The changing learner in a VUCA world

Earlier on this blog I provoked a call to action toward developing learning agility in the context of the VUCA world –a world that is increasingly Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous or VUCA.

This is a personal inquiry, and each time I read or learn something new, I connect the threads of new learning to the construct of VUCA. Like many others, I am interested in how to support teachers through the ecotone of change, and how to create environments in which their learners thrive.

The students in our care are born and raised in the VUCA. They are natural swimmers in the river that does not stay still.  A survey of UK teens suggest that teens now have impact expectations that may be counter to the oft-reported delaying of milestones in past generations.

Infographic: The great expectations of UK teenagers | Statista

You will find more infographics at Statista

In addition, the children in our schools are facing highly complex problems that share unpredictability as a trait.

The report on global concerns highlight some of the complex global problems, which children currently in school inherit.

The provocation of teen expectations presents to their schools might be that if teens are expecting to make an impact on our world, what makes their time in school useful toward their aspirations? And, what do our schools support our children to find solutions to circumstances we are unable to truly predict?

We have more questions arising from what our young learners want to be and do.

  • What might people change in schooling that create future ready learners?
  • What might we cultivate to thrive in VUCA?
  • What might adult learners do to nurture learning agility for ourselves and those in our care?

It is wise for our schools to sustain the conversation around agency and agentive learning. When we listen deeply enough, we can hear the story beneath the stories. This blog post addresses the first question, What might people change in schooling that create future ready learners?As usual, I do not provide a ready answer, aiming only to provoke thinking toward the reader’s own inquiry.

Listening to the conversation

On Twitter this morning, where #edchats happen frequently, educators are speaking about:

  • Developing leadership skills in students
  • Taking risks in math instruction
  • The role of language in equity
  • Race integration in schools (in 2016)
  • Experiences that make students future-ready, lifelong learners
  • Most teachers don’t teach climate change because it might upset parents
  • New pedagogy
  • Metacognition strategies

Two key concepts that may be thrumming beneath these discussions are change and agency.

As facilitators of creating environments for agentive learning, what, really, is the task before us?

It seems that people can nurture agency to enact change might be a statement of inquiry.

Change is the constant, sustaining force in the VUCA. The consciousness of pre-VUCA is no longer adequate for learners to thrive, and this means the ways we, the adults in schools, learned can no longer sustain as a paradigm of problem-solving. The suggestion is that we need to re-engineer a new consciousness, a new mindset, one that thrives on change.

Thrives on change?

If we go back to a definition of learning, the idea is not so scary. Learning is:

“A persisting change in human performance or performance potential…which must come about as a result of the learner’s experience and interaction with the world.” – Maxine Driscoll (2014)

 “A process that leads to change, which occurs as a result of experience and increases the potential of improved performance and future learning.” – Ambroise and Mayer (2010)

“Acquiring knowledge and skills and having them readily available from memory so you can make sense of future problems and opportunities.” – Brown, Roediger III and McDaniel (2014)

“We define learning as the transformative process of taking in information that—when internalized and mixed with what we have experienced—changes what we know and builds on what we do. It’s based on input, process, and reflection. It’s what changes us.” – Bingham, Conner and Pink (2015)

Contrast the above examples, which were developed after the advent of the world wide web launched a revolution in how the world accessed information, with a definition of learning from the early 1990s, when the internet was in its infancy:

“It has been suggested that the term learning defies precise definition because it is put to multiple uses. Learning is used to refer to (1) the acquisition of mastery of what is already known about something, (2) the extension and clarification of meaning of one’s experience, or (3) an organized, intentional process of testing ideas relevant to problems. In other words, it is used to describe a product, a process, or a function.” – Smith (1993)

A main difference in the definitions is the emphasis on change in the learner through interaction with the world; seeking future problems to solve; transformative states. Whereas the pre-internet consciousness of learning mainly focused on what it is, in the VUCA our consciousness of learning increasingly reaches meta- states. We are looking for learning how to learn.

What makes this not too scary and a lot exciting is that the consciousness that thrives in the VUCA is within our vision.

Several of today’s visionaries have contributed to our growing understanding of what thrives in the VUCA.

Tony Wagner gave us seven survival skills.

Sir Ken Robinson has provoked us to think about creativity in our schools and its changing paradigms.

George Couros has us consider innovation as a mindset.

Schools like High Tech High have succeeded in disrupting traditional ways of learning and given us a glimpse of what might be.

Our conversation has already shifted

As our dialog on change and agency in education grows richer, the narrative has included skills, which previously were not part of our school experiences. We’re talking about:

All the current work we do is to enact environments where people are actively searching for the consciousness that thrives in the VUCA.

Here’s a takeaway question.

As we reflect on the current inquiry into a new consciousness of learning, what might be some of our hunches about our own agency in creating change in our environments?

Share your thoughts in the comments.


Ambroise, S. A., & Mayer, R. E. (2010). How learning works Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, Ca.: John Wiley.

Bingham, T., Conner, M. L., & Pink, D. H. (2015). The new social learning: Connect. collaborate. work.Alexandria, VA: ATD Press.

Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L. III, & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA, US: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Driscoll, M. P. (2014). Psychology of learning for instruction. Harlow: Pearson.

Smith, R. M. (1993). Learning how to learn: Applied theory for adults. Milton Keynes: Open Univ. Press.

Featured Photo “Spiral Jetty” by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

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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