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Metaphors for the Future

An Introduction to Futures Studies

A student choice of a metaphor for the future - a mighty ocean Because it is large, and I can go any direction I want, and the ocean is calm although sometimes the waves and the wind are big it is viewed as an adventure!

by  Dr. Anisah Abdullah

Futures Studies for High School in Taiwan began with a call for Bilingual Education Initiatives in Taiwan. In September 2021, the Department of Education and Design Futures, College of Education, Tamkang University was invited to develop a Futures Studies program to be integrated into the Senior High School curriculum.  The Futures Studies for High School curriculum was designed by Dr. Anisah Abdullah [陳思思] to be delivered in four modules/semesters over two years.

This is the curriculum’s first chapter: Introducing Futures Studies.

Chapter 1: Introducing Futures Studies

This first module of Futures Studies for High School aims to deliver four main objectives:

  1. Futures Studies 101- An Introduction
  2. Create spaces for students to explore the past, present and the future and learn that these are interconnected
  3. Create spaces for students to explore alternative futures
  4. Create an awareness that the future is a zone of possibilities rather than a list of things that is going to happen

At the beginning of the 1st session, the Metaphors for the Future (Kaufman,1976, p.64) was introduced to start off the thinking of and a discussion about the future.

Activity Objective

The objective of the exercise was to provide the language for students to talk about the future and to express how they feel about the future. Metaphors provided a way to help students describe their vision of the future, despite the future being as yet unrealized, since they make the abstract concrete–e.g., “I’m happy like a puppy.”  “She is beautiful like a butterfly, colorful and elegant.”.

The session begins with an explanation of what metaphors are, and how they can be used to describe a feeling, an emotion, and most important to imagine how they feel about the future.

The Four Metaphors for the Future 

The four metaphors are (1)  riding a rollercoaster, (2) kayaking down a mighty river, (3) sailing in the great big sea and (4) rolling dice. These metaphors were presented as pictures to the class. 

The four images representing metaphors for the future. One the far right, an image of a roller coaster climbing up its track; the 2nd image is of a two-person riding on a kayak, peddling vigorously down the rapid flowing river; 3rd image is a yacht sailing calmly on an open see with the subset as a backdrop; and the 4th is two-dice
The Four Metaphors for the Future (Kaufman,1976, p.64) was adopted for this exercise

Questions were designed to stir thinking and encourage discussion/engagement

What comes to mind looking at this picture?

After the each metaphor was shown, students were asked to compare the two pictures in terms of control they have in that situation.

First metaphor: Riding a rollercoaster on a moonless night

“scared, because I ‘m rushed ahead,” “panic, it’s moving too fast,” “excited because it is fun, a joy ride,” “worry because I can’t see where I am going,” “nervous, I can’t steer or stop the ride,” “scared, I can’t get off,” “I don’t like rollercoasters;” when asked why, “they’re too scary, they go too fast.”

Second Metaphor: Kayaking down a mighty river

“I don’t know how to swim, I’ll be afraid,” “I don’t like water, I don’t swim,” “exciting to rush down a river,” “It feels great, I love adventures,” “Panic, the kayak crashes down the river and I can’t stop it.”

Third Metaphor: Sailing the great big ocean

“There’s no direction as to where to sail,” “The ocean is mysterious,” “The ocean is deep and scary,” “I can’t swim, I’m scared,” “The open ocean means we can go anywhere, not one direction, but many directions – can be scary because I don’t know where to go,” “which direction is correct?” “The compass can tell us where to go.” 

Fourth Metaphor: Rolling dice

“Gambling: Life is a gamble, sometimes it is good, sometimes bad. Luck: our lives depend on luck. That’s what life is … 50/50 chance.”

My Metaphors for the Future

We spent some time discussing each metaphor. Students were then asked to choose the one metaphor best describes their idea of the future (Figure 1) and to write down their thoughts of their choice, recorded in Chinese and translated into English – Table 1 below.

Table 1: Student feedback on the metaphor best describes their thoughts about the future

Number  English  Chinese 
A mighty ocean: Because I can do anything and nobody will control me except god.  偉大的海洋: 因為我無所不能然後沒有人可以操控我除了神之外。
2. A mighty ocean: Because my dream is too far. 偉大的海洋: 因為我的夢想太遙遠了。
3. A mighty river: Can make me go forward courageously.  偉大的河流: 因為可以讓我勇往直前。
4.  A mighty ocean: Because it is large, and I can go any direction I want, and the ocean is calm although sometimes the waves and the wind are big it is viewed as an adventure! 偉大的海洋: 因為很大,想要往哪個方向都可以,而且風平浪靜的,雖然偶爾風浪很大,也算是一種考驗吧!
5.  A mighty river: I want my future to have many exciting things.  偉大的河流: 我希望我的未來能有很多有趣的事物。
6.  A great roller coaster: Because I think that the future is full of uncertainty and confusion, any decision I make may lead to an up or down.  一個更棒的雲霄飛車: 因為我對未來充滿迷茫和不確定,我做的任何一個選擇都可能讓我升高亦或是落下。
7.  Rolling dice: I think my future is like a rolling dice because I can’t control and there is a lot of possibilities.  擲骰子: 我覺得我的未來像骰子,因為不能控制且很多可能性。
8.  Rolling dice: Because life is full of many variables, you won’t know the result until the end.  擲骰子: 因為人生充滿很多變數不到最後都不會知道結果。
9.  A mighty river: It is more exciting and fun.  偉大的河流: 比較刺激好玩。
10.  A mighty river: Because it is very exciting and interesting.  偉大的河流: 因為它很刺激、有趣。
11.  A mighty river: Because it is very exciting and can have adventures.  偉大的河流: 因為它很刺激,可以冒險。
12.  A great roller coaster: Because I want my life to be exciting.  一個更棒的雲霄飛車: 因為我想要我的人生更有趣。
13.  A mighty ocean: Be calm and don’t fight for anything.  偉大的海洋: 平平靜靜,不爭不搶。
14.  A mighty ocean: Because I can go wherever I want.  偉大的海洋: 因為我可以到任何地方。
15.  A mighty ocean: Because I can choose which way of life I want.  偉大的海洋: 因為我可以選擇我想要的生活方式。
16.  A mighty river: Because it is exciting.  偉大的河流: 因為很有趣。
17.  Rolling dice: Because I don’t know my future yet, I think it’s random.  擲骰子: 因為我還不知道我的未來,所以覺得是隨機的。
18.  A great roller coaster: Because there are ups and downs in our life.  一個更棒的雲霄飛車: 因為人生有高低起伏。
19.  Rolling dice: I think the future is a matter of probability, full of uncertainty and excitement.  擲骰子: 我認為未來是種機率的問題,充滿了許多不確定性,且刺激。
20.  A great roller coaster: It is excited because you don’t know what will happen in the future.  一個更棒的雲霄飛車: 因為不知道之後會發生什麼,很刺激。
21.  A mighty ocean: Because the future can be expected, I hope the certainty will be higher.  偉大的海洋: 因為未來可期,希望確定性高一點。
22.  A mighty river: Because I feel that there will be ups and downs and great changes in the future.  偉大的河流: 因為感覺未來會起起伏伏,變化很大。
23.  A mighty river: Because it is only once in a lifetime, I hope that the future life can be more adventurous, don’t be afraid, be brave. Make yourself stronger.  偉大的河流: 因為人生只有一次,希望未來的生活是可以多去冒險的,不要害怕,能勇敢。 讓自己更強大。
24.  Rolling dice: It is just like our life, you will never know which side to throw.  擲骰子: 因為沒辦法知道會擲到哪一面,就跟人生一樣。
25.  Rolling dice: There will be many choices in our life, it is also a bet.  擲骰子: 人生中有許多選擇, 也是一場賭注。
26.  A mighty ocean: Because I want to be free in my future.  偉大的海洋: 因為我想要我的未來是自由的。
27.  A great roller coaster: Full of uncertainty about the future of life, there are peaks and troughs.  一個更棒的雲霄飛車: 對未來的人生充滿不確定,有高峰也有低谷的時候。
28.  Rolling dice: Because I cannot think, maybe this is the future, I don’t know what it feels like to be a human being living in human society. 擲骰子: 因為我毫無能力思考、或許這就是未來,以一個在人類社會生存的人種,我不知道是什麼感覺。
29.  A mighty ocean: I like my life to be calm.  偉大的海洋: 我喜歡平靜的生活
30.  A great roller coaster: Because my life may go up and down, sometimes fast sometimes slow.  一個更棒的雲霄飛車: 因為我的生活會有時起有時落
31.  A great roller coaster: Because I had experienced a lot of exciting things in my life.  一個更棒的雲霄飛車: 因為我的一生經歷許多刺激的事。
32.  Rolling dice: You won’t know what the future will be.  擲骰子: 你不會知道未來會怎麼樣。
33.  A mighty ocean: Although it’s free, but we don’t know what will happen next second.  偉大的海洋: 即使是自由的,但我們無法知道下一秒什麼事情會發生。
34.  A mighty ocean: Because I wish that my future can be more interesting.  偉大的海洋: 因為我希望我的未來可以更有趣。
35.  A mighty ocean: Because it seems calm but there are hidden danger.  偉大的海洋: 因為看似平靜卻暗藏玄機。
36.  A mighty ocean: Because the sea gives me the feeling that it is full of the unknown, but it also has a sense of novelty.  偉大的海洋: 因為大海給我的感覺是充滿未知,但又有新奇感。
37.  Rolling dice: Because it is full of uncertainty.  擲骰子: 因為充滿的不確定性。
38.  A mighty river: There are many options for the future you should take a risk. 偉大的河流: 對未來有很多選擇,應該冒險一試

Teaching Futures Studies Bilingually ( English & Chinese)

Let me introduce this group of 38 senior high school students at Tamkang High School, Tamsui, New Taipei City, Taiwan.

This cohort will follow the four modules of Futures Studies, taught in English. This group of students learns the English Language as part of their curriculum.  They know the language, but do not have many opportunities to use it for real-time communication.

They speak the purest form of Chinese, with absolutely  no reference to English words in their daily life transactions.  When they were confronted in English, their initial reaction was to panic, and in that rush of emotions, they blocked out everything they were supposed to be listening to.

They would look to the closest member of the class with eyes begging for translation. I realized they were not giving themselves a chance to listen and process information transmitted in English.  I calmed them down, asking that they give themselves a chance to listen carefully and process the information.

I reassured them that I would speak quite slowly, and I asked one of them to remind me to slow down if I spoke too fast. I did that at the beginning of every session, asking them to listen calmly and allow themselves a chance to process and understand the lectures and discussions.

Their comprehension improved over time, as they were more familiar with me and with the approach to teaching for the class.  This was seen from their confidence in their report back and answering questions.

I was supported by a Taiwanese professor.  We didn’t have a strategy of how we would approach this team-teaching. The big idea was that we were supposed to deliver the course bilingually.   In the first session, every single point in my lectures were translated into Chinese.  I could see that students waited for the Chinese language version of the lecture and ignored the first round that was presented in English.

We changed our approach in our attempt to deliver Futures Studies as a bilingual course. We agreed that we should not translate the entire lecture but instead, he was to expand and contextualize the lecture with local examples in Chinese so that students can relate better. Then they would have to listen to both of us.

Reflection: How Much is Too Much?

There are many futures concepts and frameworks we want students to learn. I’ve prepared a colorful slide-deck of the ten principles of Futures Studies (Bengston, 2018) complete with examples.  I talked for an hour to cover the ten principles, and at the end of that session, I could see students were bored to death.

I had to change my approach. Students must be engaged. The teaching materials and pedagogical style need to take students through a journey of immersive learning experiences.

My new strategy was to deliver a short, twenty-minute lecture, followed by a small-group exercise and report-back (three minutes each X eight groups). Each session was wrapped up with a short reflection on what they’ve learned for the day.

Making Learning Fun

A typical school day for Taiwanese high-schoolers begins at 6 am. School starts at 8 am and runs till 8pm. They then have to attend cram-school (Taiwanese style tuition centers) from 9 – 11pm.

At the cram-school, students are drilled to take tests upon tests to improve their academic performance.  This cramming culture has taken the fun and meaning out of learning.  Students are taught to learn (or memorize) solely for exams, not for knowledge. 

This course aimed not to overwhelm students or contribute to more stress. The aim was to make learning fun.  Exercises were designed to trigger critical thinking. The exercises encouraged them to express their thoughts in different ways – they could draw, use building blocks, or fold origami objects.  

Reflection: Making Learning Relatable

Students found it hard to make sense of examples that were not localized. This was compounded by their lack of proficiency in English language in grasping the contents and concepts of Futures Studies.

Teaching materials should be anchored on local events or phenomena, and designed for the level of skill and cognitive ability of senior high school students.


Bengston, D., (2018) Principles for Thinking About the Future and Foresight Education. World Futures Review, Vol 10(3), p. 193-202.

Kaufmann, D. (1976) Teaching the future : a guide to future-oriented education. ETC Publications.

The post Metaphors for the Future appeared first on Journal of Futures Studies.

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