Friday, May 21, 2010

Future Imaging Workshops

When I was an undergraduate student at a Quaker college, we did a Future Imaging Workshop as part of a Peace Studies class. This workshop was based on Elise Boulding's "Imaging a World Without Weapons" workshops, developed from the work of Warren Ziegler.

These workshops have participants individually imagine a better world 30 years into the future. Then individuals get together in small groups and share their visions. The small groups then share highlights with the full group.

Then, back in small groups, participants start thinking back from that point 30 years into the future as "historians," to try to "re"construct how the world "got" to this better place. What were things like one year ago? Five years ago? Another five years before that? Etc.

After the small groups construct these "histories," they share highlights with the larger group.

The final stage is to come back to the present and put yourself back in the picture: what are you going to do in the coming year that will help move the world towards this better future?

My doing this as an undergraduate had a profound effect on my life.

First of all, it gave me the confidence to be optimistic.

Secondly, it taught me that it's not that hard, after all, to come to reasonable consensus on what a better world looks like.

Thirdly, it gave my own life direction. It showed me how my emerging aspiration to become a professor could be part of creating a better future. I no longer felt so torn between my activist self and my scholarly self. I saw that the two could come together.

Now here I am, 20 years later, realizing I really have been doing this! I even started a Peace Studies program at my college!

So, what did I do to honor this realization?

Of course I had the students in my Peace Studies class do this workshop this semester!

Now, I knew that just because the workshop had a profound effect on me didn't mean that it would have the same effect on my students today. Sadly, the problems of the world seem more dire today. Also, I do not teach at a Quaker college, and our Peace Studies program is new: maybe our students are not as primed to get as much out of this workshop as I had been.

But I still wanted to try.

At the beginning of the semester, when I already challenged my students to consider what a better world would be like, I heard a lot of pessimism. The pessimism was not just about the possibility of a better world, but also about "whether we can even agree upon what this would look like," as the students repeatedly said. Inwardly I smiled to myself, thinking, "they have no idea how well-prepared I am to hear, and ignore, this pessimism!"

Throughout the semester, we studied a lot about peace and nonviolence, and the students were amazed, as usual, to learn how powerful and effective it all can be.

Then at the end, we launched into the workshop.

At the stage where they first met in small groups, I asked them to identify and note on paper the points of convergence in their visions, and the major differences. Then they had to talk through their differences, to see if any of them could be resolved. The assignment was set up to make it look like that phase was the central point of the assignment: the attempt resolve their differences.

I floated among the small groups to observe, and as the groups came to the "differences" question, I saw a tidal wave of alarm start to form and ripple from small group to small group. "We can't find substantial differences!" the students exclaimed to me as I would come around. "What are we to do?!"

When we re-convened as a large group, I had the students process this. "Come on," I said. "You couldn't find differences? What's going on? Are you all just being too polite?"

"No, really!" the students replied. "We have built enough trust in this course that we can be honest with each other! Seriously! We honestly couldn't find major differences!" The few differences they could identify were not so much about the vision as about preliminary thoughts about how to get to that better future.

The students talked with enthusiasm and excitement about how much this course had transformed them, about how they came into the course from very different positions, but what they studied really changed their thinking in substantial ways.

I let the students talk, and was myself amazed at the collective emergence of a realization that it really is not that hard to come to consensus on what a better world would look like. What most pleased me was their realization that their earlier pessimism was a false pessimism, a failure of imagination, rooted in ignorance (not knowing anything about the history of how positive change happens), and reinforced by laziness. "Thinking positive change is not possible is really just a rationalization for laziness," one student said while many others nodded. The energy level in the room was high. They glimpsed the excitement of devoting their own lives to change. They suddenly saw that they could make a difference--and their own lives would be more exciting and fulfilling if they tried.

In the workshop, they still had the hard task now of becoming "historians of the future" and then finally putting themselves specifically into the picture, but now they took on these challenging tasks with focus and commitment.

I saved reading their final papers until last, when I did the final grading for all of my courses. It was a good call. It is the first time I have finished up grading feeling really happy and hopeful. Their papers were creative, personal, complex, positive, and hopeful.

Yes, this workshop was every bit as powerful for them as it had been for me 20 years ago.

And my seeing the students through the workshop was powerful for me again too. This generation of young people is looking for hope, good ideas, direction. They care about the world's problems, and really do want to make a positive difference. Sadly enough, they are not given enough opportunities to develop hope. They are not challenged enough to move past a kind of habitual, cultural cynicism.

But if you make a space for young people to develop their hope and ground it in knowledge and skills, they participate eagerly. They are starving for hope that they can believe in. They want to live meaningful, positive lives. They don't actually like the facile cynicism they have inherited, but too often, it is that cynicism that is reinforced, and their occasional challenges to it get quickly shot down.

I feel pleased that I have helped let loose into the world a small band of optimists who are now better prepared to defend their optimistic stance and issue a challenge of hope to the cynics they encounter. They have seen through the facade. They know now that the cynicism is not rooted in anything real; rather it is rooted in something lacking: a lack of knowledge; a lack of commitment; a lack of confidence. They now know that knowledge, commitment, and confidence can be gained and developed. They now know that one's life is enriched by taking the time to cultivate hope and commitment.

And so I too am feeling more hopeful about the world again.


  1. I'm so glad this is working. Years ago I tried something similar but it was not a success. I was a novice teacher then full of ambitious ideas but with little sense of how to realistically accomplish them. Maybe I should try this again.

  2. Sounds like a great success. My husband is part of a yearly living-learning four-week course (modeled on two different folk-school traditions) called "Lives Worth Living" that has this kind of profound effect on students. I think that the academic culture largely works against creating opportunities for creative optimism - keep it up!