Monday, March 12, 2018

We're living in a VUCA world

Over the past few days I've been hearing and learning about the term VUCA.  It was originally coined by the US Army to describe the situation at the end of the Cold War that was volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, but has now been applied the current world since the financial crisis of 2008-9 and to leadership in various organisations including education.

Let's think a little more about VUCA, what it means, and how it can apply to education today:
  • Volatility - this refers to the speed and turbulence of change and is often linked to the volume of information we can now access.  Historically, however, education has been slow to change, for example it has been pointed out that schools today are not so vastly different from schools in the industrial age, with a one-size-fits-all approach sometimes called the "factory model" of education.  Writers such as Clayton Christenson have argued for years that this system is outdated and no longer prepares students for their future.  The idea of literacy is being redefined and it's often pointed out by employers that there is a shortage of graduates emerging from universities who are equipped to meet the demands of our knowledge economy, and obviously this will need to change - which will impact all of us in schools.
  • Uncertainty - this refers to the lack of predictability and uncertain outcomes, for example what exactly are the skills that will be needed in the future?  Students in school today, who will be working in the year 2030, will be dealing with issues such as artificial intelligence and automation that will have already eliminated over half of our current jobs, as robots and algorithms take over today's working- and middle-class employment.  Economists and technologists are unable to predict what the future of work will look like, even 12 years into the future, and will current qualifications and certifications still be relevant then?
  • Complexity - this refers to the huge number of questions that are surrounding the future of education and education itself is very complex with multiple parts and systems.  Should schools be preparing students for university?  For work?  For life itself?    What should vocational education look like?  As technology continues to evolve exponentially, it's likely all students will need the skills to make sense of the torrents of data that are emerging, but at the same time they will also need to focus on their human qualities such as creativity and empathy which robots still lack.
  • Ambiguity - this refers to the haziness of reality, and with education having to keep changing to keep up with a rapidly changing world, decisions and conclusions about the way forward may well have to be made without enough data, in particular because in today's global economy different interpretations may be blurred by cultural issues and diversity of thought.  Traditional education has become entrenched with standardised programmes that are knowable, measurable and controllable, but teachers are realising that such knowledge may no longer be valid in the real-world
The VUCA world in which we live presents challenges to schools as to how they view their current and future roles and how they plan ahead to manage and lead the changes.  VUCA has become a rallying call for awareness and readiness, for preparedness and evolution.  So how can we respond to VUCA?  Let's think of these letters in a different way:
  • Volatility calls for Vision - here there are opportunities for teachers, students and other stakeholders to create compelling visions for the future.
  • Uncertainty calls for Understanding - and this involves asking questions, exploring passions and new ideas and a huge amount of emotional intelligence and empathy.
  • Complexity calls for Clarity - which can be achieved through systems thinking and approaching problems from a holistic perspective.  
  • Ambiguity calls for Agility - schools and teachers must be quick to adapt to changing circumstances, to test and prototype and to learn from failure.  
How can schools survive in a VUCA world?  Here are some suggestions:
  • create an environment that values openness and diverse perspectives
  • dialogue about new ideas
  • ask challenging questions and question the status quo
  • continually innovate
  • grow and stretch your teachers
  • think about where the learning gaps are
  • build intuitiveness
  • take advantages of the opportunities enabled by new technology
  • strengthen decision making
  • coach and be coached
  • focus on growing strengths rather than fixing weaknesses
How is your school empowering teachers to be leaders in a VUCA world?

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