santos. Furthermore, we found out that due to their exposure to the virus in Senegal, the sailors transmitted the virus unknowingly to the population of São Paulo, killing about 350,000 (two-thirds of the population) within a few months.

We used this research to piece together our story of Leo and Gabriel. So far, we have decided that Leo is an outgoing, impulsive, and adventurous boy. He is a natural leader with a large family. In contrast, Gabriel is quiet, shy, and more logical than Leo. He always wanted to be a doctor, and his role in our story will be crucial to Leo overcoming the obstacles he will face during this pandemic. Finally, as our narrative develops, we hope to weave in more shared experiences of how COVID-19 has affected our group members and their families as well as the interactions that will occur between Leo and Gabriel.

The Three R’s and COVID-19

Right now, we’re in the response phase. This means we’re coping and reacting to COVID-19 and the events that are occurring. Next is a reset. In the rest phase, we begin to put the crisis in a larger perspective. Our focus shifts from an immediate response to that of a more long-term plan. Finally, we reach the reinvention phase, which is the phase students are currently exploring. What do we want to build? What choices do we need to make? Who needs to make these choices? What can I, my community, or my organization do to make our future story a reality? Students are investigating how their choices and model of a future world fit within the parameters of growth, constraint, collapse, and transformation.

They will soon be thrown a curveball that will potentially change their course of action. I will update this article with how different teams respond to this new challenge!

Future Narratives and Inquiry Learning

Imagining the future through narratives helps students understand the possibilities that exist. Narratives help provide the structure and parameters through which the future can be experienced and understood. Our students have done a great job exploring how COVID-19 has affected them, and they have a good grasp of the issues that have arisen. For example, many students have noticed that supply chains should be more localized so that grocery stores and restaurants aren’t left without food to sell.

Students have also noticed that we are in a “reactive” stage rather than a “rebuilding” stage. Even though we can examine the patterns from the past and present, how we confront future pandemics will largely depend on our values. For example, during a future pandemic, do we self-isolate for our collective well-being? Or do we find ourselves struggling with the choices (or lack of choices) about how much to self-isolate? Do we protect the immediate economy, or do we protect human lives? These kinds of choices highlight the dilemmas that stem from competing values, which we are currently witnessing today.

By writing stories using collected data from our past and present experiences, we can better understand the mindset future generations might be in when determining how to deal with a pandemic. 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 need to use this power of storytelling to help collectively create new paths forward.

Related: Unique Independence-Building Projects

Great Futuristic Class Novels

Many of the books listed below are probably at your local library. The links below take you to their product page on Amazon.ca, which helps support Learning by Inquiry. They do not cost you any extra, but I receive a small commission. (Full affiliate disclaimer here)

I’m sure there are plenty of others, but these are the ones I’ve read personally in class, or noticed my students reading and raving about. If you know of any more, please add them in the comments below!

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