Futures Thinking in Higher Education – A Faculty Perspective

By Luke Lara, Ed.D.

During the 2021-2022 academic year, I participated along with about fifty students, faculty, staff, and administrators in a year-long futures thinking academy at MiraCosta College, Oceanside, CA. The sessions were led by Parminder Jassal, founder of the Work + Learn Futures Lab at the Institute for the Future. She is now CEO of SocialTech.AI, an organization the provides Practical Futures Advisory, to support development of “futures mind-set” in the education sector.

Several articles have been written about MiraCosta College’s involvement in this effort (see CCDaily and Insider Higher Education). As the Academic Senate President from 2020-2022, I was involved in shaping the faculty participation and narrative around futures thinking. Despite the volatile and disruptive pandemic during this timeframe, we recognized that developing a futures mindset would help us to better serve our students. I also had the honor of presenting MiraCosta College’s efforts around futures thinking at the annual American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) conference in New York, NY, in May 2022. Our goal was to encourage and invite other community colleges to join a collective and learn how to implement futures thinking.

At our fall 2022 all-college-day event, I was asked to present my perspective on futures thinking to all faculty, staff, and administrators. The following is adapted from my speech:

Buenos días, good morning. My name is Luke Lara, and I am the past Academic Senate President. I had the privilege last year to participate in the Futures Academy, along with other community members as a community of learners. To help you understand my perspective as a faculty member, I present you with the following image.

Photograph of a classroom with individual desks. Many desks have open laptops on them.

What does this image make you think of? I remember when I started teaching at MiraCosta in 2009. As many new faculty members do, I adapted elements of the syllabi of other faculty who had successfully taught the course for years. This included their classroom policies. One of the policies that I had on my syllabus was to ban or limit the use of computers and other electronic devices in the classroom. I believed, much like my colleagues, that these devices were a distraction to students and their learning. Look where we are right now. Computers, cellphones, and other electronic devices are ubiquitous in and outside the classroom. Now, many of us would agree that technology is necessary for the learning process. Had we used futures thinking, we would have been better prepared for this situation more than 10 years ago.

As faculty, we are lifelong learners. We are driven by curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge. Futures thinking allows us to harness our perception of what is on the horizon: what new behaviors, new services, new technology, and new ways of knowing of being. We call this in futures thinking: Signals. Futures thinking is not about forgetting about the past or living in the future. Futures thinking is about being in the present: understanding and being more perceptive about what is happening now that will impact our possible futures.

As faculty, we want to be proactive, instead of reactive. For example, in my experience, the week before classes start, I am scrambling to put together my syllabus. Maybe I’ve taught this course previously, and I already know what I am going to do. But, when we get into the classroom, as equity-minded educators, we must meet the students where we are at. We are always adapting. Could we have adapted before getting into the classroom? A futures mindset asks questions such as:

  • What is currently happening in the K-12? How may this impact us down the line, 5, 10 years from now?
  • How is climate change impacting our way of life and the pursuit of education?
  • What signals surround us that could help us see the possible futures?

Exploring the answers to these questions reflects the power of a futures mindset.

Futures thinking allows us to be collectively prepared for the student that will come through in 5, 10 or more years, instead of catching up on where we ought to be. For example, it feels like the equity movement in higher education is about catching up to where we should be. Had we used futures thinking, we probably would have been able to meet the needs for our students now and close the equity gaps that we have created.

Futures thinking allows us to develop curriculum and adapt our teaching and pedagogical approaches before we need to, not after.

Futures thinking allows us to engage as a diverse community of perspectives and lived experiences. This work is done as a collective, not individually. For example, faculty typically do their work independently with some opportunities as a collective, as a department, to think about and reflect on data. However, futures thinking requires a collective approach. Each of us has a different perspective. A futures mindset asks: What am I observing right now? What is happening in other industries that could impact how I do my work in the future? What do my colleagues see going on and what do they think? What do others see that may be interesting that I didn’t notice? As a collective, we bring together all these different observations (i.e., signals) and perspectives to inform a collective understanding of possible futures to help us move forward.

Lastly, at MiraCosta we are contributing to futures thinking globally. We are the first community college to have gone through a collective training and application to our planning processes. Our unique perspective of higher education, our deep understanding of our diverse communities, and application of equity will also benefit other industries’ use of future’s thinking.

Futures thinking is only a tool, one of many that we have in our toolbox. It is enhanced when it is used along with equity, racial, and intersectional analysis. It is important that we not abandon the tools that we are already using and are helpful. We must apply all our tools to enhance our work and what we do for our students.

This semester, we will be launching a Canvas course to facilitate the development of futures mindset and application of futures thinking to more members of our college community. I’ll be serving as one of the course facilitators. The course modules will be self-paced over a period of five weeks and culminate in a one hour zoom meeting to engage learners in a live community discussion. The hope is that a futures mindset will enhance our collective ability to be present-focused and future-oriented, as we not only meet the needs of today’s students, but are also prepared for the students who we will serve in five to ten years from now.

Mediation – A tool for Successful Relations

by Luke Lara, Ed.D.

Ever wonder why conflicts exist? I do not shy away from conflict, yet I’m not a fighter and my instinct is to freeze in intense situations (e.g., disagreements). However, I am willing to dive deeper to understand what is at the heart of the issue. At the crux of all conflicts is a difference of perception around resources, needs, or values, based on any number of factors such as beliefs, values, cultural traditions, religion, education, ideology, and lived experiences. Conflict is natural and when we are stuck in conflict, we may need a bit of help. Mediation or “facilitated dialogue” is a tool to support successful relations with others.

As a trained counselor, I developed strong great listening skills and the ability to help people problem solve. Counseling is often done with individual clients. Mine happen to be college students. Their conflicts were personal (e.g., negative self-talk, meeting basic needs, navigating college) or issues with others (e.g., a teacher, family member, employer). In contrast, mediation involves two or more parties. While mediation and counseling may share similar aspects, the goal of mediation is to reach agreement on future behaviors that address underlying needs and interests.

I recently completed a mediation training hosted by the National Conflict Resolution Center. They provided a week-long, interactive institute with highly skilled facilitators. I learned a great deal about mediation and how it can be an incredibly rewarding tool for bringing conflicting parties into agreement. Mediation, while a legal tool, has roots in collectivist societies (e.g., African Societies, Indigenous groups) as a means of justice and community healing. Mediation, at least in California, has the added benefit of being a confidential process.

I’ll use the metaphor of an iceberg to illustrate what a conflict represents and how mediation can improve strained relationships. Imagine an iceberg representing a party’s perception of a conflict: a frozen piece of ice protruding from the cold ocean’s surface. Most of the ice formation lies below the surface. It may seem as though there are two icebergs set to inevitably collide (e.g., in the case of two parties). The protrusions represent the solid positions (e.g., statements) each party stands firmly upon (e.g., “We need to focus on Equity,” “I have a right to Academic Freedom”). Each statement seems mutually exclusive and completely in opposition. Yet, what lies underneath the surface are the underlying needs and interests that motivate these positions. By diving below the surface, we may find that the two seemingly distinct protruding tips are formed of a common foundation of needs and interests (i.e., the same iceberg).

Image: CC-by-sa 3.0 by Uwe Kils (iceberg) and User:Wiska Bodo (sky).

The real work of mediation is to understand the underlying needs and interests. The mediation process is not about changing people’s minds. It is about helping conflicting parties understand each other’s perspectives, identify the intersecting interests, and empower the parties to be future-oriented to find a resolution. Author William Raspberry wrote, “The opportunity for cooperation is there, even in our most vexatious disputes, if we’ll only bother to look for it.” In other words, if we look under the surface to understand the other party’s needs and interests, we may find an opportunity to cooperate. This is not to say that the interests are in common, but that through cooperation, a mutually beneficial resolution can be achieved.

A skilled mediator is a neutral party and facilitates dialogue while listening carefully, uses tools including, acknowledging feelings, identifying interests, summarizing/paraphrasing, translating, identifying expectations, caucusing (e.g., private meetings), and asking questions. Mediators must set a tone of hope through neutral language that reframes and builds connections. Through facilitated dialogue, mediators become the conduit through which communication is jumpstarted and nurtured, helping the parties stay resolution focused.

Mediators facilitate the process, and the parties are responsible for the content. A well-facilitated dialogue can empower the parties to creatively address their issues and come to an agreement on future behaviors through SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound) goals. Not all mediated issues result in a resolution. However, the communication skills learned in the process can still help those involved grow as a person, employee, and/or a leader. The parties can always agree to enter mediation again later.

Don’t let conflict stop you from preserving important relationships (personal or professional). Let mediation help you before issues escalate. It helps if all parties are willing to engage in the mediation process. Next time you have a conflict with a colleague, a neighbor, a friend, or a family member, consider a neutral mediator to facilitate a dialogue. Many employers, city offices, and community groups offer free or sliding-fee-based mediation services.