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Bears Repeating from Jess Hill: Finding purpose in a complex world

At the end of the 20th century, many classrooms were still arranged in rows and the teacher stood at the front of the room. Class periods were mostly 50 minutes long, and the most common method of imparting knowledge to students was the most efficient one — the lecture. Even with a digital revolution mounting beyond school doors, it seemed like old-style teaching methods were destined to stay the same.

Then, over the last two decades, our teaching and learning models did make a significant shift. With the world changing at what felt like warp speed outside the classroom, a regurgitation of facts started to feel less crucial. Instead, teaching skills to help students solve real problems moved up the list of importance. Educators recognized that collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking were the essential tools for a graduate to carry with her.

Now, with an accelerated rate of change showing no signs of slowing, it’s time to evolve again. This time, that need seems to revolve around something we named a while back and has been hitting us over the head for the last 20 months — VUCA. The acronym VUCA, which stands for volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous, describes the world and times in which we now live. The way we view our health, our environment, our livelihood, our connection to each other, not to mention our school systems, has been upended. How can we equip our students for a less predictable future and still give them the confidence and skills necessary to be successful?

In a recent article by Grant Lichtman, he describes the best antidote for a VUCA future. He agrees that skill-based education is important, but he recommends that we drive toward different outcomes. We need to help our students find both meaning and purpose in their lives.

Schools have been working to provide meaning for students for a long time. Meaning gives our students a structure in which we make sense of the world. We do that through the lens of literature, language, science, and art. We use what has come before us to provide meaning for what is happening now or what might happen in the future.

Now, our goal as educators must be to combine that meaning with purpose. Lichtman quotes Dr. Anthony Burrow, author of The Ecology of Purposeful Living Across the Lifespan, who writes “purpose is about looking forward, aspiring or intending to accomplish something that is ahead of you. It is an intentionality or a life aim; it is always in front of you; you are never going to actually accomplish it.”

Helping students find purpose in their lives is a new venture for most institutions. We are good at helping students set goals for themselves, starting a service project, running for a class office, or getting into X program at Y college. Purpose is bigger and more daunting. It is aspiring to better the world and claiming our own ability to have an impact.

In all honesty, each time I read the letters VUCA, it stirs a little anxiety in me. How will we ever keep up? If everything is unpredictable, how can we find meaning in today? Is there hope for getting ahead of this change? But when we shift from catastrophic thinking and remember what has helped people through adversity for centuries, it has always come back to having a larger purpose in their lives. It is less about the rungs on the ladder and more about the fuel that motivates each of us to climb it. Psychologist and author Amy Cuddy shared something a friend told her that changed the trajectory of her life. “It is not whether or not you will get to the top of the ladder. It is whether or not the ladder is leaning against the right building.”

After evaluating research, Lichtman writes that “there is substantial evidence that having purpose, more so than strong test scores, leads to the outcomes of success and happiness that most of us want for our students and ourselves.” A sense of purpose is not only fostered in schools, it is fostered within families and other communities. The disruption of a VUCA world provides an opportunity to view things from different perspectives, hone our skills for tomorrow, and search for our own unique purpose. The ideal companions of meaning and purpose will bring a deeper understanding of our world and a strategy for navigating a VUCA era.