Empathy for the Future

Image by Stanford d.School

In our continued exploration of the Five Approaches to Futures Thinking by Stanford d.School, let’s delve into the next approach: “Empathy for the Future.” As educators, every pedagogical choice we make is rooted in our assumptions about what the future holds. But what if, instead of just predicting or projecting the future, we also deeply felt and empathized with those who will inhabit it?

Understanding Beyond Projections

Empathy for the Future is not about predictions or trends. It’s a call for an emotional and social connection to the future, a way to understand the needs, desires, and challenges of individuals who will navigate it. This method invites educators to weave empathy into their foresight, to consider not just events, but the human emotions tied to those events.

Instead of envisioning the future as static or a set of probable outcomes, this approach demands a more dynamic engagement. It is about envisioning the lives of people in the future—what they might feel, the challenges they might face, and the joys they might experience.

Experiencing Generations Through Our Piko

Empathy for the future calls for a connection to what lies ahead and also an understanding of what has come before. Let’s look at the Hawaiian concept of piko to illustrate. During a recent exercise to launch the 8th-grade capstone experience that I led, students were able to envision the future by tapping into their current emotions and those of their ancestors.

Starting from their “piko waena” (navel, representing the present), they physically and mentally journeyed back to their ancestral roots on top of their heads (piko poʻo) and then forward to the generations yet to come near their lower body (piko maʻi). Through reflections on cultural milestones—like music, films, and moral values—that shaped each era, they “traveled” across time. This created a bridge that connected them to the characteristics of their past and the promise of their future.

To extend this idea, students wrote letters to their future selves by communicating their current feelings, aspirations, gratitude, and lessons. This process complemented their connection to time’s continuum and solidified their empathy for both their future selves and the generations that will follow them. Through an understanding of their place in time, they fostered an enriched sense of responsibility towards the future.

Embracing Long-Term Thinking in Education

Beyond the connections of the past, present, and future in the piko activity approach, there’s another essential component of future-focused education: the skill of long-term thinking. Cultivating a broad perspective on the potential repercussions of today’s actions asks students to think 10, 20, or even 30 years ahead.

Taking a page from environmental science provides an example of this mindset in action. Consider the deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest. We can design an activity that has students not just learn about the event, but live it as well. Divide the classroom into two groups, with one group of students exploring the immediate benefits of deforestation, and role-playing as local entrepreneurs, workers, and policymakers from the past. 

Meanwhile, assign the other group to project into the distant future. They become environmental scientists, indigenous community members, and global policymakers, grappling with the extended implications of past actions on the environment and society. This activity allows students to bridge historical precedent with present-day actions, fostering a more profound appreciation for the intricacies of long-term thinking in environmental stewardship.

Empathy for the Future is an opportunity for educators to infuse the curriculum with activities that make long-term thinking second nature for students. By grounding them in history and propelling them into the imagined futures, we enable our students to become stewards of these possible futures. By becoming equipped to discern the far-reaching effects of their actions, we can ensure a future that is embraced with empathy.

Futures Felt, Not Just Foreseen

At its core, Empathy for the Future underscores the significance of understanding tomorrow on a deeply human level. It’s not just about what will happen but about how people will feel and respond to it.

As we navigate these complexities it is essential for us as educators to take a step back and reflect. How often do we consciously incorporate empathy into our lessons? What methods do we currently employ to help students connect emotionally with content, especially as it pertains to future scenarios? Are there more profound and impactful ways to immerse our students in the emotional landscapes of the futures we discuss? 

Infusing our curricula with this emotional foresight equips students to navigate uncertainties with sensitivity and depth. In doing so, we not only prepare them for the challenges of the future but also imbue them with the empathy to shape it with compassion and understanding.

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