Notes on the utopian classroom

BLOG: Utopian Pulses

colourful pencil drawing of an en profile face against a black background
Artwork created in the course: Imagining the future for transformation (by Loeke Anema)

“Any teaching that does not come accompanied with the tools to dispute it… what is it? A poison?” 
Jesse Ball, 2016 [1]

This provocation appears in Notes on My Dunce Cap [1]—a set of musings by Jesse Ball on how to unlock creativity and criticality in the classroom. I encountered this gem of a book while designing the new master’s course Imagining the future for transformation at Utrecht University. The course broadly aims to enable students to question why particular futures are seen as more plausible or desirable and to explore how more radical forms of imagination can transform the present. Considering the growing hopelessness many students feel about the future amidst climate change, wars, stark inequalities, the list goes on… designing this course raised several questions for me: What purposes does the classroom serve? What might it mean to bring utopia into that setting? How can critical engagement flourish alongside hopeful creativity?

— by Josie Chambers

Having spent much of my life in classrooms—as student or teacher, I have seen that learning goals and content only go so far. We must fundamentally reimagine the form of the classroom. I’ve been inspired by many experiments in doing the classroom differently, such as the Urban Futures Studio’s Mixed Classroom [2]; political-pedagogical approaches of Paulo Freire and Augusto Boal [3]; and creative pedagogies developed by Jesse Ball, Shannon Mattern [4] and countless other colleagues.

Here I share my recent experiment in creating a utopian classroom, discussed in relation to Jesse Ball’s work and other sources of inspiration. I am indebted to my co-teacher Jonas Torrens, many guest contributors, and forty students— who all shaped the experience and my interpretation. The notes that follow — five emerging considerations for remaking the classroom utopian — are by no means comprehensive or universal. Nevertheless, I hope they serve utopia’s core function: to activate our imagination of how things (in the classroom) could be radically otherwise, and in doing so, cultivate our longing to transform how we do things in the present [5].


In her book Experiments in imagining otherwise Lola Olufemi tells the story She kept making yesterday today, about Fanta, a young black history professor:

There she was about to teach a class that she knew had taken place yesterday… Fanta had always known something wasn’t quite right with HISTORY. They created narrative totality out of the stuff of nightmares. HISTORY haunted her classrooms, hollowed out the knowledge she wished to share with her students… Nobody wrote about who dealt with the mess (the piss, shit and bricks) of HISTORY…[6]

Fanta’s story conveys how much we limit our imagination and truth when we only tell stories of the past that are always told. Stories that few have been privileged to tell. In doing so, we risk performing them into the future, crowding out possibilities to imagine the world otherwise.

But how can one teach tomorrow — that which does not yet exist? Surely, the possibilities are endless? Even dangerous? Yet this only becomes a problem when the main goal of the classroom is to teach what to think. When the goal shifts to how to think, it becomes most fruitful to engage with multiple and often conflicting interpretations of reality, including values, hopes and imaginations of (im)possible and (un)desirable futures. Taking this a step further, the classroom can also teach us how to imagine. Once we treat our capacity to imagine as a muscle to be strengthened rather than an impulse to ignore, all sorts of possibilities unfold. We can learn how to imagine and hope for more radical possible futures. Reimagine pasts that have been unjustly told. Understand how our dreams and memories are inextricably intertwined.

In our class, we invited students to develop their critical and creative capacities to think and imagine. For example, students were asked to physically position themselves along the continuum shown below, to surface differences in their implicit theories of how change happens. This sparked a rich collective dialogue over the implications of different ways of imagining, where we made collective headway together to challenge the initial binary.

"To reach more just & sustainable futures, should we start by..." below a double sided arrow with on the left "Engaging with past grief & present struggles in new ways" and on the right "Showing a future world free from present struggles is possible".
Example of continuum used to spark reflection and dialogue in the course: Imagining the future for transformation.


The classroom has too often become a place to freeze and simplify reality according to western views, cases, stakes, measures, facts, etc. While this makes it easier to teach, understand, categorize, and evaluate as good, bad, better, worse—including the very assessment of students’ capabilities—we must also consider what is lost in the process and how things might be done differently.

In her session on decolonizing imagination, Zuleika Sheik shared: “reality cannot be captured and frozen because reality is always moving”. Frozen reality orients us towards binary thinking and simple solutions that hide the complexity of who we are and how change happens in the world. Such thinking has entrenched a Western “One-World World” that continues to marginalize “the other” [7]. To counter this, Zuleika introduced the Zapatista mission to construct “Un Mundo Donde Quepan Muchos Mundos” [A World Where Many Worlds Fit] to respect the dignity of all beings [8].

But what might it mean to truly embody this in the classroom—to create a space where many worlds coexist? It may seem that most classrooms share multiple perspectives, foster debate, etc. However, it is unsettling to see just how many university courses on international topics like sustainability are still dominated by white European and North American readings and lecturers. To contest this pattern, we sought to interweave non-Western and decolonial ideas and approaches, through readings, podcasts and guest contributions, for example, by Noni Mngqibisa on decolonizing imaginaries of African cities, and Cara Flores on decolonial and counter-mapping practices, among others. We also tried to not advocate for any single true or desirable future, but rather reveal how, from different vantage points, the very notion of desirability is itself contested.

Creating space for many worlds also meant rejecting the hierarchical notion that the teacher is The Expert. Students held agency to navigate tensions among perspectives and narrate their own learning experience. Jesse Ball similarly calls hierarchy “the principal danger of the classroom”, as “hierarchy contorts and diminishes the possibilities of the lives that labor within it” [1]. He explains:

Too often teachers mar what they make by setting up a situation that permits a beautiful plurality of ideas, and then in the same instant, smashing it to pieces by pointing out the single perfect answer. Be patient. Let the class teach itself. Try to invite a fruitful sort of chaos and stir yourself like a sheepdog at its edges, striving to see that every last one is included. [1]

You may be thinking — but surely assessment demands traditional hierarchy? In our course we also experimented with opening up the seemingly objective process of assessment. Students co-designed six principles that underlie more just and transformative approaches to futuring, based on literature. For example, how plural (i.e. genuinely inclusive of diverse perspectives) the approach is, or how prefigurative (i.e. enacting alternative ways of being in society) it is. These very criteria were in turn used to assess their own futuring approaches created later in the course. This taught the inherent subjectivity and performativity of any evaluative framework, while giving students agency to directly shape and value their own learning.

Yet one lingering question still often troubles me — how might our classrooms still inadvertently reinforce the “One-World World”? I’ve sometimes heard “but my course has nothing to do with non-Western views”. I have in fact thought this myself. Yet, I’ve come to see the hidden layers I once did not see. The teaching of any theory or skill still enables certain patterns of thought and action in the world. It has an inherent politics which should not be ignored. I now ask: Who does this privilege? Who does it marginalize? Is that justified? Why or why not? Can I include more diverse perspectives? How? And finally, the most difficult question of all: Is there an alternative overarching topic or frame which enables more worlds to flourish?


I am intrigued by how expectations develop in the classroom. Where do they come from? When students first enter a classroom, their expectations are often shaped by the course guide/syllabus — usually a dry document with goals, schedules, requirements, procedures, etc. yet, in his piece The Utopian Syllabus [9], Tim Holt says it is a problem to treat the syllabus in this way — as mainly a “contract for knowledge transfer”. He advocates instead for Jesse Ball’s approach — to provide a “stage play” to “frame the kind of encounters you would like to have happen in class” [1]. He shows what this means, describing Ball’s course on Franz Kafka and bureaucratic absurdity:

Each session is run as a meeting of the Franz Kafka Fancier Society of Chicago (the FKFSC). There is a schedule of meetings, a members’ code of conduct, bulletins, bylaws, a call for submissions for the journal published by the FKFSC, etc. The game of course is to pretend such a thing into existing: to use the class to form the society that forms the class. [9]

What this example captures so brilliantly is the power of using the form of a class itself to teach the content more powerfully than the content could ever do alone. This approach demands a dramatic shift in student expectations: they are not there mainly to absorb promised information, as a contract implies. Rather, Ball “treats the classroom itself as a stage and allows students to perform — to act in the role of the student they are to become” [9]. Reading this, I started to wonder how the form of the course (and guide) could invite students to expect to become more creative, imaginative, critical, thoughtful, emotional, engaged? — and then hopefully perform these expectations collectively in class.

The resulting course guide welcomes students as members of the university-society boundary movement the Creative Collectives for Utopia — CC4Utopia, which uses “critical and creative techniques to foster radical collective imagination for transformation”. The course contains a series of eight meetings that train each member in futuring concepts and approaches, before breaking into sub-groups that serve as a critical friend to societal futuring initiatives in parts of Europe or Africa. The guide is accompanied by a playlist of songs about imagination and futures from diverse times, genres, and cultures, to prefigure the plurality and creativity students will encounter in the course. The guide also includes a blank page with the prompt “how do you picture the future?”. Students could respond through any means and add a song to the collective playlist. As a result, students showed up to the opening session hosted at KAPITAAL—a creative analog printstudio in Utrecht — already expecting that the course could be an opportunity to express their creative and imaginative selves. One student even showed up with a diorama of himself in a future repair shop. Together we introduced ourselves through our personal values, emotions, and assumptions about the future.

We regularly encouraged students to embrace their most imaginative selves during the course. Otherwise, our classroom on imagining societal transformation would be akin to a physical education class that teaches only theory instead of also engaging bodies. For example, Cara Flores encouraged students to radically reimagine the very nature of the classroom, using art supplies. After comparing and discussing the creations, we tried to bring elements of diverse visions into being in the next class. Together we experienced the prefigurative power of our collective imagination.

A handcrafted diorama showcasing a bike repair shop
Diorama created in preparation for the course: Imagining the future for transformation (by Sjoerd van der Meer)


But what does it feel like to be in a utopian classroom? The notes so far touch upon imagination, plurality, performativity… but what about the very substance of desire? What cultivates an intrinsic sense of curiosity and joy of learning with others? A sort of hazy dream or intuition that exciting things are possible, without turning this into such a fixed plan that the magic is destroyed?

In Utopia as Method, Ruth Levitas articulates this sense of desire through Ernst Bloch’s notion of the utopian impulse — “an anthropological given that underpins the human propensity to long for and imagine a life otherwise”, originating in a “deep sense that something’s missing” [5]. Levitas notes how for Bloch “music, art and literature not only carry utopian desire but offer a glimpse of what it is that is missing” [5]. Similarly, artistic and creative practices became a central way for students to process discomfort raised by difficult topics, surface and navigate differing views, connect with their authentic selves, and feel inspired about possible futures. For example, instead of framing their first assignment as a standard essay, students could creatively engage with theory in the course. They did so through remarkably diverse formats — magical stories, guided mediation, interactive games, stage plays, course curricula, artworks, magazines, and more. This showed the power of creativity to enrich the development of and representation of conceptual ideas. Some students described never before having felt so engaged in doing an assignment.

Two magazine covers; left a Batik fabric background with text "Anagata: A futuring Curriculum for 11th Grade in Indonesia. By Michele Joie Prawiromaruto" Right a white cube coverd by text on all sides
The cover of two utopian guides created in the course (by Michele Joie Prawiromaruto—Left and Gréta Kálmán—Right)

By opening up the classroom to creativity and imagination, students felt invited to show up as their authentic selves. Instead of suppressing emotions when discussing worrying topics such as climate change and colonial biases, students could freely engage with them and share vulnerability and compassion. They shared heartfelt realizations about biases they only now realized they had overlooked, and difficult experiences of prejudice they had faced. There were moments of humor and joy, and also discomfort and frustration. Ball similarly says:

Do not create a classroom setting in which tears and anger have no place. Strong feelings are wonderful — they are the stuff of wonder... Of course, it is your duty to ease the social situation such that it is understood by the members of the class at all times: no one should be ashamed to feel. [1]

I don’t think we are fully aware of the stakes of ignoring emotions and creativity in the classroom. More and more students are entering the classroom with a sense of hopelessness about the future. The classroom—a place oriented towards learning about society for its benefit—should especially enable diverse people to come together and grow collective agency and hope for the future.


Classrooms can be quite inward looking in their goals — learning for learning’s sake. While models that support interactions with society are becoming more common, such as through education consultancy models or challenge-based learning, what is the utopian potential of fostering deeper connections between education and society? A consultancy model that relies on society defining questions for students to answer depends a lot on the politics of those questions. Who do they serve? Which questions do not serve their interests and thus are not asked? Perhaps most fruitfully, a utopian classroom must challenge students to be both critical and creative in their engagements with society — to go beyond mainly ignoring or doing society’s bidding, towards genuine forms of exchange and transformation.

We sought to explore this through our boundary movement CC4Utopia, by having student groups work directly with one of four societal initiatives — the Collaborative Media Advocacy Platform in Nigeria, the Atlantis Special Economic Zone in South Africa, and the BIONEXT and IMAGINE projects — each working in various countries across Europe. Students learned about their work and applied what they learned in the course to serve as a critical friend. They were not told what to do but had the freedom to develop their own critical and creative contributions. The process was messy; it was difficult for all involved to learn about unfamiliar contexts and navigate different values and expectations in such a short time span. However, struggling through such a process in a facilitated way, prepares students to navigate this in society — to bring critical perspectives and imaginative ideas in a constructive way, and feel courageous to do so. Of course, many education models take this even further, like the Urban Futures Studio Mixed Classroom [2], which brings policymakers, artists, activists and master’s students all together in the same learning space to become more critical and imaginative about policy interventions.

black and yellow magazine 'creative collectives for utopia' on white background
Cover of the Creative Collectives for Utopia Zine

Beyond the value of co-inquiry, rarely is it asked how the stage of a classroom might become the stage their learning for a broader public. Paulo Freire and Augusto Boal knew the power of this well, having experimented for decades with the role of education to liberate oppressed peoples and strengthen social movements [10,11]. In Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, the stage literally became fertile ground for theatrically experimenting with and transforming oppressive relations [11]. Our course sought to engage two broader publics. First, to generate inspiring futuring ideas and approaches in collaboration with the four societal initiatives — to also share with a broader range of researchers and practitioners engaged in societal transformations. And second, to share our own creative pedagogies with those interested in innovative approaches to education. We combined these aims through releasing the Creative Collectives for Utopia Zine.


Looking back at Loeke’s beautiful drawing at the start, I feel it captures in many ways how I see the utopian classroom — as capable of enabling a myriad of passions to entangle and discover radical collective hope in the face of darkness. There is clearly no single utopian classroom. The experiment I have depicted is no doubt dystopian for some. Nevertheless, I hope these five notes offer food for the classroom a little more utopian, in defining movements from: teaching yesterday to exploring tomorrow; advocating One-World to embracing Many Worlds; presenting a contract to prefiguring a stage play; intellectualizing issues to cultivating emotions and curiosity; isolating the classroom from society to enabling its dual critical and creative role in society.

I close with an imaginative exercise from Jesse Ball, my close companion throughout this journey:

Imagine a school in which every kind of class is taught—literally every possible class, on every subject, taught in every way. If you were to teach at this school would you teach as you do? Would you teach the same materials and in the same way? Or would you teach something else? Thinking of the classes taught at this imaginary school, would you become jealous of some of the classes taught? Would you be aghast that someone is permitted to teach in such a way—a way that you would love to have taught, if only you had thought of it? If this last is true, then please, by all means, begin tomorrow. Steal the class from its imaginary teacher. Become that person. [1]

A special thank you to Jonas Torrens, my co-conspirator in designing and teaching this course, and the many guest lecturers who contributed. Furthermore, the classroom is always an experience of co-creation; you can design a possibility space and hope for the best, but ultimately it was these forty students who filled that possibility space with their creativity, questions, insights and dedication to make the course what it became, and for that I am deeply grateful: Alexis Beaudoin, Aliya Saierjiang, Amber Huijsmans, Amy Sun, Ana Vallejo Perez, Anne Ranselaar, Athina Karavioti, Charlotte Schildknegt, Diego Llaca Arrubarrena, Ellen De Wit, Ema Vrînceanu, Fanny van der Weijden, Filippos Gioukakis, Fiona Trüb, Gesa Weidemann, Greta Kálmán, Jeanine Notenboom, Jelle Schenk, Kertan Nana, Laura Bengel, Lea Freytag, Loeke Anema, Loreto López Gamboa, Louis van Haasbergen, Magda Zajączkowska, Makeda Ferguson, Margarida Serrão Presa Rodrigues, Mats Hallie, Maximilian Lehn, Michele Joie Prawiromaruto, Olivier Meerstadt, Peining Yang, Saudamini, Marici, Severin Mayer, Shreeya Patangay, Sjoerd van der Meer, Sterre Perquin, Teun Verhagen, Willem Grootoonk, Wouter Homans.

[1] Jesse Ball (2016), Notes on My Dunce Cap (Pioneer Works Press).

[2] Jesse Hoffman et al. (2021), A futuring approach to teaching wicked problems, Journal of Geography in Higher Education (

[3] Paolo Vittoria (2019), The Routledge Companion to Theatre of the Oppressed (Routledge).

[4] Shannon Mattern (2024), Words in Space website (

[5] Ruth Levitas (2013). Utopia as method: The imaginary reconstitution of society (New York: Palgrave Macmillan).

[6] Lola Olufemi (2021), Experiments in Imagining Otherwise (United Kingdom: Hajar Press).

[7] John Law (2015), What’s wrong with the one-world world?, Distinktion: Journal of Social Theory, 16(1) (

[8] Zapatistas (1996). Cuarta Declaración de la Selva Lacandona (Available at:

[9] Tim Holt (2019), The Utopian Syllabus (

[10] Paulo Freire (1970), Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Seabury Press).

[11] Augusto Boal (1979), Theatre of the Oppressed (London: Pluto Press).