What would a self-improving system look like?

Last month saw the first symposium of the Core Ideas Group at Oxford for our self-improving FE system project. It was a fantastic, challenging, exhausting day that saw 10 of us from a wide variety of roles across FE and beyond start to grapple with the biggest issues in thinking about “what would a self-improving system look like”?

In the group we had CEOs, academics, teachers, thinkers, doers and nomads. We were joined by Faculty from Oxford and by Sir Frank McLoughlin CBE. We were deliberately staying focused on questions not answers, as the project has another 9 months to run and we must open the thinking up before we start to close it down.

One of the sessions was led for us by Dr Trudi Lang, Senior Fellow in Management Practice at Oxford Saïd, who uses scenario planning with a wide range of clients to help them not only prepare for possible futures but make better strategy that links their past narratives with their future directions.

image of earth from the moon

The essence of the approach is captured in this famous photograph, taken from Apollo 8 in 1968. It was the first such photograph ever taken by a human, and the first such image in colour. Years later the astronaut Bill Anders would say of it “we went all that way to discover the moon, and what we discovered was the earth”.

I keep this image on my desk as an inspiration. Not only was it hugely significant to the growth of the environmental movement, it symbolises the power of putting distance between yourself and the object of your study.

Through putting spacial distance between us and our planet we see a whole new truth about the reality of the earth, its holistic systemic nature, its uniqueness and perhaps its vulnerability.

In the same way, we can put temporal distance – time – between us and our subject by imagining possible future scenarios that might pertain and then asking how our company or college or FE system would respond. The point is not to try to predict the future; rather it is to imagine what the surrounding environment might be like, and then use that imaginary scenario to ask how would the current FE system cope. What would have to change? What opportunities would be created? What would break? What would flourish? It is a way of understanding the current system better by looking back at it ‘from a distance’.

Watch David’s video accompanying this second blog.

If you have ideas about what a likely possible future scenario might be for FE then get in touch with me on david.russell@etfoundation.co.uk The point is NOT to predict the future of FE. Instead, think about what big social, economic, technological, political trends or discontinuities you expect to see in 5-10 years. Paint a picture of how you think the world might change, and we can feed that in to our thinking about the FE system. I’d love to hear from you. Do get in touch.


David Russell

Executive in Residence at Oxford Saïd Business School 
Education and Training Foundation      

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