Back(casting) to the Future

"My task is to think of innovative technology for future robotics missions and implement them," Dr. Ayanna Howard, 2002. [10-minute read]

Early in her career as a roboticist (and long before Matt Damon colonized Mars), Dr. Ayanna Howard, ATLIS 2019 Opening Keynote Speaker, described her work for NASA in a way that aligns with the responsibilities of independent school technology leadership. Technology is at the heart of one of the foremost challenges our schools face: preparing our students to succeed on missions we can barely currently describe. Our Annual Conference theme for 2019 is “Deep in the Heart of TECHness.”

A critical role for technology leaders is to collaborate with other school leaders to effectively build a path toward an unknown, but not unforeseeable, destination, Effective leaders must be able to look at the near future, project into the more distant future, and then work back from the “mission” to develop a plan to get there in the desired state. Bob Johanson, author of The New Leadership Literacies: Thriving in a Future of Extreme Disruption and Distributed Everything, refers to this as “backcasting” -- when leaders build flexible paths that move from the present through the immediate future and then on to a fulfill the vision of the projected future.

How can independent school technology leaders grow in their backcasting skills? One way is to follow leading thinkers who meld creativity, technology, and practical leadership. Our Monday Keynote Speaker for the 2019 ATLIS Annual Conference, Dr. George Siemens, has been prescient in his work on this intersection creativity, humanity, and technology. Dr. Siemens is the Executive Director of the Learning Innovation and Networked Knowledge (LINK) Research Lab at the University of Texas in Arlington. The work of the lab centers on the question, “What does it mean to be human in a digital age?” Among the lab’s projects is examining how the digital knowledge process challenges and changes existing practices in education, including.identifying and addressing the challenges to digital learning success for all learners, particularly those who are currently underrepresented.

In a recent conversation with members of the ATLIS 2019 Annual Conference Advisory Board, Dr. Siemens acknowledged that for technology leaders in education, “the substance of the struggle” to understand what students need now and will need in the future “changes dramatically as technology changes from year to year.” These dramatic shifts can make the task of backcasting even more challenging.

Aspiring backcasters in independent schools can follow leaders such as Dr. Howard, Dr. Siemens, and others to see how the speed of change will continue to disrupt our definitions of school, work, and everyday life. It’s also helpful to look outside the immediate education world. Jack Uldrich is an American futurist with ties to national security and economics. He speaks and writes about how education’s failure to adapt will impact these industries. In his forecasting, Mr. Uldrich describes a fictional “Secondary Education and Vocational Propensity Evaluation” that replaces traditional college-prep testing to better predict student aptitude in careers that don’t yet exist. His fictional model student tells her father “regular degrees from regular schools don’t work anymore.” Uldrich points out in his book, Jump the Curve, that the education sector is focusing far too much about what existed yesterday, some about what exists today, and very little about what will exist tomorrow.

Are the leaders at your school having conversations about the future that is more than a year or two distant? How do you contribute to the conversation? How will you become your school’s “backcaster?” Share your resources below in the comments.

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