Tikvah Wiener
Head of School of The Idea School, the first project-based learning Jewish high school in America

Living in a VUCA World

This past Monday, on July 13, I had the opportunity to be on a panel for the Israeli American Council (IAC) and Tel Aviv University’s Zoom Out Summit, whose purpose was to reimagine education. Sharon Freundel, Managing Director of JEIC, which awards grants to innovation in Jewish education, asked me and two other progressive educators, Yael Biber Aviad, principal of the Alonim elementary school in Israel, and Ady Sukkar Kayrouz, High Tech High Graduate School of Education Program Director and Founder of TeenRoots, what we thought about the future of education and the role that progressive education plays in it.

What Ms. Aviad, Ms. Kayrouz, and I have in common is that we’re all located in project-based learning (PBL) schools: Ms. Aviad runs a K-8 one; I run a PBL high school, The Idea School; and Ms. Kayrouz oversees professional development at the High Tech Schools in San Diego, CA, a series of K-12 public PBL charter schools which are the model for The Idea School. I’ve visited the High Tech schools many times and have done training there, as has Ms. Aviad.

Before our panel, I had a chance to attend some of the other Zoom Out sessions, and I noticed the common language that’s woven through conversations about innovative education. For example, when asked about the ways that a teacher’s role would change, Inbal Chameides, co-Founder and Managing Director of P.I.E. (Personalization in Education) Challenge, which focuses on groundbreaking ways to teach math in Israel, replied that teachers would increasingly become coaches, helping students learn how to learn, develop their strengths, and work on their weaknesses. 

Gabe Zicherman, author of numerous books on gamification, host, and founder and editor-in-chief of Gamification, spoke at length about his belief in “Failosophy.” Zicherman said we have to ensure that students are comfortable with failure, that they see it not as part of a hard binary where they have two choices–succeed or crash and burn–but as part of an iterative process. Students need to be comfortable giving and receiving feedback and seeing that making mistakes, failing, is part of their natural growth cycle and something they’ll be doing their entire lives. 

These two important points–that teachers need to help students learn how to learn and that learning consists of constant failing and improving–are key to progressive education and are a crucial part of The Idea School, so it was appropriate that Ms. Avidan, Ms. Kayrouz and I shared our thoughts within this context.

We first debunked a big myth of project-based learning (PBL), which is that if you’ve made a volcano erupt in a science class or created a diorama for social studies, you’ve “done PBL.” Project-based learning is much more complex, embedding traditional content and skills–and a whole bunch of other learning goals as well–into a project that’s personally meaningful and/or that solves a problem in the real world. 

An example: an 11th grade Humanities class at High Tech High asked the following questions:

What is the history of drugs in America? What should the public know about drugs today? How can we inform them?

Over the course of a semester, students studied the history and current views of drugs in America. They examined closely the War on Drugs, interviewing representatives from the DEA, the CVPD, and Johnson & Johnson, and wrote op-eds on an issue related to drugs. Students also interviewed the Opinion Editor from the Union Tribune, Matthew Hall, to get writing tips and then outlined, drafted, and revised their own op-eds over several weeks. Finally, students shared what they learned with 5th and 8th grade students at a neighboring elementary and middle school, preparing an age-appropriate drug awareness curriculum that used their op-eds as the basis for engaging public service videos. 

This kind of in-depth and personally and civically impactful project is what progressive educators mean when we speak about PBL, and so a second important point we made about the educational model is how much it affects students’ emotional and spiritual well-being. Students have to grow as human beings when engaged in this kind of learning–they cannot hide, first of all, from any areas of weakness they may have. They have to confront the fact that they may not manage time well, that they may let down their group’s partners if they don’t have good work habits, and that they may not be great at meeting deadlines.

This is all uncomfortable for students–heck, adults are often not great at confronting their own flaws. For students who may view school as a place that makes failure feel like a statement about who they are as people, entering a PBL school and having to own up to their mistakes and weaknesses is daunting at first. Students have to grow accustomed to the fact that in a project-based learning environment, they’re encountering what Ms. Chaimedes and Mr. Zicherman describe–teachers who are there to teach you how to learn, even important things about yourself and how you operate, and the fact that failure is a natural and crucial part of being on this planet.

And then there are the additional revelations about learning that’s done in this real-world, personally meaningful way: school becomes a place for a student to discover new talents and interests, sharpen ones they have, connect them in emotionally satisfying ways to their learning, and use them to engage responsibly and morally with the world. 

I saw this happen with Idea School students this past year when, for example, the sophomores did a project in chemistry on drug addiction. They studied the neuroscience of addiction, listened to a documentary from a recovering drug addict and heard (on Zoom) from a recovering drug addict from the Jewish community as well as from a clinical psychologist who treats drug addicts. Then the students wrote social and public policy about how we should treat drug addiction and created public service announcements or infographics about an opioid they researched. This was learning that went deep with the students, showing them not only the science of the opioid crisis in America today, but its emotional toll, which has reached our community as well.

It was Ms. Kayrouz who made an important point about the conference’s main goal–which is reimagining education. Reimagining anything may feel daunting, but she reminded us that humans are by nature innovative creatures, and that’s how and why we’ve built the world in which we now live. Innovation isn’t for a select few who’ve read a book here or attended an inspiring lecture there, but for everyone. Look at the innovation we’ve all managed to be a part of as we’ve addressed the coronavirus crisis with flexibility, compassion, and ingenuity. 

We cannot ignore, after all, the current state of our world, which we could hardly have imagined a few short months ago. Tony Wagner in Creating Innovators advocated for innovation as a result of what he defined as a VUCA world–a world that is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. Schooling, he said, should prepare students to address such a world where there is not one answer that a student must toil toward alone, with no help from teachers or fellow students. 

Rather, a VUCA world is one in which there are “wicked” problems, ones that don’t have one neat solution, but that require complex, interdisciplinary thinking and multi-layered and multi-pronged answers that a group of people arrive at together. Ask any group of educators trying to come up with a school reopening plan, and they will easily confirm the definition of a “wicked” problem! The point is, though, that we have to prepare our students to confront these types of problems, give them the tools and skills they need to act in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous times, times exactly like the ones we’re living through.

I remember walking into my school building on March 11, all ready to get dressed in my Purim costume and, with my colleagues, run a Shushan Purim program for the day, only to find out upon arrival that we would have to close because one of our families had a member with Covid. Later that day all the Bergen County Jewish day schools had decided to close. When I went back to the school building recently, my Purim costume was still laid out on my desk: a paper hula skirt and tacky lei, complete with blinking lights. 

That costume seems like it’s from another world; I brought the hula skirt home with me and it sits by my work supplies. The lei is in school, waiting to light up for my students. I think of the way we’re working and living now, half live, half digital, and know that as challenging as these times are, we humans are innovative, imaginative, and persevering. We have what it takes not only to survive, but to thrive, and to show our students, our children, that we can tame any wicked problem, not because we have a magic wand and can make it disappear, but because we have skills, talents, and knowledge that we can apply to any situation in which we find ourselves. 

That’s the most important lesson we can teach right now. 


I’ve written about a VUCA world before. Check this op-ed out.

About the Author
Tikvah Wiener is Head of School of The Idea School, a project-based learning Jewish high school located at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, NJ. www.theideaschool.org. She lives in Teaneck, NJ, with her husband and children.
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