VUCA is not, despite appearances, a Czech swear word. It stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. That might sound like a typical Monday morning to a lot of us, but VUCA is used as a way to characterize the world around us, and is increasingly apt.
If you don’t believe us, reflect on 2020 for just a second. Look at the way people, organisations and even governments responded to the COVID19 Pandemic. Volatility in the phasing in and out of control measures and the impact that had on forecasting, planning and just staying afloat. Uncertainty about how long or how far this would go. Complexity in its causes, responses and impact. Ambiguity...well so many of the quarantine regulations were difficult to navigate, and there was often no clear answer in the letter of the law.
The way we treat the natural world means further pandemics are likely around the corner, but look what this one alone has done to our lives. The way we work, travel, interact and educate has changed entirely, and not all of these changes will be reversed. Though some have thrived in this time of upheaval, so many have not. In short, 2020 was a real VUCA.
What does traditional education “teach” learners about the world?
So what is the opposite of VUCA? Stability, Certainty, Simplicity and Clarity? It certainly looks to us like the curricula of traditional schools are very much based on the underlying assumption that the world is SCSC, and no, that’s not a Kartvelian swear word, despite the clustered consonants. “SCSC” can, however, be used to beckon a cat, and that’s its only real usefulness.
In a traditional approach to curriculum planning, there is a set framework. Outcomes, outputs, criteria. Lists of things to know, and set methods of testing to make sure they are there. Yes, there is a lot of tinkering at the edges, responsiveness in classrooms to neurodiversity and other such concessions to the fact that our children are not, in fact, products rolling off a production line.
But the fact remains that the overall system is one of an underlying assumption that “we know what you need to know, and how to test that you know it”. That assumption is based on the world as it was, a little bit on how it is but rarely on how it will be.
That certainty is dangerous. Moving through a neatly packaged education system, ticking boxes and reeling off irregular verbs in French, the world seems simple. You do X, you get Y. Vous simplifiez, je simplifie.
In Freudian, Kohlbergian and Piagetian theories of psychosocial development, one big leap forward we take as children is when we realise that different people have different opinions.
Later on, we learn that sometimes the laws of society themselves are ambiguous and do not always follow a universal moral imperative. These developments are not a given, as we must be exposed to the stimuli that help us process the ambiguity and dissonance.
We need to see and experience the uncertainty to grow to the challenge, and we are all primed to do so. Traditional education tries to protect us from the realities of the VUCA world outside, but that simply delays the inevitable and wastes valuable time in preparing us for reality.
What does VUCA education look like?
The Buddhists had it down centuries ago. The doctrine of annica says that all things are impermanent, and that constant change is one of the only things we can be sure of. They say (and we paraphrase here) that embracing this truth will make us happier and less resistant to inevitability. If you don’t know too many buddhists, you could always talk to a stock trader or an entrepreneur, and they’ll tell you the same thing.
In Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East, the ferryman observed the river and realised “that this water flowed and flowed, it was constantly flowing, and yet it was always there; it was always eternally the same and yet new at every moment!”. There was joy in this reflection because the one thing about embracing VUCA is that suddenly, anything is possible.
VUCA education means embracing change, and welcoming it. It means learners directing their own course through education, and discovering joy in the sense of agency that brings. VUCA means not siloeing subjects from each other, but providing opportunities to see connection and interdependence of variables and disciplines, competing and contradictory ideas, and to learn that phrases like “the evidence suggests” and “as far as we can see at present” are far more helpful than statements of binary fact when exploring emerging and complex ideas.
VUCA education means falling in love with the journey and not the destination. It means focusing on the skills that will help us meet an uncertain future with our best foot forward. Learning from setbacks, persevering through adversity, knowing who we are and anchoring that deeply to weather any storms that come. Memorizing historical facts is all well and good if you’re going on a quiz show, but discovering historical trends through historical thinking and being able to apply that to make predictions about the future? Now that’s useful.
As learning guides and designers of learning experiences, our models and methodologies must also be impermanent. The certainty of knowledge is the death of inquiry, and we have to embrace that. The “one model” philosophy is scalable, but children are not products. The emergent approach, where we constantly question, collaborate and renew our approach, honours the complexity of our learners, as it does the uncertainties of the world around them. We owe it to them to get this right. Are you with us?