Tracing Change Across Time

Image by Stanford d.School

Our journey through the Five Approaches to Futures Thinking by Stanford d.School brings us to “Tracing Change Across Time.” This approach invites us to see our present moment as a part of an ever-evolving narrative, where both subtle shifts and disruptive events shape our collective future.

We often perceive the future as an extension of the present, visualizing it as something similar to today, only marginally different. This linear perception of time restricts our understanding. Time is much more complex and dynamic than a straight line stretching out before us. Change isn’t always a slow, predictable crawl nor is it a consistent speedy progression; sometimes, it’s an exponential leap that disrupts our expectations.

Our brains have a hard time grasping the long-term future. We can easily imagine tomorrow or next month, but when asked to envision the world ten, fifty, or a hundred years from now, the task becomes daunting. This gap in our comprehension often leaves us unprepared for the substantial shifts the future can bring.

“Tracing Change Across Time” urges us to step out of the linearity of time. It equips us to recognize patterns, comprehend the ripple effects of disruptive events, and grasp the implications of exponential shifts. This blog post will explore how we can leverage this insight to craft learning experiences that delve into historical trends, futuristic scenario planning, and the dynamics of long-term change. 

This approach not only deepens our students’ comprehension of the world but also empowers them to anticipate future possibilities, thereby shaping them into active designers of their preferred futures.

Cultivating Historical Consciousness

One of the fundamental steps in this journey is cultivating historical consciousness. This involves more than memorizing dates or recounting events—it requires developing a profound understanding of the interconnectedness of historical trends, their influence on today’s world, and their implications for the future. Encouraging students to see today’s events in the broader context of history can provide valuable insights into the forces that shape our world. 

Educator Justin Reich has created an activity for history students in which instead of starting with the past and moving forward, he begins with current events and traces them back to significant historical moments. By examining how past events have influenced the present, students can see the connections and ripple effects between history and the contemporary moment. This approach helps students think beyond a straightforward, linear understanding of time, opening up new perspectives on how history shapes the present and future.

Developing Scenario Planning Skills

To further enhance futures thinking, incorporate scenario planning into your lessons. This powerful tool, used in fields such as business and policy-making, encourages students to create multiple scenarios for future developments based on current trends. It hones their critical thinking, fosters adaptability, and readies them for a world defined by change.

Have students use important issues in their community and create axes of uncertainty to develop potential outcomes. Use this matrix as a way to develop essential questions for community needs. This is a great way to build inquiry-based units in a variety of subjects or for interdisciplinary projects.


Marcia Bjornerud’s “Timefulness” offers an enriching perspective on tracing change across time by introducing the concept of geological timescales. This concept doesn’t just enhance our awareness of change across time, it also fosters a sense of responsibility for the long-term impact of human actions on our planet. 

Incorporating lessons on vast timescales across various subjects helps students grasp the rapid pace of changes, whether they’re human-induced or natural, relative to the broader context of history. Outdoor experiences, such as field trips to historically significant sites or nature reserves, can offer tangible encounters with the passage of time, making the concept of “timefulness” more concrete. By encouraging cross-disciplinary projects and case studies, we can stimulate a deeper understanding of how the past, present, and future are interconnected across multiple domains of knowledge.

Preparing for a Dynamic Future

Tracing Change Across Time expands our understanding of the future beyond the constraints of linear thinking. It instills in students an awareness of the cyclical patterns of change and an appreciation for the subtle and dramatic shifts that characterize our world.

By integrating this approach into our instruction we equip our students with an understanding of the temporal context in which they live and empower them to proactively shape their futures. In the process, we foster deep learning experiences that prepare students to thrive in a world of constant change.

The Futures Thinking Approaches were developed at the Stanford d.School and can be explored in more depth at this link.