I’m going to admit it. I only heard the term VUCA recently, and as soon as I heard it my eyes rolled so hard I could see the inside of my skull. The last thing Education needs is more jargon and another acronym. But, several months ago, I read an article that no only used VUCA in a way that didn’t make me want to brain someone, but also questioned our objectives for educating our children in a way that had me nodding the whole way through.
VUCA (ugh) stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. The idea being that the modern world is a VUCA world, where as in the past life was much more predictable. While there have certainly being periods of instability throughout history – the invention of the printing press and how that spread information at greater rates, both world wars, and the great depression, all come to mind – in recent decades many experts agree that we’re in a period of sustained and rapid change. This definitely adds to a feeling of things being out of control, opaque and complicated.
So, if we are part of this VUCA world, is the education system keeping up? According to Grant Lichtman in his article, Education Change is Happening But It’s Missing a Crucial Ingredient, it’s trying to, but we need to go further as educators and question the objectives, the desired outcome, of education.
As a first year Education student (many years ago), it suddenly dawned on me how perverse it is that the final two years of high school in Australia are dedicated to helping students achieve a rank so that universities can decide who they will accept. When I was in high school, it was called an ENTER score, now it’s called an ATAR which stands for Australian Tertiary Admission Rank. It’s not a mark, it tells a student where they rank if compared to all the other students completing Year 12. If you want to attend uni as a mature age student, you don’t need an ATAR at all.
Now, even more so than then, and taking our VUCA world into consideration, the way Year 11 and 12 are run appears to be the antithesis of everything educators do in schools to create student-centred, collaborative and inquiry based learning opportunities.
And yet it’s what schools, teachers, and students still drive towards.
The NAPLAN, for me, is the same thing.
Lichtman argues that in todays world, when basic information is so readily available and industries are changing so quickly, the objective of education ought to be enabling students to make meaning in order to navigate their world, and purpose in order to move forward in their world.
What does that actually mean?
Meaning, according to Lichtman, is making sense of the world we live in through understanding what has come before – that is we make meaning of our world now through our knowledge of the human endeavours that have come before us. It’s like standing on the backs of those who came before us.
Congruent with meaning is purpose. Purpose is forward looking – something that drives students on. And it goes beyond a simple occupation title. While a student may want to become a nurse or a life-guard, these are just vehicles to achieve their greater purpose of wanting to help others. Purpose is a sense of agency, and an ever moving target. It doesn’t end once you’ve been accepted into that university, or passed that exam. It grows and changes with you through life.
When I was a new teacher, I got my first job in the high school I had attended. Literally four years after I had graduated, I was back again as a teacher. Now, I shake my head because this was neither a good thing for my students, nor myself. My own teachers were now my colleagues. And I was the product of a system which said that you had to excel at school, and go on to university, to achieve a successful life. Despite seeing in myself, and my friends, that this mantra had produced neither happiness nor success.
Fortunately, with time and experience (real world experience) and gains and losses in life, I have come to see that mantra as the fools’ gold it is.
My son came home from school at the end of last year, very upset. He hadn’t managed to finish a piece of work – between lockdowns, time out of class for reading interventions, as well as a slow processing speed which means it takes him a bit longer than others to get things done, he’d fallen behind. His distress came from his teacher tell him that the work was worth 70% of his mark. He’s 11, by the way.
Now, you know and I know this for what it is – a behaviour management tool (get focussed and get this work done. It’s worth 70% of your grade you know), perhaps a metric (this is 70% of the content we’ve covered, therefore it’s worth 70% of your grade). But, it’s not about what my son has learnt, the gains he’s made, or the effort he’s put in.
With careful questioning, he and I sat down and talked about what the task meant to him, what he’d learnt from it, and what ideas it had sparked. All more important than a grade. All more important than recycling information. A chance to make meaning, and see how that meaning informed his purpose as a person. He walked away feeling better both about himself, and his accomplishments. And this is what I want for my children.
Prioritising meaning and purpose changes the objective on education. It’s about making sense of the world and moving forward in it. It’s not about your grade, it’s about what you’ve learnt, and what you can do with it.
An important caveat
There is a vitally important factor here that can’t be ignored. For families from low socio-economic backgrounds, financial security is vitally important, and therefore access to jobs which provide financial security is important. I’ve seen this a lot with families in Malaysia and Indonesia, where parents will work themselves ragged to be able to give their children an education that will enable them to achieve better paying jobs.
I find it unlikely that a parent will work 14 hour days to be told by their child that they want to be a struggling artist (I know not all artists are struggling/starving/financially unstable – but you know what I mean). I am also not implying that parents from low socio-economic backgrounds don’t want their children to be fulfilled. It’s a hierarchy of needs thing.
With that said, for many parents and educators the objectives of education has gone beyond ‘schooling’ to something deeper, and more lasting. Something beyond ‘grades’, and closer to real life, where we make meaning and strive for purpose every day.