Schools are “Totally Predictable.” We Good With That?

Here’s a question you may want to ask a representative sampling of your students: On a scale of 1-10 with 1 being “not at all” and 10 being “very,” how predictable is your school experience? As in how much of your school day (or school year) pretty much sticks to the script?

Whenever I get to work with students, as I did this weekend, I always bring up this question. And you probably won’t be shocked to hear that the consistent answer I get from those kids is “totally.” I’d actually be shocked if you didn’t get the same answer from the kids you ask. (Let me know if you don’t and why.)

Now, I ask you, is that a good thing?

No doubt, we don’t want to be offering up a steaming hot diet of chaos for our students every day. None of us function very well in a climate of total uncertainty where we have no anchors in behaviors or routines that ground our lives and our work.

But, and this is a serious question, shouldn’t we be creating at least a little bit of intentional unpredictability into the day to day of school? If for no other reason, perhaps, than to alleviate the boredom of routine?

Arguably, there are better reasons, the most compelling having to do with preparation for life. While I’m not a huge fan of the acronym, I can get to the idea that we’re now living in an increasingly VUCA world, as in Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. (Bryan Alexander talks about this in our podcast from  a few weeks ago.) Donald Trump has no doubt added to this sense by design, it would appear. But events in many other places in the world speak to it, and the coming climate crisis is VUCA in spades. While the future has never been predictable, this moment feels more and more fraught by the day.

You can apply the VUCA adjectives to lots of “institutions” already. Journalism, media, business, politics, religion, the economy, families…all of them are in flux, or, as Yuval Harari suggests, they are “in-between stories.” Time-worn functions in all of them are breaking, but we don’t know yet what new “norms” of behavior or action are going to replace them. Or even if the idea of “normal” behavior is a thing any more.

Can We Adapt?

And so, while this discussion is about far more than the implications for work, it’s no surprise when the most recent study of the state of work from IBM released last week reported that the number one soft skill that global executives seek in workers is…wait for it…a “willingness to be flexible, agile, and adaptable to change.” And interestingly, while almost all of the top soft skills are more important today than just two years ago, almost all technical skills fell in importance. (In fact, the #1 skill from two years ago, “Technical core capabilities for STEM,” is now #4.)

It would follow, I would think, that if what global execs are seeking most is “a willingness to be flexible, agile, and adaptable to change,” and if there’s little doubt that huge changes are headed our way, and that if one of the main roles of schools is to prepare students for life, then we might want to be thinking hard about how to make the school experience a bit more VUCA for students, especially our older ones. We might want to give kids some opportunities to develop some adaptability and coping skills in spaces where we can support and coach them through that process rather than cross our fingers and hope for the best.

Look, the reality is that our highly connected kids have never been more aware of what’s happening in the larger world than today. And they know that there is some heavy stuff going on right now. And I think WE know that they’re going to need more than persistence and a growth-mindset to deal with all of it.

We Like Predictability

The fact that most kids feel school is “totally” predictable is problematic. And changing it won’t be easy. Part of the appeal of predictability is that the rules of the game, written or unwritten, stay constant. Predictability means that the strategies that students have used over the years to “succeed” on our terms will continue to be effective. (As a side note, have you ever noticed that when we do change things up, as in when teachers do decide to give students more choice or agency over their learning and their outcomes, many students react with something along the lines of rebellion?)

So, what to do? As Harari suggests, it’s not going to be easy:

To survive and flourish in such a world, you will need a lot of mental flexibility and great reserves of emotional balance. You will have to repeatedly let go of some of what you know best, and learn to feel at home with the unknown. Unfortunately, teaching kids to embrace the unknown while maintaining their mental balance is far more difficult than teaching them an equation in physics or the causes of the First World War. You cannot learn resilience by reading a book or listening to a lecture.

But you can learn resilience by working on things that matter to you with others who share that desire to create solutions to real-world problems that live far from the typical course curriculum. And, if any of us are to cope with what may be coming our way, we must be able to trust in our ability to stay in the moment, to know ourselves deeply, and to not be defined by the algorithms or the narratives that others may be trying to write for us. We must be able to find community in the Peter Block sense, where our own success is dependent on the success of others. All of those things, I think, are the outlines of a new school experience for kids that is driven not by predictability but by wonder.

As in, “I wonder what’s going to happen in school today?”

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2 thoughts on “Schools are “Totally Predictable.” We Good With That?”

  1. We recently trained (again) with John Miller (Agile Classrooms – highly recommended). Besides adopting an agile mindset or experimenting with scrum (see for example eduscrum of Willy Wijnands), another promising area to pursue regarding predictable schools (and why that is indeed a problem) might be Cynefin of David Snowden. In a nutshell, schools are predicated on predictability. This works for simple systems. But learning, as in preparing for an unpredictable world, is exactly that, unpredictable. In the Cynfin model the real world can also be complicated, as well as complex – as I’ve heard Bruce also discuss in his podcasts. Continuing to pretend a predictable training – for 12+ years – is good for an unpredictable world is not only a disservice to children and all us us who work with them, it borders on the crazy.

  2. MaryJo M Rosania-Harvie

    This is exactly why I think we all need to look to helping the students to create alternate pathways to graduation. Education can no longer be “one size fits all”. Choice and adaptability are necessary in the 21st century and what better way than to guide learners to create their own path? I love this notion. Thank you for this article!

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