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Futures Futures Futures: Reflections on the Prizmah Conference

Updated: Feb 14, 2023

Two weeks ago, the great city of Denver (proud Colorado native here) hosted the bi-annual Prizmah conference, welcoming over 1000 leaders in the Jewish day school world for a couple of days of thought-partnership and inspiration.

For the opening night plenary, three educational futurists from Stanford’s K-12 Lab took the stage for a session called “The Future Belongs to All of Us” (note to self: figure out how to get the title “educational futurist”). Lisa Kay Solomon, Ariel Raz, and Louie Montoya spent the next hour sharing a message which, to be completely honest, is nothing we haven’t all heard before – the future is at odds with the corporation (and our educational systems)...the world is changing, and education isn’t keeping up.

Their specific twist involved using the term “future” or “futures” over and over again in a variety of contexts and posing different questions that involved the term such as:

  • How do we learn to see the future in multiples?

  • How do we build towards a future we want?

  • Whose vision of the future are we embracing?

  • How can we approach the future with curiosity and flexibility?

  • How do we apply a futures lens toward education?

Over the course of their presentation, they emphasized the need for developing mindsets in our youth and fostering dispositions like the aforementioned curiosity and flexibility. They discussed expanding our projections of the future from what is plausible to what is possible, going beyond our limited predictions of what next year and beyond could hold based on what happened this year to really think about what could be. They cautioned that being too prepared for something could mean that you’re not flexible, that there is a fine line between being the established oak tree that topples over in the wind and the tall grass that just sways and adapts. Ultimately, however, they shared that the future needs us to be shapers and stewards of data, technologies, products, experiences, systems, and implications – and it’s our role to ensure our students can do that.

The major question, then, is how?

I wasn’t able to attend many of the sessions as I was fully engrossed in interviewing innovative thinkers about their “rocking” ideas for Jewish studies and Jewish life as part of Jewish Education Innovation Challenge’s Keystones Podcast series, but one session that I was able to attend was led by MindSpark, called “Moving from Messy to Creativity.” The session explored the creative process and how it isn’t linear and gives ample opportunity for fear. This creative process is important to explore, both as leaders considering new ways to do education, and as teachers who need to coach our students through the messiness. A question they posed was: “How do we access the love, courage, and humility to grow through to creativity?” They also shared follow-up questions for when things don’t go as planned that include, “What am I trying to learn?” and “What could I do differently?” A message that I found incredibly powerful was the concept of flipping our language from “should” to “could” in these instances. “Should,” they argued, comes associated with shame and guilt, whereas “could” comes with options and opportunity.

And, as we think about the future, we are much better served to think about the opportunities involved rather than the fear, shame, or guilt.

So…what could we be doing?

I find the conversation about “futures” to be especially relevant right now as we consider the role of artificial intelligence and the ever-evolving technology in that space. As we look to the future, what is the role of humans? What roles do/will/could humans fill that can’t be easily (and more effectively) filled by AI in the future? At what point do we stop trying to fight and guard against the future and embrace it and change? I am not an early adopter, and, as such, haven’t yet delved fully into AI and all that it entails, so these are just initial questions, but I imagine these AI advances will significantly impact the future for both us and our students.

A quote that comes to mind for me through all of this is, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” I’ve seen this quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln and to Peter Drucker. I saw it used in the book Creativity Inc. Regardless of the source, the content applies, both in terms of the ambiguity that the future holds and in terms of our role in shaping it.

I always find the Prizmah conference to be a mixture of feelings and emotions – among the mixture, it’s both rejuvenating to be surrounded by so many brilliant, passionate people and completely exhausting (as a hidden introvert, just being around people drains me), and it’s both inspiring and frustrating as I always want to take the messages and learning and immediately implement them everywhere all at once and see major change tomorrow, and that’s just not how it works. I always leave with an overwhelming sense of “What now?” without a clear sense of where to go and what to do. There are so many possible next steps we could each be taking.

And, I guess, that’s the main message – as we think about the future and our roles in preparing our students for the ambiguity ahead, there are so many places we could go, so many possibilities. And what’s most important is that we are doing something, that we are embracing the “could” of our roles and not hiding from the fears of the future. That we think about all of the steps we could be taking, that could benefit our students, that could really prepare them for their future.

Full disclosure, I did go talk to the speakers the next day to try to better understand what, exactly, they meant by the term “futures,” and thirty minutes later, I had no more clarity. They talked about the origination of the term and different spaces of applicability and the use of lenses. So while I think I understand the major messages of the presentation, please don’t ask me to provide a synonym for the term “futures.”

We’ll save that for the future.

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