The Future of Social Work Education: Futures Thinking in MSW Curriculum


Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

As graduate students who are deeply focused on developing our career readiness skills and preparing for future employment, this is a question that many of us prepare for in anticipation of job interviews or internship applications. We are regularly encouraged – and often expected – to focus on our personal and professional futures, through coursework, extracurriculars, field placements and jobs that are career-oriented and guide us along the pathway towards full-time employment. Many of us attend graduate school for that specific reason – to strengthen and sharpen our specialized skills for a particular field or job. In fact, after a quick Google search for “why to go to graduate school”, most of the articles suggest a similar rationale: an investment in your future.

But what might happen if we applied that same forethought and curiosity to the area of social wellbeing or justice that we are most interested in, the individuals or communities we work with, or perhaps the field of social work as a whole? Might deeper knowledge of futures thinking and formal practice with foresight tools better equip MSW students for careers dedicated to enhancing wellbeing and supporting the needs of underserved individuals and communities?

Most graduate social work programs include at least one class on the history of the social welfare system and/or social work as a field, which is crucial for recognizing and dissecting the racist and classist history of the profession in the United States. History can be especially valuable when approached with a growth mindset, and a goal of learning from past mistakes to avoid repeated harm in the future. Consequently, it could be even more constructive for graduate social work students to simultaneously learn basic foresight tools in order to strategically explore and anticipate future scenarios informed by an understanding of key historical events and practices. In fact, this idea is a key principle of futures thinking: look back to look forward.

In preparation of writing this post, I sent a brief survey to my fellow MSW students at the Portland State University School of Social Work to gauge current understanding of futures thinking and thoughts about it’s potential value for social work education. Although only half of respondents had heard of futures thinking previously, all indicated that it is very important for MSW students to build basic tools for imagining various future possibilities related to social work, and that they would be interested in taking a class specifically dedicated to futures thinking in social work. One respondent mentioned that community organizing and social policy would be specific areas of social work education where futures thinking and foresight skills might have particular value. 

So, there is student interest in futures thinking in social work education – but what are some ways that incorporating futures thinking and foresight tools into graduate social work education curriculum would be beneficial to the field? Social work, along with many other professional disciplines, requires adaptability and creativity – we have to be prepared to address unintended consequences or unexpected events. For example, social work has been largely unprepared to assist in the mitigation of the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the value that social workers might have had in promoting health equity and social justice during the turbulent time. However, if social work practitioners and students had developed futures thinking and foresight skills prior to the pandemic, allowing them to be more prepared for such a destructive event, it is plausible that the resulting reality could have been quite different.

Climate change, which is inherently future-oriented, is a fitting example for the importance of learning basic foresight skills in social work education. With the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on climate change, it is evident that the warming planet has already been creating detrimental and disproportionate harm on communities across the world, and that it will continue to do so at alarming rates. Logically, then, it would require us, as current and emerging social workers, to think and act accordingly. Although climate change has received relatively little attention in social work, there is a clear role for social workers in promoting wellbeing among those most affected by climate change. In a 2017 article in Social Work Today, Dr. Lisa Reyes Mason says “The impacts of climate change are and will be unequal and unjust. People with the least resources will be most affected and least able to recover and live resilient lives in the face of climate change. These values coupled with our skills in engagement, assessment, planning, and intervention make social workers invaluable agents in addressing climate change”.

Personally, I am a planner. I always prefer to have my days and responsibilities scheduled in advance in an effort to be as prepared as possible. Consequently, I have historically been wary of the unknown (which is an inherent characteristic of the future). However, futures thinking encourages confronting the unknown with curiosity, strategy and an appreciation for complexity. In my experience as a part of the Social Work Health Futures Lab, I have become more comfortable and better equipped to methodologically explore multiple future scenarios through the development of fundamental foresight tools and practices, such as recognizing and analyzing signals and collaborating across disciplines to visualize alternative future scenarios. Although the future is largely unpredictable, futures thinking provides the tools, practice and strategy for interpreting historical and current events to be as prepared as possible for the years and decades to come. If we were to include futures thinking and foresight training in graduate social work education, creativity would be centered in tandem with evidence-based theory and skills, allowing students to develop flexibility and an acceptance of the unpredictability and complexity of the real world – now and in the future.

Written by Mackenzie Barron

Written by Mackenzie Barron

MPH in Health Promotion & MSW Candidate

I am a 2nd year student in the MPH in Health Promotion and MSW dual degree program at OHSU and PSU in Portland, OR. I am interested in environmental justice, specifically at the intersection of health equity and climate change, as well as strategies for building climate resilience.