Skip Navigation
Asking the Right Questions

The following article is based on a keynote address given by Dr. Johnston at the Albuquerque Conference on the Future of Education at the Albuquerque Academy in October, 1996.

by Charles Johnston

In thinking about the future of education, some overarching questions come to mind. These are three very interwoven and indeed very big picture questions:

The first: How do we best understand the times in which we live?

The second: What specific skills, perspectives, values, understandings, and sensibilities will we need to meet the critical challenges ahead, the challenges of the future?

And the third: How do we educate for these particular skills and sensibilities -- and here I refer not just to the content of education, but equally the processes through which we educate and the nature of the relationships -- student to teacher, student to student, student to community and world -- through which we learn?

In one sense, these three represent the defining questions for education at any time. Education needs to be about preparing people for whatever lies ahead.

And it is also the case that at certain times, such "grand scale" concerns come to have particular importance. And ours appears to be one of those times.

When culture is relatively stable, the average person doesn't need to give big picture questions much attention -- we appropriately relegate them to philosophers and the like. But in times of significant change and challenge, the situation becomes dramatically different. The big picture comes to have ultimate practical importance.

And this is particularly so for educators. Education in such times is about teaching for realities that barely exist, and that often we barely understand. If we are not deeply attentive to the big picture, what we do in the classroom will be at best irrelevant, at worst a violation of the sacred trust that education is ultimately about.

How then do we best understand our times? Later, I'll offer some brief personal reflections, but whatever our various interpretations, we can probably agree that these are times of significant challenge.

When I look around us, I see change happening at a startling array of levels. Besides the obvious technological changes, we find all sorts of familiar cultural handholds becoming less secure: these from externally defined gender roles, to once and for all moral rules to teach our children, to institutions that we could once generally rely on to fulfill basic needs. Reality today is a newly uncertain and often "messy" quantity.

How do we understand this? Is it good or bad? And what does it mean to educate in such a reality and for the challenges such a reality presents?

Different ones of us may have very different responses to these questions. But it seems clear that the challenges ahead are significant and that to make education for the future effective and potent, we must take time to look closely at what we can understand -- however imperfectly -- about these challenges.

In my work, I bring together leaders from very different disciplines -- certainly educators, artists, scientists, political leaders, religious leaders -- to grapple with concerns of the future. I often begin by having each person in a group identify critical challenges from their particular domain that will be facing us in times ahead. Then we look for common themes among these very different concerns. The process helps people identify the often unconscious threads with which -- for good or ill -- we are weaving the fabric of the future.

As you read on, I'd like to ask you to think about some more specific questions regarding the future of education. These are questions you might wish to post as well to your colleagues or groups of educators you are working with.

1. Identify one particular issue, concern or problem that you feel we as human beings need to somehow successfully address over the next 20 to 25 years. This can be anything, from a very personal concern -- about values, relationships, community -- to global concerns, about population, the environment, global conflict. All that is important is that whatever you choose, it is something that matters to you -- something where if we failed to deal with it effectively, you would feel personal pain.

2. Ask yourself what will likely be needed to effectively address these issues? What skills, perspectives, policies, values, capacities?

You might try three filters. When we think about effecting social change, solving a social problem, we traditionally we tend to think that one of three kinds of solutions: laws, money, or technologies. We'll pass legislation that will take care of it? We focus appropriations on new programs? Or. particularly in our "information age," we assume new technologies will take care of it. In fact, in most cases, while these things may provide partial solutions, rarely are they the whole thing. Look at how laws, money, or technologies can help. If they can't do it, or do it alone, what more will be needed? Explore what words work.

3. Particularly important: Notice what of that which you have suggested is needed is new. And notice what of it is more just capabilities we have always needed to be good citizens and lead healthy lives. It is important to note what is new. It is important as well to be careful in doing so, as in one sense every generation thinks it is reinventing the world. If something seems new, do your best to articulate it. A wording can be tricky in new territory.

4. What would it mean to most effectively educate for the things you have identified as needed to address your question both old and new? What of what we are doing now supports these things and may need to be enhanced? What new ways do we need to be educating -- what needs to be new in what we educate about, how we educate, perhaps even where we educate.

With your reflections as stage setting, I'd like to describe how I see our times, about how threads like you were just exploring may weave together. It is only fair that as I am asking you to stick you necks out that I do the same.

I see us living in very vulnerable and easily confusing times. The level of upheaval is, I think, deeper than we generally recognize.

Recent statistics show, for example, that while thirty years ago sixty to seventy percent of people in the United States had general confidence in their institutions -- in their schools, their governments, their churches -- today the figures range between twenty and thirty percent.

As a psychiatrist, and someone deeply concerned about youth, I find one statistic particularly troubling, and symbolic: this the more than doubling of teen suicide rates we have witnessed over the last ten years. We face the simple fact that a significant portion of our youth, often many of the best and the brightest, don't see an adequately compelling image of the future to warrant the vulnerabilities of daily life. The times we live in can easily seem at best frightening and overwhelming.

At the same time, I would argue, that if we look beneath the surface we discover that the larger portion of the new uncertainties we face today reflect at least potentially positive processes, and quite often, processes with profound implications. Today's changes ask a lot of us. But at least as I see things, the confusions we feel today are less often ultimately about culture being somehow broken -- about us having gone astray significantly -- than about finding the courage to turn some important next pages in the human story. Once appropriate personal and institutional assumptions have simply become too small for how large human experience has become.

As a window onto this perspective, we might examine briefly together one particular challenge where the loss of familiar handholds easily overwhelms. One that is familiar to most of us and where we have made significant headway concerns the question of gender -- and gender roles.

Until quite recently, culture provided us with pretty clear guidelines for what it meant to be a man or a woman. I might wonder how well I was going to succeed at being a man, but there wasn't much question of what succeeding as man entailed. And I could be pretty confident that if I learned my appropriate gender behaviors, there was someone else on the other side of the room learning her complementary set and with time we could meet -- and, like two halves of a puzzle -- have at least moderately fulfilling relationship.

Increasingly culture is not supplying the same kind of ready-made maps. And when we try to use the old ones, more often than not they bring frustration rather than fulfillment.

Is this good, bad? As this is probably a pretty liberal group, you would likely answer yes fairly reflexively. But these gender questionings certainly don't necessarily make life easier. Indeed one could argue effectively that they contribute in major ways to the present instability of the family -- one of our time's most pressing concerns.

Yet, it is also the case that if one asks fifty people if they think these changes in how we view gender are ultimately positive, the larger number -- though some reluctantly -- will say yes, these changes can make things more complicated, but they are ultimately right.

And they will say something else as well, something of even greater significance for the "big picture." Ask these same people if they feel we will ever again have gender roles in the same sense as we have had in the past, that is, whether these are simply times of transition -- thirty years from now our old set of gender roles will be replaced by a new set of more enlightened roles -- and most, after reflecting, will respond "no." We aren't going to just replace old roles with new ones, however enlightened. Or if we do, we will have failed at what is being asked of us.

This is no small assertion. As far as we know, always before in human history, culture, like a good parent, has provided clear guidelines for gender behavior -- often very different behaviors for different cultural times and places -- but whatever they have been, we have never been without such rules. Our times challenge us, both personally and culturally, to take a major new kind of responsibility in this most immediate and fundamental question of human truth. The simple fact: love -- and identity -- in our time is becoming larger than in the past -- more demanding ... but also more interesting, more complete if you will.

When I look at the larger number of other uncertainties and complexities that easily overwhelm us in our time -- from our present crises of confidence in traditional institutions, to concerns about the health of our communities, to the messy complexities of our post-Cold War global world -- I see quite similar dynamics. The challenges ahead ask a lot of us. And what they ask has the potential to make us more, often in very important ways. What do they ask? Quite a number of things. Let me touch on just a few

* They ask a greater comfort with uncertainty and complexity. (Things like gender roles have protected us by making life a bit smaller -- a bit more manageable. Gender roles dramatically reduce the variables involved in both identity and love. Today, more and more, we are being challenged to surrender such protection, to meet life's fundamental questions unadorned.)

* They ask greater self-knowledge (necessary if we don't have things like gender roles to guide us) -- and equally a greater knowledge of others, of those we engage -- from intimates and coworkers, to other cultures and species.

* They ask a greater completeness, if you will, in our being and our understanding (from relating more as whole people in love -- rather than as two halves that together make a whole -- to a similar greater wholeness and completeness in how we relate as parents, as leaders, as newly global citizens.)

* And they ask a new level of human responsibility. We are being challenged to address a growing array of new and complex moral quandaries -- from very personal concerns to the ultimate question of how we as a species wish to define progress for the future. Our times don't ask us to be God, but they demand more and more that we be willing to engage questions of Godlike consequence.

So today's new questions ask a lot. And they easily overwhelm, have us run from the magnitude of what they ask -- into addiction, diversion, absurdity. They ask big questions, challenge us to be large. (One could argue even that they ask a kind of growing up as a species.)

Recently, I tried out the previously mentioned of four specific questions on some friends and colleagues.. From their responses, they came up with a list of "tasks for education in the future."

I invite you to bounce your reflections off of this list, to challenge it, add to it. They put their seven tasks in the form of -- of course, more questions.

# 1 --Times of change require a capacity to innovate and skill at managing process and uncertainty. How do we educate for greater creativity in this sense -- and not just for the artist types, but for everyone?

# 2 --Increasingly, today's challenges require us not just to be knowledgeable, but to address deep questions of meaning and value, moral questions if you will. How does one teach the engagement of questions of meaning and value and do this without imposing narrow moral dogma on one hand or falling for an empty, anything goes moral relativism on the other?

# 3 --Increasingly, today's questions demand that we step across the lines separating usual domains of understanding -- they are multidisciplinary, systemic, dynamically interwoven. How does one teach for the ability to work with wholes and interrelationships, as much as specifics and parts?

# 4 --Today's challenges more and more require us to engage questions collaboratively -- at all levels, from small work teams, to neighborhoods, to global interaction. How does one teach for the ability to collaborate?

# 5 --The questions ahead require us to better understand diversity of all types -- gender, ethnicity, religious, temperament, learning style, as well as the contradictory complexities of our own psyches. How does one teach for the capacity not just to tolerate diversity and complexity but to be enriched by it, use it powerfully and creatively?

# 6 --Increasingly, today's challenges require us to be facile with new technologies, particularly new communications technologies. These technologies have equally the power to enrich the connections between us and to isolate us from others and ourselves. How does one teach for greatest skill in the use of new technologies, and for the greatest wisdom in that use? And finally #7 -- and perhaps of greatest importance -- More and more, today's challenges ask us to take responsibility in questions that before have not been human concerns. How does one teach for this degree of personal and social awareness and this degree of personal and social maturity?

As I see it, bring the greatest courage and wisdom to the single question that all of these others are ultimately about: Simply, what does it mean to educate for a future that matters?

In conclusion. Much in the best of education is eternal -- good education is just good education. But as well, if this list gets at anything important, in the decades ahead we will need to be rethinking the goals and processes of education in some fairly fundamental ways.

About the Author

Charles M. Johnston, M.D. is a psychiatrist, artist, and futurist. He is founder and director of the Institute for Creative Development, Seattle-based think tank and center for leadership training . Dr. Johnston speaks widely on issues related to creating a vital future and is the author of two books: The Creative Imperative and Necessary Wisdom: Meeting the Challenge of a New Cultura1 Maturity. In addition, he is internationally known as the originator of Creative Systems Theory, a comprehensive framework for understanding change and interrelationship in living systems.

To reach Dr. Johnson, write to: 6216 -23rd Ave. NE, Seattle, WA 98115, USA, (206) 526-0580, and via e-mail at:

© 1997

Search New Horizons


New Horizons Links

New Horizons home

About Us (NHFL)

Current Journal

Submission Guidelines


Facebook Icon Twitter Icon

New Horizons Shop

Featured Item: Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning: Insights from a Neurologist and Classroom Teacher

By Judy Willis | Purchase

Visit the New Horizons store on for more selections

New Horizons store on