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Building research collaboration with teachers to shape the futures of education


Authors: JC Couture, Sam Sellar and Roar Grøttvik*.

This article is based on a background paper prepared for the Futures of Education Initiative.

Teachers can and should be at the centre of discussions about the futures of education and shaping educational responses to environmental threats, technological disruption and the ongoing pandemic. The pandemic has reminded us that we cannot expect the future to be a linear extension of the present. It has also left educators, parents and students grappling for alternatives to the corporate vision of digitalised and personalised learning, which fails to advance a wholistic vision of education.

The education futures currently promoted by some international organisations, in conjunction with corporate and philanthropic actors, offers up visions of a post-pandemic landscape “revolutionized” by innovative technologies and the reconceptualization of schooling. These visions also represent the teaching profession as anachronistic and an obstacle to change. While the disruption triggered by the pandemic provides a catalyst for fundamental change, we need to move beyond questions of technological disruption to broaden conversations about educational futures, and to include not only teachers but also students, families and communities. The critical question is how to democratize the way we imagine and prepare for the future (Urry, 2016: 2-13).

Teachers re-shaping the conversations around their future

In our recent background paper for the UNESCO Futures of Education initiative, we ask whether new forms of collaboration between teacher organisations and academic researchers can help the teaching profession to shape the futures of education. We argue that futures studies need the teaching profession and teacher organizations need futures thinking.

Teacher organizations have to balance short-term tactics with long-term strategy. On the one hand, teachers are often directly or indirectly dealing with ‘big picture’ questions about how education can address societal and environmental problems. At the same time, these organizations have to find pragmatic solutions in an effort to improve the increasingly difficult working conditions that teachers face globally.

Teacher organisations need to sustain their tactical work of resistance and cooperation in response to the immediate horizon of what Sohail Inayatullah (2013) calls predicted futures. At the same time, these organisations must also develop critical and participatory futures thinking that produces new possibilities for renewal and professional leadership by supporting members to envision alternative futures (Inayatullah, 2013).

Teacher organizations can move towards “futures-making” research while continuing to protect members’ interests by drawing on support from “critical friends” in academia. Teachers already produce and shape knowledge in their professional lives, but both teacher organizations and academics can benefit from collaborations that focus on the futures of the profession. There are many successful examples of academics working with teacher organizations to produce research-driven visions of educational change.

Unions, academics and policymakers working together: the Norway-Canada Partnership

The Union of Education Norway (UEN) is one example of a teacher organisation that has become a co-creator of alternative futures of education. This involved developing a more strategic approach to research: a long-term commitment to rethinking and repositioning UEN’s capacity for knowledge production through publication of its research strategy paper and working with new partners.

Two of the prioritized areas of the UEN research strategy were Democracy and formation (Bildung) and Subjects, subject areas and learning processes. Based on these aims, and following a year-long set of negotiations, the Norway-Canada Partnership (NORCAN) project was launched in Banff, Alberta, in 2015. NORCAN was a joint research effort by the Alberta Teachers’ Association, the Ontario Teachers’ Federation and the UEN, with the Ministry of Education in Ontario. NORCAN brought together a network of nine schools and created opportunities for teachers, school leaders, students and academics to collaboratively undertake “futures-making” research “by rethinking the meaning of success in mathematics in our schools” (Stiles, 2019).

Concerns about mathematics performance in Norway and Canada had spurred the growth of a culture of accountability and testing. In this context, the senior union leaders participating in NORCAN felt they had to protect the professional autonomy of teachers. This involved countering the idea that the teachers themselves were unable to innovate and lead educational change. As NORCAN’s work unfolded, a concern for pragmatic educational development quickly shifted to critical and participatory futures thinking.

Towards new partnerships to define the futures of teaching

The global pandemic has amplified forces that could potentially weaken public education. The teaching profession must continue to ensure that its voice is heard in any reform process, while joining with the communities it serves to democratize education futures. We need new alliances such as the Education Futures Partnership, which is driven by the question of what kind of educational futures we want, and why.

Collaborative, participatory futures-making should be prioritized as both teacher organizations and the academic community respond to ongoing disruptions. We must work together to ensure that future visions of education remain strongly grounded in the idea of education as a public good. In partnership we can meet the challenge issued by Hannah Arendt, when she proclaimed that “education is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, not to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world” (1993: 180).



Arendt, H. (1993), Between Past and Future, New York, Penguin Books.

Inayatullah, S. (2013), Futures Studies: Theories and Methods, pp. 36-66.

Stiles, P.J. (2019), Disrupting School Leadership-A Leadership of Disruption, PhD Dissertation,     University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. 

Urry, J. (2016), What is the Future? Cambridge, Polity Press.

The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this article do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of UNESCO and the International Task Force on Teachers for Education 2030 concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. The ideas and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors; they are not necessarily those of UNESCO and do not commit the Organization.

Credit: Photo credit: Taichung ANL/

*Dr J-C Couture is currently adjunct instructor with the Faculty of Education, University of Alberta and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Dr Sam Sellar is Reader in Education Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University and lead editor of Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education.

Roar Grøttvik is a political adviser with the Union of Education Norway and Chair of the Education International Research Institute Board.