9 Billion Schools: One School’s Journey – Making a Case for the Future

Dick Thomas

In my last post, 9 Billion Schools: One School’s Journey, I shared a little about an important project SHP Leading Design has undertaken with Mercy McAuley, a new high school that will open in Cincinnati in the fall of 2018. Opening a new school is a feat unto itself, but the Mercy McAuley transition team has already made great strides toward establishing a vision for the new school that will thrive well into the future.

That’s why, this June, I – along with several colleagues at SHP Leading Design – took the transition team through a one-and-a-half-day long process to help define and realize Mercy McAuley’s future. The exercise, known as futurecasting, takes into consideration a host of viewpoints: student and faculty, business and technology, economic and demographic, education and facilities. But the result is well worth the effort: a vision for truly personalized learning for every student in the Mercy McAuley family, with concrete steps for how to arrive at that vision.

What Is Futurecasting, and Why Do It?

Futurecasting is a rigorous procedure for developing a vision for the future, followed by a process to figure out what needs to be done to build that future. It is a reality-based effort that combines social science, technical research, economics, business and political and governmental trends in creating models of what it will be like to live 10-to-15 years into the future. Futurecasting has been used by corporations, trade associations, governments and militaries to develop perspectives and strategies for realizing their desired futures and avoiding those they don’t want.

Why do we go ten years or more out? We do that because it is far enough away that it pushes people out of their comfort zone, but close enough to still be a reality they all must face. Ten years at the rate of change we’re all experiencing is a life time for some. That said, it is also far enough away to plan –albeit that planning has to be done under the moniker “there’s no time to waste!”

Even SHP went through the process. In fact, it is the basis for how SHP came to identify our strategic vision for the future – and how we arrived at the 9 Billion Schools concept.

Mercy McAuley is on the precipice of change – change the transition team has been tasked with accelerating, in part, by envisioning its future. The transition team has formed sub-committees to consider every aspect of school operations: curriculum, student life, recruitment and enrollment, marketing, and so on. As these sub-committees continue to work, the need for direction, guidance and purpose – based on a cohesive, thorough and research-based vision – is ever present. Having a cohesive vision in place around which they can do their work will make their mission more efficient and productive.

Asking The Right Questions | SHP | One School's JourneyThe Process of Futurecasting: A Four-Step Process

The process of futurecasting involves several steps, each designed to disseminate, discuss and synthesize information from multiple resources, ultimately allowing for the development of an actionable vision for the future. The framework depends on the transition team and other key participants, each of whom uses the research presented to develop models for the Mercy McAuley of the future. Those who participate are critical to the exercise’s success.

Step 1 – Fields of Influence

While it’s critical to include the right internal perspectives during futurecasting, it’s equally important to provide the right external perspectives. Outside input expands the team’s understanding of the issues facing the local, regional and national community, relative to the delivery of education. Education is a robust topic with literally hundreds of points of view across the country. (Many of these points of view were referenced in our book!)

For the Mercy McAuley futurecasting exercise, we coordinated mini-presentations from multiple fields of influence: students and faculty from leading-edge high schools around the country; technology and the coming age of sentient tools; the economic outlook specific to the region and to Cincinnati’s west side, where the existing Mercy and McAuley campuses reside; business and industry; personalized learning and the future of education; and facilities design trends. Each of the speakers reflected a blend of expertise that was local, regional, national and even international in its breadth.

At times, the information presented may have felt uncomfortable to participants; and in fact, it is often intentional in futurecasting, to a degree, to force the group outside its norms and reach for ideas that will shape and be responsive to a rapidly changing world. Not to mention, preparing the next generation(s) for a world potentially unlike a world we can even imagine is an obligation and responsibility of substantial import and challenge. It is also, perhaps, a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Step 2 – Research Synthesis and Visioning

The second step in the futurecasting process includes a series of small and large group activities, each focused on synthesizing critical data points from the morning’s input sessions. Participants use the information they learned to craft possible futures for different personas who will attend Mercy McAuley in the next seven to 10 years. Facilitators guide each small team through a series of strategic questions around experience and enablement. Each small group then reports out to the larger group their view of the future and how their school of the future needs to deliver for the given persona, based on the input provided in the morning sessions.

This is an important yet often challenging exercise because it flushes out the experiences participants want to deliver, going forward. It was particularly challenging for Mercy McAuley, given that the school doesn’t even yet exist. I will dive deeper into the personas the Mercy McAuley team developed – and the unique complexities the exercise entailed – in a future blog post.

Step 3 – Refinement

SHP uses the insights gleaned from the input sessions and the persona visioning to organize the various options, synthesize patterns of response and work with groups to develop a series of futures to which the new institution must respond. In Mercy McAuley’s case, that meant a second round of persona identification, based on the delivery of personalized learning that not only results in well-rounded young women, but also in an exceptional educational experience. It was a truly inclusive view of personalized learning, and one I’m not ashamed to admit really intrigued me!

Step 4 – Backcasting

It seems counterintuitive to look backwards during a futurecasting session, doesn’t it? Yet it’s essential to know what opportunities and threats exist when considering how to create the vision of the future that futurecasting delivers. If the product of Steps 1-3 is a series of fact-based, science-based visions for the future, the final phase, backcasting, is a series of external and internal factors that stand in the way of success.

So, in the final phase of futurecasting, SHP works with participants to determine how to make those ideas real. To do that, we look “backwards” to present day and asks the question, “What do we need to do two, five and seven years from now to achieve our vision of the future by 2027, ten years from now?” By doing this, we can chart the exact steps that must be taken today to get to the future we want… and also avoid the future we don’t want.

The End Result

The end result of the futurecasting process is a well-documented vision for the future and the specific steps that organizations will need to take to get there. It provides a framework for capturing, synthesizing and communicating a coherent vision, but also serves as a reference when new data or research is discovered. (At the time that the model is created, we know that it is 100% accurate based up on the research but we also know with 100% certainty that it will change!)

In the futurecasting process, change and uncertainty are not negative; they are the landscape of opportunity. Uncertainty is where innovation is born. Futurecasting gives schools like Mercy McAuley – and, in fact, any organization that values innovation and education – a way to track changes over time, judge the effectiveness of their outputs and innovate in real and future time.

With the results of this effort underpinning and leading the work of the subcommittees, the process of combining two schools into a single Mercy McAuley high school becomes grounded in a vision that everyone can begin to develop and refine at the next level. They can produce plans that enhance the vision and activate policies and procedure toward its realization.

What Did Mercy McAuley Learn?

Futurecasting was an enlightening exercise for Mercy McAuley; it identified opportunities and threats to success, pushed them to think more broadly and deeply about the future of the school and identified some truly innovative opportunities that will distinguish them from similar institutions in the Greater Cincinnati area. What were those learnings? We’re working through them now, and you can be sure I’ll report them here. In the meantime, stay tuned for my next post, which will cover the kind of education students themselves identified during futurecasting for the school.

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