Want to prepare students to flourish in an unpredictable future? Make sure they flourish now.
Design schools for today — not for tomorrow.
Our world and our future are said to be “VUCA” these days. The acronym VUCA (which stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) was first used by military strategists and trainers who were trying to explain the change in military operations post the Cold War. Just the literal sound of the acronym is a little scary. The idea underlying it — that the world is unpredictable and overwhelming — brings up a prickly sense of danger.
VUCA has become a popular term in business circles when discussing how management and strategy have to shift for this new world, and, even when it’s not mentioned directly, the sentiment is evident in our discussions about schooling. Phrases like the following suggest a VUCA perspective, and they can be found in most strategy, program, and mission documents discussing schooling:
“Technology is advancing so rapidly we have no idea how our world will be organized in 20 years.”
“65 percent of kids entering school today will end up in jobs that don’t even exist today. How can we prepare kids for jobs that don’t exist yet?”
“21st century skills, 21st century skills, 21st century skills….”
Essentially, each of these statements or questions asks: “How are we ever going to prepare students for such a VUCA future??”
The counterintuitive, but true, answer is:
If we want students to be prepared to flourish in an unpredictable future, we shouldn’t be focused on the future at all: we should be focused on ensuring they flourish now.
Three points on this.
1) You can’t predict the future.
VUCA may feel more true today, but it has always been true. Think of how much changed over the last century, how many wars and conflicts there have been — WWI, WWII, Korean War, Vietnam War, Cold War, to name a few — and how many social movements — women’s liberation, civil rights, LGBTQ rights (amongst others!). Then, think about how VUCA it would have felt living through the revolutionary war, or the French revolution, or the Copernican revolution.
Predicting in 1940 that women would be graduating from universities in the 1960s and make up a higher percentage of graduates by the 2000s would have been nearly impossible. In 1980, predicting the effects the personal computer would have on work, commerce, and enterprise would have been nearly impossible. In 2007, predicting the effects of social media and smartphones on our behavior, patterns of interaction, and relationships would have been similarly nearly impossible. For that matter, who could have predicted in advance that the printing press would undermine the most powerful institution of the time (the Catholic Church)?
The truth is that the world, and the evolution of human society, has always been volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. While it’s always easy to create a narrative of the past that makes it seem predictable and obvious, it’s because we eliminate most of the alternatives — it is impossible to accurately predict the future — and this is even more so if we accept the (questionable) premise that it’s exceptionally VUCA now.
This point is less to do with schooling and more to do with the obvious for all of our lives — and the real point of the acronym VUCA — you cannot accurately predict how all of the different societal, economic, political, and environmental factors are going to play out… Which means if you use your imagined future as a guidepost to design your experience today, you’re likely to be wrong.
However, if you focus on making the right choices now, you’re likely to come out okay in the future as well. Our habits today shape our future tomorrow, which means focusing on doing the right thing today is usually the best preparation for our tomorrow self.
2) We already know much of what’s needed to flourish in the future.
It turns out that the basics of what it means to flourish as a human actually haven’t changed that much since the days of Aristotle. While we might not know the JOBS of the future, jobs are not the sole factor in flourishing.
By flourishing I mean when a person’s core needs are met, and they have the freedom and capacity to make choices about their lives, according to their values and interests, and work with others to make the world better.
Our core social psychological needs remain (and have remained) constant. For instance, we have a need to form meaningful relationships with others — interpersonally and belonging to a larger group (relatedness). We have the need to apply our selves, pursue our interests, and feel we can master our social and physical environments (competence). We have the need to feel we make choices for ourselves and are not oppressed or forced into our situations (autonomy). And, we have the need to create meaning out of our lives, whether through finding our purpose, through religion, living our values, or otherwise (meaning)[i]. This means that, for individuals, we know many of the “design principles” for flourishing, whichever way society changes.
Furthermore, regardless of which way our VUCA future unfolds, as a society we will have to grapple with many of the same questions we have always grappled with. Questions like: How can we organize to thrive as a society? How might individual safety and freedoms be protected while maintaining a collective? How might we socialize and educate our children? How might we create just, equitable, yet adaptable institutions?
This means that, while we don’t know what the future will bring in terms of technology, environmental disasters, political maneuvers, or new social movements, we do know that our society always needs creative thinkers, humanistic perspectives, empathetic citizens, and deeply principled people who can face big, complex questions and collaborate across lines of difference.
From the crafting of our constitution, to the civil rights movement, to the effects of globalization — our society depends on individuals who can develop nuanced understandings of the complex issues, grapple with tough questions, collaborate with others who hold other perspectives and values, and who are dedicated to maintaining a healthy community and society beyond themselves.
Individual flourishing and societal thriving are mutually reinforcing: When our societies thrive, individuals’ core needs are met and they have the freedom to make choices that align with their interests and values. When individuals are flourishing, they are more able and willing to be the kinds of citizens who contribute to the collective, consider others’ needs, and are willing to sacrifice for the good of all.
3) The best way to achieve future flourishing is to foster flourishing today.
The best way to ensure students will flourish as adults (and that we can thrive as a society) is NOT to try to mold them into the perfect graduate profile or to prepare them incessantly for an unknown future. The best way to foster future flourishing is to create environments in which they can flourish today, and to design experiences through which they can practice (today!) the capacities, character, and beliefs they need to be empowered, informed, and engaged citizens of the world.
When we try to design school to prepare students for the future, we inevitably have to define a set of outcomes we think we are aiming for and through this process we implicitly or explicitly narrow our definition of ‘success’. ‘Success’ in the future becomes, “getting a good job” or “having a STEM career” or “high SAT scores”.
Then, we use these narrow metrics to try to shape students’ lives to maximize those outcomes. We say, “oh, it’s okay if you’re not actually all that interested in these activities — you should do them anyway because they’ll look good on your resume” and, “oh, it’s okay if test prep takes time away from inquiry if it means you get into the right college” and, “I don’t care if art class or theater is where you come alive — it won’t help you get a good job someday.” Read Tye Ripma’s piece on how this applies even to libraries here.
Focusing on preparation for the future makes it very easy to mortgage childhoods: we require kids to sacrifice their current wellbeing in order to achieve some kind of future outcome.
K-12 Schools should not be organized for the attainment, or preparation for, future jobs (or college, frankly). This returns back a bit to the intrinsic (defining means) vs. the instrumental (defining ends) distinction discussed here.
Many perspectives and policies in education implicitly use instrumental frames. An easy way to spot this is basically every time something says, “this is important because it might get kids a job someday” or “our economy is going to need xy skills so we should make sure kids can do x and y.” Both statements are implicitly declaring instrumental aims for schooling.
Preparing students for instrumental future outcomes is flawed logic both because of point 1 — you can’t predict the future or what is needed in it for an individual or a society — and also because schools can’t actually do these instrumental goals. A teacher cannot go in to school every day and make sure a student gets a good job or gets into the right college. What she can do is create an environment in which students’ core needs are met, and design experiences through which they get to practice the capacities, character, and beliefs of being competent, curious, courageous, creative and kind adults.
One way to assess if something is instrumental is to ask the question, “is that really why it’s important to develop those skills?” What if employers tomorrow decide they actually need robotic or sociopathic-type humans to do certain work, would we still think that’s how we should socialize our children to be? I hope not.
Job needs should not drive the design of K-12 schooling — we don’t know what they will be, and schooling has much broader purposes than workforce creation. See here for more.
Trying to design schools to shape kids for the future is like a ponzi scheme — kids invest their childhoods but very few will every be able to cash out on their sacrifices in adulthood for increased flourishing. As Dewey famously says, “When preparation is made the controlling end, then the potentialities of the present are sacrificed to a suppositious future. When this happens, the actual preparation for the future is missed or distorted.”
In other words, asking kids to live a school experience meant to prepare them for the future that asks them to sacrifice the now often just means kids are unlikely to ever flourish.
What should drive the design of K-12 schooling is a deep understanding of how individuals flourish, grow, and learn, a vision of the kind of community and society we want to create together, and an explicit set of values that underlie that community. These you can continually create and live every day — we can live them today.
To conclude by reiterating: the absolute best way we can approach preparing our children for a VUCA world is (and has always actually been) not by focusing on the future but rather by focusing on the now. Focus on the kids in front of us today — their strengths, unique perspectives, and interests — to best ensure adults prepared for tomorrow.
Create environments in which students are valued, loved, and seen — and design experiences through which they get to practice the capacities, character, and beliefs that allow them to make informed choices about their lives and experiences through which they get to apply their strengths toward creatively solving problems they care about today.
This kind of environment and practice will prepare them to bring all of their ability, curiosity, creativity, and habits of mind when they face future VUCA worlds we cannot even imagine, much less plan for.
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[i] Asch, 1952; Damon, 2008; Deci & Flaste, 1996; Deci & Ryan, 2002[ii] Raab 2017