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04 Jul 2024

The Potential of Futures and Foresight Thinking in Education System Planning for Resilience in an Uncertain Future

In this blogpost, Ella Page focuses on the potential of futures and foresight approaches to building the resilience and adaptive capacity of education systems in order to navigate complex and uncertain futures.

The scoping study commissioned by the Global Partnership for Education Knowledge and Innovation Exchange and implemented by Education Development Trust proposed a framework for the conceptualization of Education System Resilience (ESR) in building plans and policies that includes 5 components – overall system strengthening, to anticipate risk, to plan for and to respond and recover in times of crisis, and to prevent and mitigate future disruptions with attention to gender equality and social inclusion (GESI) as a cross cutting consideration.

The anticipate element of the framework is strongly linked to planning – it asks policy makers and planners to have policies, procedures and contingences in place to address ‘known’ disruptions that may look like past or current crises and unfold in the present day. But they also need to plan for ‘unknown’ disruptions, new experiences that require a level of prediction of what disruptions will occur in the future. 

Our scoping study showed that governments and education ministries are broadly unprepared for future unknowns, and futures and foresight thinking approaches can hold the key to unlocking that potential enabling policy planners and policy makers to think and act in a long-term and anticipatory way.  

Review of education sector plans and interviews conducted for the scoping study found that risks identified drew largely on past experiences and were reactive rather than proactive, for example in Ethiopia, where population displacement is due to internal conflict as well as climate-induced disasters such as flooding and prolonged drought. Future trends identified were limited but included urbanization and digital learning.

Futures and foresight approaches involve exploring, anticipating and preparing for future scenarios: it is a way of thinking that is designed to deal with uncertainty. The term futures is generally used to refer to systematic approaches to thinking about the future and exploring factors that could give rise to possible and probable future characteristics, events and behaviours. Foresight then refers to the specific tools and methods to conduct this work – there is no one right way to do foresight and tools can be adapted to different situations and needs.

What futures and foresight offer to education systems

Futures and foresight approaches have the potential to assist policy makers and international development actors to anticipate unknown futures in a context of uncertainty, drawing on previous experience as well as strategic efforts to look ahead to future trends, challenges and opportunities. The ongoing long-term thinking and planning that futures and foresight work facilitates are the foundation for transformative change and could be an important route to long-term investment in the transformation of education systems and long-term resilience.

There are five key areas where these methodologies offer particular promise for those working in education policy and planning: 1) anticipation of unknown futures; 2) development of multiple scenarios for the future; 3) identification of potential threats, risks and challenges; 4) engagement of diverse stakeholder in consultation processes; and 5) the design and commissioning of anticipatory research.

Foresight thinking and tools would allow planners and policy makers to develop multiple scenarios of what the future might look like based on trends and variables such as technological, demographic and economic shifts. They can also identify potential threats, risks, emerging issues and opportunities. By considering a range of possibilities policymakers can better envisage unknown futures and eventualities and make more informed decisions.

Foresight exercises can effectively engage a diverse range of stakeholders and consider alternative points of view in a collaborative process; this could include students and marginalized groups as a way to gain insight into expectations, concerns and aspirations for the future of education. The scoping study found these voices and considerations were largely absent in existing planning, making this all-inclusive practice more important.

Futures and foresight thinking can also support education policy makers to design and commission anticipatory research, identify trends and their potential impact in their context and understand how proactive shifts can meet future challenges and opportunities. Futures and foresight can also create space for experimentation and innovation, where new ideas, pedagogies and technologies can be piloted and evaluated and those with potential scaled up.

Experience and application of futures and foresight in education

As part of the scoping study we conducted a mapping of organisations working around education futures and foresight which showed a long-term engagement from international organisations to developing scenarios for the future of education and the threats and opportunities presented by global trends. We found that organisations from within the UN System were most visible users of foresight thinking as part of a commitment to being better prepared for global risks. The OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation and Future of Education and Skills 2030 project has been influential in thinking about what knowledge, skills and values students need to thrive in the future. Further, there are a number of academic and consultancy organisations which specialise in the use of foresight tools and methods in their work predominantly based in the global north, often with a strong focus on supporting innovation. 

The UN system demonstrates the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration. The UNDP Strategic Foresight for Development programme has for many years worked to strengthen the capacity of governments to anticipate and respond to emerging challenges and opportunities and has developed a suite of tools that can be used as part of collaborative and participatory processes. The UN Futures Lab network works to empower all parts to the UN system to use futures and foresight in their planning.

The UNESCO Futures of Education Programme describes its aim as ‘reimagining how knowledge and learning can shape the future of humanity and the planet’ and continues to build on their 2021 flagship report ‘Reimagining our Futures Together: A New Social Contract for Education’ through thematic research on digital learning futures, rethinking knowledge and renewing the social contract for education. Within UNICEF, our consultations for the scoping study reported an increased desire for the use of futures and foresight thinking from country offices and a commitment to developing skills and capacity in this area. The Global Office of Research and Foresight applies futures and foresight methods to look at the world through a child’s eyes. The annual Prospects for Children report will continue to envision diverse futures in order to better anticipate challenges and opportunities to secure a more equitable world for children. 

Concluding thoughts 

As the scoping study showed, donors and countries are currently more focused on present day challenges and short term planning and are not taking action or investing at scale in anticipation of longer term risks and opportunities which may be outside policy makers and planners usual comfort zones despite the huge potential of the approach for resilience and transformation. In response, futures and foresight thinking can contribute to building the resilience and adaptive capacity of education systems in order to navigate complex and uncertain futures. To effectively build these tools and perspectives into planning systems requires financial resources and donor resources as well as development of skills and experience amongst Southern-led research and policy organisations.

The Author:

Ella Page is a Senior Researcher for Education Development Trust. She led the research on Futures for the project on Education System Resilience, commissioned by GPE KIX, and has over ten years’ experience in girls’ education, monitoring and evaluation and research. Contact: 

This work was supported by the Global Partnership for Education Knowledge and Innovation Exchange, a joint endeavour with the International Development Research Centre, Canada.

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