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Learning in a VUCA World

Learning in a VUCA World
Dr. Paris Priore-Kim

Following a suite of meetings with parents and students, all of which revolved around planning for the coming year and for the years beyond Mid-Pacific, my thoughts turned to those things that canʻt be planned. These are the things we discover unexpectedly, that reveal themselves over time, and also occasionally confound us or stop us in our tracks. Increasingly, we recognize the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA) present in our world. VUCA describes the flux we feel in the contemporary landscape, and it demands adaptive and resilient individuals who thrive amidst continual change, and who find inspiration and opportunity when faced with unexpected hurdles. Looking into the dimensions of VUCA helps us discern the skills we want to cultivate in our students, and identifies the ways in which we can support their growth and success in a VUCA world.

When we think about the volatility component of the VUCA landscape, we note rapid changes in technology, fluctuations in the economy, and dramatic shifts in geopolitics. This urges us to be agile learners, relying on the plasticity of our brains and a growth mindset. This means not only embracing change, but most importantly, realizing our capacity for change and our ability to adapt to new situations. Placing students in dynamic learning environments in which we ask them to improvise, to engage in rapid prototyping, and to derive multiple solutions to a problem not only helps to train this adaptability, it engenders self-assurance in unfamiliar situations.

Alongside the volatility we experience today, there is an element of unpredictability that persists. Significant global, environmental, and political events have taken us by surprise. The future seems less predictable, conjuring feelings of uncertainty about what might happen next. Building resilience in the face of uncertainty means asking our students to work through scenarios, to explore the various possible outcomes, and then to discern the best options. It is also important to have them reflect on previous choices and decisions and to have them evaluate the outcomes of those. In these ways, we allow students to explore the anatomy of problems and provide them with tools for engaging in situations that we can’t predict.

The notion of complexity in VUCA derives from the way in which multiple factors often interconnect to create tangled problems, making them overwhelming and confusing to address. More often than not, the remedy for confusion is clarity, which usually starts with clear communication. We want to create conditions under which our students are challenged to organize their thinking and convey it effectively. We want to give them opportunities to tease apart complex problems so that they have a clear picture of all the parts in order to construct the equally complex solutions. We encourage them to collaborate on teams, because effectively addressing complex issues relies on the application of diverse skill sets and multiple areas of strength or expertise.

Like complexity, ambiguity also refers to a lack of clarity. In ambiguous situations, we don’t have all the information we need, or the information we have might be contradictory or inaccurate, making it difficult to arrive at a clear conclusion or solution. Our students need to navigate situations where there are no clear answers. Their ability to think creatively and critically – to generate new ideas and to discern effectively between multiple ideas - will steer them through ambiguous terrain. Giving them opportunities to step into uncharted territory and to gain confidence in their ability to do so prepares them for the ambiguity in a VUCA setting.

Rather than seeing the VUCA world as destabilizing, we can frame it as a springboard for creative, collaborative, and meaningful learning. It is a lever for invention, innovation, and inclusion. The flux of the VUCA world also prompts us to talk with our students about their visions for themselves and for the world, to identify the values that ground them and the dreams that propel them. Conversations about their “north star” diminish confusion and usher in clarity. These are all valuable stabilizers in a VUCA world.