In Contradiction:

Can Education Transform?

Reflections from a foresight practitioner
Professor Sohail Inayatullah

At a May 2019 two day workshop for a progressive private Catholic educational network in Australia, the contradictions between the emergent possible future and the traditional structure came to a head. While the conversation between visions was polite, there was no confusion as to difference.

I had with me over 60 participants from Edmund Rice Education Australia (Edmund Rice, 2019). They were progressive, learned, hard workers, all trying to make a difference in the lives of young people, and the broader Catholic and Australian community. The participants included Principals, Deputy Principals, Administrators, and students.

My task was to create alternative futures of education with the working groups. We had groups on Catholic identity, educational structure, the visions of youth (there were 10 youth leaders in the group), pedagogical visions of 2030, and other topics. I had asked that to make the future feel more real, feel less distant, along with presentations of their deliberations, they present skits, role-playing, and TV interviews.


I have a normal process when I present such workshops (Inayatullah, 2015). After constructing futures as a learning journey – about co-creating alternative and preferred futures – we explore the used future. The used future is a practice we continue even though it is no longer aligned with our desired future or reflective of changed social conditions. For these participants and indeed at participants elsewhere, it was the rigidity of education. This was defined by learning with a particular age cohort, from Year 1 to Year 12, at a particular place, from 9-3:30 (or other fixed time periods) with a fixed curriculum and a culminating exam. For the most part, students are consumers of knowledge, expected to regurgitate what they have allegedly learned (Milojevic, 2005).

Once we have settled on the baggage we must abandon, we focus on emerging disruptions. These tend to be the peer-to-peer revolution (the shift from Encyclopedia Brittanica to Wikipedia), the rise of Artificial Intelligence, the possibility of using holograms, and the possible breakdown of national jurisdictional boundaries of what can be taught, and how credit is assigned (Inayatullah and Na, 2018).


We then pursue alternative futures – different trajectories of where education could go (Hutchinson, 1996). For example, with Edmund Rice, they imagined a future where all schools would be combined making one national school. This would allow fluid mobility between schools for teachers, students, and principals. They could “move” physically or virtually. A more radical scenario imagined students no longer being bound by age, time, or space. They could learn from wherever, whenever, and whomever. The school system would then accredit their learnings through negotiated outcomes. Or they would develop national and global boards of accreditation. In a third future, the forced marriage between the state or local authorities would be terminated, Education could then become a partnership with large information technology corporations such as, Google, Ali Baba, Amazon or Apple.


While exploring alternative futures was without tension, once we shifted to preferred futures, the visions we truly wish for, the consequences to the principals of the far more flexible model became apparent. The students created a Tinder of Education. Swipe right and they reject the teacher. Swipe left, they accept. Swipe right, they reject the principal. Swipe left and they welcome. In this future, the students had full control of their educational journey. Teachers and principals would remain as navigators, co-creating and co-curating the educational experience: what was taught, what was learned, and what was tested.

Many principals, however, objected to being rejected, objected to having to compete with other principals. They felt anxious, unsure of their authority. One commented, this is but neo-liberal capitalist ideology. Market competition had replaced cooperation. What of the role of traditional structures of hierarchy and respect, of expertise?

This became the contradiction. In a world of endless choices and possibilities, what happens to traditional structures and models of pedagogy? In a world where AI apps can anticipate the needs of students, can ensure best matching to current and emergent jobs, to learning styles, and ways of knowing (Inayatullah, Bussey, and, Milojević, 2006), what happens to the holders of traditional power?


I had had this experience earlier. While working for the state level of a national project on the need to create a knowledge revolution, we had found resistance to the policy prescription. Fearing it was losing ground to East Asian nations, the federal government had rolled out a program for computers for students, hoping they would learn more effectively. Once the computers were passed out, principals resisted. When we worked with these educational leaders to create alternative futures, their biggest fear was loss of control. In the industrial factory model of education, they (with their mid-level managers, the teachers) controlled the factory floor, the classroom. In a world where students had access to the world’s information reservoir and global experts in real time, they could change the medium and thus control the message. The response from principals in a content rich world was to control the medium. One principal told me he just locked up the personal computers in the closet. I-phones and I-pads have only worsened this situation for them. Our strategy was to empower the principals in the new technologies and slowly but surely shift the narrative from, “I am in charge” to “we are all learners.” Some told me, all this makes sense, but they prefer to retire. They could not see themselves having a role in this new future. It was all too difficult.

More pedagogical sensitive teachers suggested we should not believe that technology was the silver bullet – teachers and teaching was the answer to the knowledge revolution. We needed to not just purchase new technologies, but create a new digital pedagogy.

This was, for us, not an either-or debate. We need new technologies, we needed to honor the best teachers and we needed to ensure principals felt empowered in this new space. We also worked out changing the physical space from classroom-factory to the nested playground. The room went from desks in rows to a place of varied colours, of different meeting points and learning points – an ecology of place instead of a room where surveillance was paramount. Gaming was now embraced as part of the learning adventure instead of an activity where one received demerit points.

But had we gone too far? When the deputy director of the State education walked into this new peer-to-peer technology friendly, he commented, “what the f-ck” is going on here? The vision of the future made real was a step too far for him. It was not intelligible.

Table 1. This chart explores the different views of educational futures from the industrial to the ecological.

Official description of the problem Rules broken Computer for every child New technologies designed into the curriculum Transformed
Systemic Interventions Control how technologies are used Funding for computers, not for support Workshops for teachers and others on new technologies Gain experience in the new technologies
Worldviews that define the policy Industrial and Parental Technocratic Humanistic An ecology of training
Myths and Metaphors I’m in charge Technology is the silver bullet Teachers make the difference We are all learners

Thus the fight back. Attempts to vision new futures for education are immediately challenged not just by principals, but by parents and the media (Jandric, 2017). The future for those outside the system is their memory of when they were students. Where are the desks? Where is the hard work? What if they are playing around instead of studying – how do we monitor on-line learning?

This is in tension with the emerging vision of the future – a far more flexible, fluid, space-time-person free imagination of education. Even the innovators find themselves pushed back by those outside the system. At one Ministerial level workshop, educational leaders described their reality as that of a castle surrounded by hungry wolves. Within the castle, there was collegiality. They sat with each other at a round table, as fellow knights. But outside were the wolves of parents, teachers and the media. Any futures initiative went against the memories of the stakeholders, given their profoundly conservative nature (Cuban, 2001).


The principals at Edmund Rice fortunately appear to have found a way forward through an adaptive model of change.

In terms of their macro scenarios, they considered a future of “No Change”. In this future, they teach and train for the 1950s, for jobs that no longer exist (Brown, 2016). Students graduate, but then are ill prepared for the world work in front of them. Knowledge is neither useful nor adaptive. They do not have the emotional and intellectual skills required.

They also considered a future of “Marginal Change”. This is the incremental model. They do not try and change too much given the actual and expected resistance from parents, teachers, and the media. They retain the factory model, but teach coding, bio-informatics, and use new platforms for peer to peer interaction, but testing and curriculum design is conducted by the educational hierarchy and confined by national boundaries. The best students gain leeway to experiment with classes from around the world, but must do so on their own time.

The push from the students and principals was certainly toward adaptive change. In the future they imagined, learning would be on-line using AI applications, but there would be social hubs for face to face emotional and sport interaction. Moreover, the spiritual purpose of life, of life as service to those less fortunate would not be lost sight of. Students would co-design courses with teachers and principals. Schools would reduce their bondage to the national curriculum and bring in global partners.

The purpose of education would be the co-teaching and training for emerging jobs and careers. Principals expected students to have instead of the one job-career they grew up with to at least seventeen or so jobs and multiple portfolio careers (Inayatullah, 2017). In this future, the school system would be designed for flexibility and creativity. Exams may remain, but they would be minor markers on a longer and deeper learning path. Teachers would work with students to develop their lifelong learning pathways – becoming not factory bosses but life gurus. Principals would ensure that all progressed, none were left behind, and for those students who needed far more structure, they would design for that. They would negotiate with global education providers for the best possible outcomes given funding.


The contradiction between past and future is more than an Australian or a private educational issue. In a series of interventions in Malaysia over a number of years, this tension was expressed as a shift from the view of the lecturer (“he regiment”) to the conflicting perspectives of the student (“the tug of war”) to the whole of system solution of the “orchestra in harmony.” The current system was not working, essentially a force-feed of information to students. It was top down, data-centred, and rule-heavy with no relevance to the world of work. Students wanted more curriculum democracy – more say in what they learned, how they learned it, when they learned it, and with whom – but were in a tug of war between their desired and the conservative nature of other stakeholders (teachers and parents). They wished for a world where they had full access to knowledge and were examined for outcomes not end of semester tests. The solution was a negotiated process where the new emergent system and the traditional system were integrated through the metaphor of the orchestra.

I had a similar experience working with senior leaders of the People’s Republic of China. One delegate described the transition from China as moving from institutionalized and compulsory education to flexible with diversified pathways based on assessing the needs and strengths of students. The deep culture of the nation needed to shift to education leading to a good job to education as learning about self, the world, and emergent futures. As a metaphor, they saw education as a dragon confined by the Great Wall. In their preferred future, they saw the dragon pulling China to global education, beyond the Great Wall.


However, there was a future beyond the adaptive to consider. Some asked, what-if artificial intelligence and robotics could actually do what most humans currently do? How should schools prepare for a world with only a few jobs or a world after jobs? What level of flexibility would be required then? What happens to the structure of education?

The answer to this question became an answer to all questions. While there is certainly a need to link education with markets, to have students gain skills they can use after graduation (high school or tertiary) education has always been about, and will continue to be so, in any scenario, about purpose, about inner learning. As the PRC delegates suggested, they needed to move from the narrative of “good education leads a successful job and thus a successful life,” to “learning tools about self, the world and the future.” For Edmund Rice principals and students this was placing the spiritual – the deep inner purpose of how we care for self, others, the planet, and the transcendent – in our daily lives. The Indian philosopher and mystic Shrii P.R. Sarkar called this neohumanist education that “liberates the intellect.” (1987), creates a world where the inner is as important as the outer, where planetary thinking envelopes national discourses.

Education will remain since that is how we are, but its dynamics are in the midst of revolutionary changes. The contradictions between the emergent and the old will not stop radical scenarios from emerging, but they will temper the silver bullet of technology with integrating the needs of other parts of the educational landscape and the foundational need of all learning to be liberatory at heart.


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