What is the Future of Education in the VUCA World?

Markus F. Peschl

„On the side of education, this is a matter of overthrowing the traditional view of pedagogy as the inter-generational transmission of authorised knowledge. Education is not a ‘stilling in’ but a ‘leading out’, which opens paths of intellectual growth and discovery without predetermined outcomes or fixed end-points.

It is about attending to things, rather than acquiring knowledge…; about exposure rather than immunisation. The task of the educator, then, is not to explicate knowledge for the benefit of those who are assumed, by default, to be ignorant, but to provide inspiration, guidance and criticism in the exemplary pursuit of truth.“

(Ingold 2017, p ix)

Today’s challenges, rapid and unpredictable technological progress, and the socio-economic upheavals of our time require a completely new understanding of education. The traditional education system is mainly geared towards conveying knowledge from the past. What is needed, however, is a system that looks at people in their entirety and enables them to discover the constantly changing world, to help shape it, and ultimately to find and create meaning in it. This short essay is intended to call attention to the urgency of changing our education systems.

Education in the VUCA world

To get straight to the point: We first want to look at the specific environment in which education has to fulfill its task today. The term VUCA world (Baran and Woznyj, 2021), which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, aptly characterizes the nature of the world we live in today. Even if this may seem like a new phenomenon, history shows us that we have always lived in such a VUCA world and have had to assert ourselves in the face of various challenges and changes.

However, our current situation is to be considered exceptional in its VUCA characteristics. The rapid pace of technological progress, ecological and geopolitical shifts, socio-economic changes, etc. has further increased the volatility, unpredictability, complexity, and ambiguity of our environment.

Individuals, as well as organizations and entire societies, are now facing unprecedented challenges (e.g. climate change, economic and political shifts, artificial intelligence, etc.) that require not only agility and adaptability but forward-looking, innovative thinking to not only succeed amidst constant disruption, but to maintain and shape this world as a livable and humane place. Embracing the inherent unpredictability of the VUCA world is essential as we move into an era where change is the only constant.

In the face of these radical changes (e.g. through new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence), the big question is where education has its place in all this and what new tasks and challenges schools and universities face in a VUCA context. It seems that our existing education system, in which school/university is understood as a place that focuses almost exclusively on imparting (and [memorizing] learning) knowledge from the past, has outlived its usefulness.

Our world is characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity: VUCA

Four questions for the future that our education systems must ask themselves

Future education systems must ask themselves the following – ancient – questions but answer them (anew) in the light of the current technological developments mentioned above and implement them in pedagogical concepts:

●  What makes us human in such a world? What specifically defines being human?

●  What does a meaningful relationship between people, the environment, society, technology, and the future look like?

●  How do we meet the challenges of the increasingly blurred boundaries between humans and technology in a human(e) way?

●  What skills/competencies, attitudes, and mindsets do we need to deal with our uncertain and unpredictable future – and to co-create our future, imbued with meaning and in a fruitful way?

Answering these questions would go far beyond the scope of this article, so we can only outline a few cornerstones of such a future-oriented concept of education here. First and foremost, we must begin to understand people (again) as beings who engage in sense-making and take them seriously in their search for meaning in life, the world, and the social and ecological environment. It is explicitly not (only) about knowledge but about purpose.

A strong understanding of one’s own purpose provides orientation and direction for all further activities, developments, and forms of learning. It also focuses on the person as a whole, emphasizing their future and design orientation. Furthermore, this takes into account recent insights from cognitive and neuroscience that our thinking (and human existence) is not limited to knowledge and our brain. Rather, it also encompasses the body, emotions, and our environment.

The so-called 4E approach to cognition (e.g. Newen et al., 2018) assumes that our thinking is embodied and embedded in the material and social environment, that we think with the help of our environment (“extended“), and that we permanently create our inner and outer environment in interaction with it (“enacted“).

This turns some cherished premises in pedagogical approaches, such as the idea of teaching/learning as “knowledge transfer/mediation”, upside down and replaces them, for example, with processes of co-construction of knowledge and meaning in socio-material formats or with new attitudes and understandings regarding our relationship to the world and to knowledge.

In the future, it will no longer be so much about “knowing about the world”, but about the more existential question of a meaningful life and learning with/in the world. This means that shaping the world and so-called “co-becoming” with the future as a situated and social practice will come to the fore.

The term “co-becoming” can be translated into German as “gemeinsames Werden” or “co-evolving”. While “becoming together” emphasizes the idea of co-creation with the world, “co-evolving” underlines the collaborative and evolutionary nature of this process. The idea is clearly expressed in a UNESCO position paper on the future of education:

„…we have recognized that we live and learn in a world. Our pedagogies no longer position the world ‘out-there’ as the object we are learning about. Learning to become with the world is a situated practice and a more-than-human pedagogical collaboration… By focusing on worldly relations and encounters as inherently pedagogical, acknowledging that it is not only humans that teach and learn, and by mobilising human curiosity to learn from what is already going on in the world, we… make the shift from only ever learning about the world to learning with it.“

(UNESCO 2021, p 7 [emphasis by the author])
“…by mobilising human curiosity to learn from what is already going on in the world, we… make the shift from only ever learning about the world to learning with it.“ (UNESCO 2021, p 7)

Future Education Skills – the educational skills of the future

All this requires a whole range of new skills, attitudes, and mindsets that are rarely present in current pedagogical concepts, let alone anchored in them as their fundamental guiding principles:

1. From knowing to not-knowing:

The complexity and unpredictability of the world, as well as co-becoming, imply the acknowledgment of not-knowing, as the world is always richer than our knowledge of it, and it can always surprise us anew. An attitude of openness and receptivity, or relinquishing control, is essential to allowing the world to surprise us.

2. Knowledge and meaning are in permanent flux and are constantly being “renegotiated” and co-constructed:

A constructivist perspective and the more recent cognitive and neuroscientific approaches mentioned above assume a dynamic and open (“open-ended”) relationship to the world. The essence of this relationship is the interaction with and fluid coupling, or co-belonging to the world. The idea is constantly engaging with new things in the world and dealing creatively with the (future) potentials and opportunities that are “offered” to us.

3. Systems thinking and thinking in ecosystems:

Our current thinking, actions and education are shaped by a linear world conception. Hence, they are being determined by linear chains of cause and effect. In a VUCA world, however, this is no longer adequate, as such a world is characterized by non-linearity, reinforcing feedback loops, and exponentiality. As a result, (linear) predictions from the past are impossible. Instead, we require a new form of thinking in terms of (eco)systems and actions that are driven by the future.

4. Making, creativity, and innovation:

We have seen that our thinking (and learning) focuses on what is happening inside our heads. Yet, engaging with the environment and actively doing or creating artifacts and shaping the world is something that occurs outside our heads and “out there”. Active engagement with the world often gives rise to possibilities we could not have imagined initially; this “material engagement” (Malafouris, 2019) becomes a source of creativity and innovation. The (radically) new does not emerge in traditional learning processes, but in a process of resonance and correspondence (Ingold, 2013; Rosa, 2019) with an unfolding world – and in a reciprocal and continuous activity of “listening” and “responding” to the world.

5. Focus on purpose:

A clearly defined and lived purpose is not only a crucial instrument for providing direction, orientation, and coherence (between the stakeholders involved), but also equips an individual, a social system or an organization with its own strategy for the future. Accordingly, purpose is always about future events and future potential. It is located in the future, anchored in the present, connects the future with the past, and attracts a system from the future. As H. v. Foerster puts it, it is a “cause that lies in the future”. It is, therefore, essential to make explicit the purpose of a system (whether it is a material artifact, a social system or an organization) because it is the central cause of what it stands for, why and for what it exists now and in the future.

6. Futures literacies and “learning from the future as it emerges“:

While traditional teaching and learning processes usually focus on existing knowledge, future-oriented learning, and innovation processes are concerned with so-called future potentials. Although they are inherently embedded and ingrained in reality, they elude our direct perception or our “explicit knowledge”. We, therefore, need alternative skills, but also mindsets, to learn to perceive and use “what is possible”. These can be summarized under so-called “futures literacies” (e.g. Miller, 2018), which are about identifying future potentials and using them to shape desirable futures. As a result, learning from the past becomes “learning from the future as it emerges” (Scharmer, 2016).

Recognizing our lack of knowledge and the richness of our world, which goes far beyond what we know, is an essential step towards allowing ourselves to be fundamentally surprised by the world.

There is a great need for action – creating the school of the future

Even from this very cursory overview of future skills, it is clear that – given the disruptive changes in our world on the one hand and the extremely rigid structures in our education systems on the other – an honest reflection of very fundamental questions of learning and teaching, embodied knowledge, and mindsets, is required.

There is a great need for action to ensure that the resulting insights lead to a profound transformation of our education systems that is not just cosmetic in nature but enables people to undergo a personal transformation themselves, making them autonomous, future-oriented, and responsible shapers of our future.

On a final note, although the change referred to may initially seem challenging, our numerous experiences in projects focusing on future- and meaning-oriented working, learning, and teaching have clearly shown that it is not only positively accepted by all stakeholders but also appreciated as they were able to proactively co-design. Our approach aims to involve diverse stakeholders in exploring and co-creating (with) their environment.

A unique example of this is our collaboration with the Medical University of Graz, where we have developed the university’s profile in such a way that it opens up the entire urban space around the organization for collaborative, creative design. This transforms the university into a place that has a meaningful impact and shapes and forms its surroundings in a sustainable and future-oriented way.

These and many other projects underline our conviction that future-oriented education turns us into shapers. If you share this vision, we look forward to accompanying and supporting you on this path. We are always eager to contribute our experience to the development of new, future-oriented curricula in educational institutions as well as to continuing education programs or academies for companies and thus help you shape the future of education in truly future-oriented schools; schools of the future.

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Baran, B.E. and H.M. Woznyj (2021). Managing VUCA. The human dynamics of agility. Organizational Dynamics 50(2), 1-11.

Ingold, T. (2013). Making. Anthropology, archaeology, art and architecture. Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge.

Ingold, T. (2017). Anthropology and/as education. Oxon, New York: Routledge.

Malafouris, L. (2019). Mind and material engagement. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 18, 1-17.

Miller, R. (Ed.) (2018). Transforming the future. Anticipation in the 21st century. Oxon, New York: Routledge.

Newen, A., L. de Burin, and S. Gallagher (Eds.) (2018). The Oxford Handbook of 4E cognition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rosa, H. (2019). Resonance: A sociology of our relationship to the world. Cambridge, UK; Medford, MA: Polity Press.

Scharmer, C.O. (2016). Theory U. Leading from the future as it emerges. The social technology of presencing (second ed.). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

UNESCO (2021). Learning to become with the world: education for future survival. Paris: UNESCO (Futures of Education).

Further details on this topic can be found here:

Peschl, M.F. and T. Fundneider (2023). Co-Becoming: How to Shape Desirable Futures in Highly Uncertain Times. On learning and the role of futures literacy in a VUCA world. In C. Kohlert (Ed.), Die menschliche (Hoch)schule – Human(e) Education, pp. 19-50. Wiesbaden: Springer. You can download the pre-final text here: https://shorturl.at/hnJQ0

Title Image by Farrel Nobel on Unsplash, then in the following order; Jonas Tebbe / Unsplash; Jonas Verstuyft / Unsplash; Jesse Sewell / Unsplash