Education Futures and CLA – A Way of Thinking about the Society We Wish to Create

Education Futures and CLA – A Way of Thinking about the Society We Wish to Create

by Thammika Songkaeo

The recent public event (“Envisioning Education 2065 – Staying ahead of the curve”) at The HEAD Foundation saw a panel of notable speakers share their thoughts in how they imagined Singapore’s education in the next 50 years. Throughout the discussion, I was particularly struck by Dr. Dennis Kwek’s comments when he challenged audience members, briefly, to think of education futures through the use of Inayatullah’s (1998) Causal Layered Analysis (CLA).

It was a moment of excitement for me as the tools used for Futures Thinking can deeply shake up beliefs and the assumptions placed in strategies while unveiling the underpinning Myths that we hold dear in a systemic fashion. This article is therefore specially penned to provoke thought in thinking about education futures in a manner that recognizes the complexities and multi-facetedness present in thinking about education reform.

CLA is particularly useful as it breaks down our daily arguments into different layers, unpacking the deeper elements of causation. It is based on the assumption that how “one frames a problem changes the policy solution and the actors responsible for creating transformation” (Inayatullah, 2005, p. 6). In seeking more effective policies and strategies for change, it is imperative that one understands the multiple levels that make up an issue:

  1. The litany, or the official unquestioned view of reality presented by trends and problems.
  2. Systemic, or the social conditions that impact an issue which can be economic, cultural, political and historical.
  3. Worldviews, or the ideological assumptions and paradigms that pervade understanding of an issue that are not dependent on the actor. Multiple worldviews create a horizontal broadening of the issue.
  4. Myths/Metaphor/Narratives, the unconscious emotive dimensions, the stories that we tell ourselves and believe in.

By presenting the complexities found in any one single issue, CLA thickens the richness in discussion, giving light to multiple ways of seeing and knowing.
The social issue is firstly problematized, and oftentimes, policy solutions are enacted at the Litany and the Systemic. For instance, Dr. Kwek raised the example of how students and parents in Singapore frequently complain on the exam fervor which can strike the nation during the national examination periods. Working parents take leave during the Primary School Leaving Examinations at Grade Six to better guide their child, and students go for tuition classes en masse in preparation for the General Cambridge Examinations at Grades Ten or Eleven.

The result is a stress that emerges from the examination hall as students strive to succeed in a competitive education system. Immediate policy responses can include solutions such as increased student counselling, more parental support groups, to the increase in places available in the next level of the school system. Indeed, these are important and sometimes, necessary actions. But the benefit which CLA presents in thinking about education futures is to go beyond, past the veil of the systemic.

As such, with CLA, we can reveal the underlying causes that problematizes exam stress into a social issue. Exam stress is a serious problem (litany) because of the importance of exams as understood in a competitive society where school spaces are limited (systemic). The widespread belief in examinations is warranted by a worldview that a student’s standing and competency can be assessed relative to his or her peers (worldview). The narrative, found even deeper, is that these students can be assessed and/or measured equally at a specific juncture in their lives (myth).

At each CLA level, various solutions can be proposed to tackle the issues raised, with policy actions quickly occurring at the Litany and the Systemic. It is also important to note that while this example has demonstrated a single cause at each level, realities are oftentimes much more complex and deeper. While exam stress may be underscored by a prevailing Myth held about exams being a fair gauge of competency, it can also be upheld by another Myth in every school being a good school – ceteris paribus, the student is fairly assessed. The point of CLA is twofold: while it reveals the undercurrent themes, it also expresses the various scenarios different groups believe in.

Yet, if reform is set as a course forward, it is fundamental that calls to change include and go beyond the surface. By tackling the challenges and paradigms found in the Worldview and the Myths, what is required is time and actions by different stakeholders (i.e government, schools, businesses, parents, community leaders and visionaries). It is common to argue that governments have a significant part to play, and rightly so. However, when it comes to creating a society’s Myth and its underlying ethos, the conversations that must be had are necessarily collective for belief, ownership and execution.

In shaping education futures, a key question to ask ourselves is what new narratives and Myths do we wish to create? This prospect is society envisioning of an alternative future instead of being caught in a conundrum of recycling history. How will the new Myth then re-shape society’s worldview? Will the systemic then be re-thought? How can the litany ensure that the new Myth is sustained?
At its heart, the step for futures thinking through the CLA is to remove the rigidity we emplace in the system and open up new avenues for potential alternatives. It is the constant questioning of “why”, and not simply taking the given for granted.

Inayatullah, S. (1998). Causal layered analysis: Poststructuralism as method. Futures, 30(8), 815–829.
Inayatullah, S. (2005). Causal Layered Analysis – Deepening the future. In Questioning the Future: methods and tools for organizational and societal transformation. Tamsui: Tamkang University Press.

Justin Pereira is a Research Assistant at The HEAD Foundation. His research interests are in education equity, trajectories and futures. 

The HEAD Foundation Commentary is a platform to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy-relevant commentary of topical issues and contemporary developments. The views expressed by the authors are solely their own and do not reflect opinions of The HEAD Foundation.

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