Learning for an Undefined Future

We are improving or we are regressing by standing still.

That there is no status quo in organizations (Powell & Kusuma-Powell, 2013) is mirrored in how the world works. Futurist Gerd Leonhard in this video suggests the exponential change we need to address now for the future that seems to be rushing at us sooner than we can define it.

The sense of urgency to address learning in preparation for an uncertain future has been a sense of urgency for quite sometime now, and what we have learned about this aim for education has become more visible in popular news in more recent times.

When something makes news, that might mean it’s no longer a future forecast but is a current event.

How are we keeping up?

At the heart of the the IB continuum are the approaches to learning (ATL) skills. Simply, they are “skills of effective learning” (IBO 2014, Approaches to Learning Guide, online). They are cognitive, metacognitive and social skills essential to the complexity of self-directed learning.

In a sense, the ATL skills implementation in our schools is our concerted response to the problem of learning for an undefined future. If we peel back the layers for learners in such a richly complex and transitory time, we find ways to address concepts suggested by contemporary voices on the future of education from Dweck to Erickson, from Hayes Jacobs to Wagner. The ways we teach and learn in our schools provide a continuum of guided rehearsal for our students on how to learn when the problems presented are ones for which there are no apparent answers.

An interdisciplinary world connected through concepts

We are preparing students to use a range of approaches to learn across disciplines through interdisciplinary learning. Because the world doesn’t distinguish its problems by subject area, learners find ways to learn across different disciplines. These intersections of ideas organize into conceptual frameworks. The concept of change, for instance, is illuminated through content in the social sciences as well as the natural sciences.

The concept of patterns finds threads through many ways and areas of knowing in the arts, design, social sciences, language learning and learning through language, mathematics, physical and health education, and natural sciences. For example, universal themes in literature in many languages might be patterns that can inform and augment the study of a calculus of probability – the ways a pattern expresses in the world form foundations for classification, prediction, potentials and analysis of how ideas move through the world, how they work in the world, and how they might move the world in different directions. How might understanding probability inform the understanding of patterns? And how might understanding the iterations of patterns in social change, for instance, enrich the learner’s understanding of patterns in the natural world, and vice versa?

Pattern-making in the data to wisdom continuum (Powell and Kusuma-Powell, 2013) allows information to become knowledge, and as we network knowledge we are allowing the ‘wisdom’ of big ideas to emerge with deeper understanding.

We give opportunities for students to create interdisciplinary links because these become opportunities for the valuable skill of transfer.

Transfer of learning

Learners approach interdisciplinary problems through the skill of transfer, the ability to use a skill learned in an unfamiliar context. A simple example might be to use a model for note-making from one subject area to another. Another example might be to have initial experiences in analysis using a protocol learned in social sciences and then applying analysis skills in open ended tasks such as a personal project or a CAS project. Transfer is scalable learning, applicable in both intra-subject problems vertically in a school’s curriculum, and inter-subject application horizontally as students progress through the school continuum.

The ATL skills including transfer give students a cognitive environment of growth. Regular reflection, for instance, can highlight how a learner might grow in their increasingly complex use of skills. Reflection on one’s thinking, or metacognition, allows the student to evaluate what’s working as they apply skills to gain understanding. A recursive cycle of metacognition impacts not only the mastery of a skill and the complexity of application but also impacts how a learner thinks of mastery itself.

Growing a Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck, author of the idea of how growth mindsets develop, describes mastery as the learner’s response to increasingly complex situations. We know that people with growth mindsets don’t think of performance as destinations but as snapshots of a journey in time, place and skill within a continuum of improvement.

In an increasingly complex world, we aim to grow learners with growth mindsets. The ATL skills clustered around perseverance, emotional management, mindfulness, self-motivation and resilience are all valuable rehearsals of responses to problems in life. In effect, we are teaching not only skills and dispositions which allow our students to flourish in the rigorous world of school, but we are giving our students opportunities to rehearse toward success beyond school, as they enter, interact and impact complexity in the world.

Starting from Different

The elegance of an inclusive learning ecosystem is in the ways it honors where each learner begins. In one class of individuals, there is a community of people who each come with different levels of conceptual understanding and competencies. The ATL skills continuum supports diversity, in that by knowing our students we understand that each one will teach us the ways by which we can become the teacher he or she needs.

The ideas of using personalized ways of illuminating concepts; providing multiple entry points to learning; scaffolding transfer through the explicit teaching of metacognitive strategies; gradually increasing responsibility for independence and self-direction; and deliberately making visible the iterative development of what learners can do to solve open-ended problems and take action are some ways we can nurture a learner who is future-ready: a learner who is able to learn in a wide range of situations in unfamiliar contexts.

What’s our zpd?

One reason why we are improving and not standing still is in the ways we constantly seek the cognitive space for optimum learning, the zone of proximal development or zpd (Vygotsky) for each learner.

Just as each of our students needs to find the zpd in his or her learning pathways, so do schools. Because we are constantly learning, the optimum zone in which we learn necessarily undergoes continual adjustment. Development as we experience it in our learning lives is our parallel journey of the transitions and transformations in the world.

Co-constructing viable ways to braid approaches to teaching and learning into our school ecosystems is one way we don’t stand still.



Dweck, C. (2016). Mindset; The new psychology of success. NY: Ballantine.

Powell, W., & Kusuma-Powell, O. (2013). The OIQ factor: Raising your school’s organizational intelligence. Woodbridge: John Catt.

Photo Credit: Traffic lights in motion blur by Javaman. Used with permission.

Author: alavina

Cognitive Coach and author. I simplify personal power so you can use mental resources and find pathways to your goals, be more productive and feel in control every day.

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