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  • Writer's pictureMaria Haag

Preparing for a VUCA World

I read an interesting blog recently, about how businesses must prepare for the so-called VUCA world; a world that is characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – perhaps you have come across this term already? It was coined by the American military in the 1990s and refers to the way in which the globalized world changes rapidly and unpredictably due to both good influences – such as new technologies that connect us ever more closely across time and space – and harmful factors such as climate change or, shall we say, pandemics?

In this blog, Professor Riemer of the University of Sydney Business School points out that the changes wrought by these forces don’t just impact society in passing, superficial ways. Rather, they affect the underlying conditions, the foundations of human activities. Consequently, they call for not just tweaks, but fundamental revisions of the ways we live and work in the world. Changes to entire mindsets, not just perspectives or ideas.

Riemer’s advice to the business community is to focus on sense-making, learning, agility and creativity (SLAC) – each in response to one of the VUCA challenges. He goes on to say that we ”should expect individuals and organizations with these skills to do well in today’s disruptive environments.”

There is a lot of talk in education circles about preparing children for our VUCA world: SDGs, 21st century skills and so forth. But there is much less talk of preparing teachers (and other adults who work with children) for working in a VUCA world. And that’s the segment Riemer is referring to, of course. It’s not just businesses in the private sector that need to improve their SLAC: public sector organizations and employees must change their mindset and their skill set as well.

And there is a lot of agreement that turning the behemoth that is our “industrial education complex” around to face and cope with the VUCA world is going much to slowly. Check out a single Sir Ken Robinson video or scroll through scores of TED talks to see that there is a lot of awareness that SLAC do not top the list of teachers’ skill set, neither in teacher training nor in the classroom.

There are a lot of reasons that it is hard to turn the behemoth. One is that the skeleton – to stay with the metaphor of an enormous beast – which has been built up over the last two centuries, does not permit us to flesh out other ways of teaching and learning.

All these artefacts of times past, such as classrooms with tables in a row, standardized ideas of learning and age-appropriateness and assessment and stick-and-carrot motivations; all these artefacts are preventing teachers from developing their own SLAC and guiding and educating children SLAC-ly.

Oh, sure, there are lots of little tweaks and changes being made in schools around the world, but that’s not what Riemer is talking about. He is talking about changing our fundamental assumptions and ideas, such that structural and procedural changes ensue that we couldn’t even imagine with our old mindset. He’s talking about every single business and organization needing to revisit their most cherished physical and virtual structures and taking them apart and scrutinizing how they work and why, and then building new ones to foster greater SLAC. And the cool and nifty thing about this process of dismantling and analysis and reconstruction is that it in itself consists of sensemaking, learning, agility and creativity!

Without those more fundamental processes and changes, the tweaks and adjustments that individual teachers – or even individual radical schools – are investing so much time and energy in, remain just that, individual. It’s great that people are acting on their values and being the change they want to see. But somehow, we need to get down into the engine room of education and start tinkering with those structures and basic assumption. That’s the only way to SLACen the whole enterprise!

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