Rethinking future readiness for our students in the post-pandemic volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environment

16th September 2022

Author: Adrian Lam Man-Ho, University of Hong Kong

Adrian LAM Man-Ho photo

The constant call for equipping future readiness among students has become stronger when individuals realise that there is an unclear end date to the "new normal", with ongoing abrupt and sweeping changes induced by the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic outbreak since early 2020.

Some successful learning systems have been demonstrating their responses with innovation, resilience, and agility, as well as harnessing the opportunities to leapfrog themselves forward; while some underachieving counterparts have been remaining stagnant or even going backward, as well as further exposing their limitations and gaps.

Another reality is that the pandemic is indeed one of the most salient cases in the contemporary volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environment. There are far more changes or even unprecedented crises that are currently taking place or will be emerging in the future. All these are simultaneous change agents when introduced into a learning system, which will induce all the interrelated elements within the system to react promptly and appropriately for attaining a dynamic equilibrium. Therefore, individuals need to become aware and plan how to react by understanding that this can also be a potential catalyst for changing many of the conventional policies and long-standing institutions.

However, future readiness as an educational ideal gaining currency nowadays is not explicitly unfolded, which lacks concrete definition and substantive definition. Therefore, it is important to commence the discussion by first revisiting the fundamentals surrounding future readiness, given that the missing consideration and discussion of all these will make the notion unclear, incoherent, and fragmented when policymakers, educators, and practitioners are actualising the notion across the wide range of subjects, schools, programmes, and systems. Meanwhile, this can address the criticism that the notion cannot be congruently understood and spread across the world as has been thought, not to mention the many intervening factors which can influence the related policies and plans.

There is a strong potential for such a complicated theoretical construct to be further tested, developed, and refined. As the notion is advancing education in uncertain and innovative territories, it is not only locating at the forefront of the curriculum as guiding ideas, rationales, and philosophies, but also functioning as prospectively strong frames for the actual initiatives and activities. While quick fixes and short-term solutions to cope with the crises are necessary and understandable, long-term plans with the considerations and conversations of the intertwining consequences are essential to sustainability.

...what matters the most is shifting students’ focus from the uncertain and fluctuating world to the organised and planned self, which in turn empowers them to get prepared for the potential issues and challenges ahead.

A lingering paradox is that education cannot prepare individuals for a given or a foreseen future as the future with various unknown unknowns is always unpredictable. Meanwhile, the ability to plan and determine the future through education seems to be lost as the future is now becoming more uncontrollable. However, it is also slightly time-lagging if the consideration is only made after the occurrence of every unique and exceptional event in in a case-by-case manner. By the time one has come up with the solution to address the latest problem, the problem has already become apparent and widespread, or even led to another new one. In many of the cases, there will also be substantial and irreversible impacts where individuals are not physically, psychologically, and behaviorally prepared.

Therefore, what matters the most is shifting students’ focus from the uncertain and fluctuating world to the organised and planned self, which in turn empowers them to get prepared for the potential issues and challenges ahead. A leveraging point will be the students themselves, meaning that they must become the change in order to enact change for the future. They need to elucidate what happens to and for them as they navigate and become the change, meaning that their actions and behaviours are always in motion. An appropriate understanding of future readiness should be becoming, whereas experiments with the unknown and new come into being. This very dynamism of change is more a process of realisation rather than tendency towards specific goal or end-state.

The future of education is ultimately concerned with a life-long humanistic focus, which can allow education stay ahead of all the dynamic changes in the constantly evolving environment. Students should be equipped with the relevant capabilities and capacities to accommodate whatever novel changes and ill-defined problems that might come along. In this sense, they can always perform appropriately and promptly, especially when they are shaping and living in the futures being explored and discussed. It is the dynamic capabilities that allows one to integrate, build, and reconfigure both internal and external competences to address rapidly changing environments with deep uncertainty. Most importantly, throughout the process, students can genuinely assume more agency and responsibility in the selection, organisation, and nurture of their own learning.

There is an imperative to reverse the dominant rhetoric in contemporary education, which is largely responding and surviving rather than foreseeing and flourishing in nature...

Although many individuals acknowledge the importance and value of being future-ready, they are still yet to articulate how best to develop, scaffold, and assess the development of these attributes across domains and over time. After all, any rigid and prescriptive rather than fluid and dynamic approach is doomed to fail. It is important for organising, resourcing, and supporting learning in the dimensions of knowing, doing, and being, such that students can make a better sense of the series of significant and future-oriented issues. Future education also requires one to adopt a long-term perspective as it is not something one can do overnight. The culture will slowly shift as one keeps on making small and subtle changes. The value and influence of learning and teaching are continuous, cumulative, and life-long, given that the inspirations, experiences, and reflections of students can be remembered, retrieved, and utilised upon in the later parts of or even upon the completion of studies.

The conception of future readiness is a highly situated one, especially when it is subjected to the wider trajectories, which requires alignment with the demands of these macro contexts. This requires adopting an aspirational rather than a deficit orientation when framing the future-ready education for students. This first involves creating descriptions of the kind of society one wishes to become and the kinds of people they wish schools to develop, followed by the careful and systematic mapping of these attributes across the programmes horizontally and within individual subjects vertically for coherence and alignment across individual, subject, faculty, and institutional levels. There should subsequently be ongoing effort on coming up with a diverse and well-rounded initiatives and activities mapped to these attributes. After all, the systemic perspective allows a comprehensive framework of resources, relationships, stakeholders, contexts, and interaction to afford the successful attainment of future readiness in the context of education.

After all, the actualisation of future-ready education should apparently ensure a holistic and balanced development of the relevant knowledge, skills, as well as values and attitudes, such that such a multifaceted concept could be addressed. In fact, the identification and justification of many of these attributes are sometimes not things that are new. The crux of the consideration is employing a genuinely different and visionary perspective in viewing these attributes, which is how all these can constitute a thorough and competent education for students as the future generation. There is an imperative to reverse the dominant rhetoric in contemporary education, which is largely responding and surviving rather than foreseeing and flourishing in nature, meaning that students’ understandings and perceptions are lagging behind rather than looking forward.

About the author

Mr Adrian Lam Man-Ho holds degrees of Bachelor of Arts, English Studies as well as Politics and Public Administration (First-Class Honours); Master of Education, Curriculum and Pedagogy (Distinction); as well as a Postgraduate Diploma in Education in Secondary English, all from the University of Hong Kong.

He is currently a Course Tutor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration in the Faculty of Social Sciences, a Guest Lecturer at the Academic Unit of Social Contexts and Policies of Education in the Faculty of Education, and a Research Group Member for the Common Core Curriculum at the University of Hong Kong.

His most recent academic publications include a series of peer-reviewed journal articles and book articles in the areas of interdisciplinary learning and teaching, higher education, high-performing learning systems, curriculum studies, and educational policies.

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