The Future Fallacy

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Most people know nothing about learning; many despise it. Dummies reject as too hard whatever is not dumb. 
 Thomas More, Utopia

The future fallacy occurs when someone makes a comment about what the future will be like and then says: ‘therefore we should be doing (insert something here)…’

The 21st century skills argument is exactly this, ‘in the future people will need to collaborate more, be more creative and be prepared for change.’ This is a future fallacy because no-one knows what the future will be like, they can guess but they do not know.

The most bizarre aspect of this fallacy is the way that people lap it up, at education conferences I have heard so many people tell us what the future will be like in order to justify how we should be educating our kids in the present. The most absurd example is the oft repeated one that we should prepare children for the jobs that have yet to be invented, which, in itself is delightfully ridiculous, but when allied to the statement: therefore we should teach them 21st century skills of collaboration, creativity, critical thinking etc. is even more surreal, it’s as if the speaker has a crystal ball but they refuse to tell us what the jobs will be like because, like the recipe for KFC, it has to be kept secret. Except even that chicken is now out of the bag.

Sugar Mitra sometimes falls into this trap:

Within a few decades, institutions began to dematerialise – banking, the stock exchange, entertainment, newspapers, books, money were all strings of zeros and ones inside the evolving Internet that is now simply called ‘The Cloud’. It is already omnipresent and indestructible. In a few more decades, it will probably be sentient, non-material and, therefore, eternal…

We need a curriculum of Big Questions, pedagogy of self-organised learning, examinations where children can talk, share and use the Internet, and new, peer assessment systems. People don’t need to be machines anymore. In the Age of The Cloud, schools have to become Schools of The Cloud.

Next time you hear someone tell you what the future will be like, challenge them, for they are in cloud cuckoo land. The next time someone tells you what the future will be like and therefore we have to change what we are doing in schools point out, gently, that this is the full future fallacy in operation. If the speaker is unaware of how fallacious her argument is and she takes it for granted that what she is saying is true and makes it seem like common sense that we should therefore be doing things differently in our schools, beware, for she is basing her argument on the future fallacy but is unaware of this fact.

The only thing we can know is the past and, even that, is open to various interpretations, so arguments and disagreements are always going to be part of our discourse, and long may they be so. Just beware of the futurologists who try to shut down debate by telling you of tomorrow’s utopia and how we should prepare for it, for they know not what they say.

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17 thoughts on “The Future Fallacy

  1. Andrew Stanley

    On the other hand, positing a series of scenarios about likely outcomes is mainstream risk planning for the likes of the Pentagon, Chatham House etc. There are also some things we do know that will have societal impact – water shortages, sea levels, climate change, clean energy. Surely schools might nod in the direction of jobs that will be needed to tackle this? More mundane than Mitra’s vision but known if not fully worked-out.

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  2. tonyparkin

    Never mind what you can see through the windscreen, when driving the only thing you can rely on is the rear-view mirror. Said no driving instructor, ever.
    When I were a lad, the posh comics like the Eagle always had sections depicting the future … flying cars by the 80s, colonies on the moon etc. Upshot was lots of disappointed middle-aged in the middle classes. On the other hand, Star Trek didn’t do a bad job of inspiring kids to go out and invent its technology. Or maybe we should go back and look at the words of Ted Nelson in the 60s… oh how they mocked when he predicted the internet.
    It is always admirable to study and learn from the mistakes of the past, it is good to help prepare you for all the mistakes of the future. And apart from Mystic Meg and Prince Honolulu, it’s true no-one knows what will happen in the future. But alongside Chatham House, Ladbrokes and William Hill make a lot of money out of your ‘future fallacy’. Ignoring the future is to gamble irresponsibly.
    It is the duty of education to prepare students for the world they will occupy, not the one their forebears occupied. What has gone before is important, but surely only Theresa May and her ill-informed friends think the best solution to the challenge of the future is to recreate the past?.

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    1. Martin Robinson Post author

      I’m not sure this is an argument against the future fallacy – looking along a road is hardly far into the future- though there are still road accidents – there are also predictions of the future being one thing that go horribly wrong such as ‘no more boom and bust’

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    2. Mark Johnson

      Bookmakers are not using the future fallacy. They are working on many known and highly predictable factors. Previous form, state of the track, rider, pace of the race, position in running etc, and most importantly how to balance the ledger so the risk is born by the punter. What they can predict with absolute certainty is that most punters won’t put in the hard work.

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  4. Geoff Petty

    Odd to find that a teacher who values drama teaching is arguing against encouraging creativity and critical thinking. Were these skills never used in the past then? Leonardo was just regurgitating previous knowledge was he? Are these skills never to be practised and reflected upon?
    I agree we don’t know what the future requires of students, but I’d be surprised if all it requires is regurgitation of knowledge. Does not every curriculum require we brave the future fallacy?

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    1. Martin Robinson Post author

      I’m not arguing against creativity etc. I am most certainly not saying that creativity was never used in the past. This is a piece about the future fallacy, pure and simple, and I note that you agree with this, and therefore your last sentence about braving the future fallacy seems somewhat erroneous.

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      1. Geoff Petty

        We can’t know the future, agreed. But generic skills like creativity and critical thinking will be needed whatever the future is like.
        These skills can be used to get students to think about the content the curriculum requires in ‘double decker’ lessons see chap 21 of Evidence Based Teaching
        These skills are also teachable over a long time frame according to research reviews.

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      2. reasonableuploader

        Geoff there is no evidence that generic transferable thinking skills can be taught they are innate – Called biologically primary knowledge,

        Biologically secondary knowledge aka subject knowledge can be taught as can non-transferrable thinking in that specific subject domain e.g analysis in science does not transfer to analysis in English

        see thread and my comment

        My twitter is @leotoaquarius

        http://andre.tricot.pagesperso-orange.fr/TricotSweller_revised.pdf

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  5. wavelberry

    How can we prepare for this future of tech jobs and cloud living etc when we have no way of predicting what they will be?

    Just look at 70s Sci-fi. You think those chunky screens and analogue recorders in Alien are going to make some retro-cool comeback in the future? Highly unlikely. They looked dated in 2000.

    These predictions that people are making about the future now will probably look as foolish as the above in forty years time. Not really gonna be teaching like that on the off-chance that our prediction might come true.

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  6. JCMcNamara

    There was a good tweet from Daniel Willingham on this subject:
    “If u make edu predictions for 10 years from now, it’s OK for me 2 ask 2 see the predictions u made 10 years ago that have come true. Right?”
    I think it summarises the argument nicely.

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  7. Pingback: Making your mind up – thoughts on “Mind Change” by Baroness Susan Greenfield – kieranearley.co.uk

  8. Geoff Petty

    Thanks for the paper saying it is impossible to teach generic skills I’ll have a look at it sometime. Meanwhile whether generic skills can be taught or not is an empirical not a theoretical question, and there is a lot of research showing generic skills being taught directly and successfully.
    Chapter 21 of my Evidence Based Teaching shows how.

    Here is a blog about how teaching skills is vital and very possible:
    http://geoffpetty.com/teaching-skills-is-vital/

    Here is a paper about the primacy of research reviews or systematic reviews over single research studies. (The paper you sent was a single study, the evidence I cite is all from systematic reviews)
    http://geoffpetty.com/the-uses-and-abuses-of-evidence-in-education/

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