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Hopeful Possibilities

By Vlad Glăveanu (Editor-in-Chief of The Palgrave Encyclopedia of the Possible), Pam Burnard, Wendy Ross, and Constance de Saint Laurent

There is widespread acknowledgement of the fact that we are, globally, experiencing a poly-crisis. From the climate emergency to ongoing genocidal wars, from increased political polarization to the rise of AI, there is much to worry about and, for social scientists, to study, understand, and try to prevent.

Fundamentally, all crises are moments of accelerated transformation in which our assumptions about the world are questioned, our usual practices challenged, and ‘business as usual’ becomes impossible. In other words, they are moments when new things come about. This kind of generativity gives crises a silver lining: if we can engage, creatively, with the challenges facing us and the uncertainties associated with them, we might be able to leverage unique opportunities.

Key among them is the chance to reimagine the world and our place within it; to discover new possibilities that are more radical, more transformative, and more hopeful than before. Understanding the processes – individual and social, human and more-than-human – that underline this dynamic is the mission of an emergent transdisciplinary field of research that brings together the social sciences, arts and humanities: Possibility Studies.

As follows, we briefly outline three hopeful future perspectives, grounded in Possibility Studies, for key domains undergoing a rapid process of transformation and facing major associated challenges: education (and the challenge of moving beyond Western anthropocentrism), cognition (and the challenge of mind – body dualism), and politics (and the challenge of societal polarisation).

Where are we and what – possibly – happens next?

Education is the means by which a society ensures its own future. Education brings generations together in the common task of making a future for all. However, the future is not waiting for young people to be ready for it. The challenge facing learners and teachers is not a simple one: Reimagining the world and our place within it requires rethinking education and how we co-author new, culturally situated practices that foster creative teaching, creative learning, and creative teacher education.

A Possibility Studies approach calls for more radical creativities research and practices to take place within learning communities; a place that extends beyond a Western anthropocentric vision to account for the marginalised, the oppressed and unvoiced.

The seeds of hopeful, possible futures have been sown. It is simply no longer sufficient to think and act in single disciplines and subject-specific domains. Educators are well aware of the need to leverage unique opportunities. The need to cultivate synergies between sciences and arts which move education beyond siloed practices of prescription and enculturation.

Possibility Studies aim to support education become much more than preparing for a future that is predicted or feared. The seeds of possibility are made to bloom when educational futures are genuinely built by and for all.

Related to old dichotomies of education, human cognition is often portrayed as largely separate from the world. The key challenge here is, actually, a foundational tenet of cognitive science: that cognition operates on mental representations and, thus, its study should deliberately retreat into the head of the thinker and close the door on anything outside of it.

Possibility Studies embrace perspectives on thinking that reject this view and cast the human mind as fundamentally embedded in the world. This is not only a theoretical matter. Hopeful futures in this area start from acknowledging that complex thinking processes are embodied, contextual, infused by emotion, and equally grounded in ‘what is’ and ‘what could be’.

It is an approach that allows the necessary space for radical reimagining of the human thinking machine but actively requires it. Cognition is extended into the world and engaged rather than disconnected from what is material, social, and political.

In fact, the social and the political are of key concern for Possibility Studies. A crisis paralyzing political systems worldwide has to do with increased polarization, fragmentation, and the questioning of facts and reality. The ‘post-truth’ era has us witnessing a rise in populism, extremism, and xenophobia, all alarming developments at a time when coordinated political action is needed to solve pressing global issues.

In some ways, post-truth mentalities present us with the dark side of the possible: everything can be real if it serves our interests and expectations. And yet, there are glimmers of hope particularly when it comes to challenging misinformation, conspiracies, and realising the importance of ethics and critical thinking. From educational programs to social movements, there is growing mobilisation towards reinstating the value of truth, confidence in science, and the importance of finding common ground in societal debates.

Progress is slow but palpable and, with it, a hopeful possibility emerges: that of a shared understanding of reality on which we can build trust and mutual understanding.

The hopeful possibility that another possible is possible after all.

Vlad Glăveanu is Professor of Psychology at Dublin City University, Ireland, and Professor II at the Centre for the Science of Learning and Technology, University of Bergen, Norway. He is the founder and president of the Possibility Studies Network.

Pamela Burnard is Professor of Arts, Creativities and Educations at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, UK. She has published widely with 20 books and over 100 articles which advance the theory and practice of multiple creativities across education sectors including early years, primary, secondary, further and higher education, through to creative and cultural industries.

Wendy Ross is Senior Lecturer at London Metropolitan University, UK. She also covers the position of co-chair of the Serendipity Society, treasurer of the Possibility Studies Network, and secretary of the BPS Cognitive Section.

Constance de Saint Laurent is Assistant Professor of Sociotechnical Systems at the Department of Psychology at Maynooth University, Ireland.