/ 17 November 2021

Reimagining education in a Vuca world

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The new St John’s Preparatory School building offers a space that encourages collaboration, complex problem-solving and creativity

Vuca is an acronym used in management science since the 1980s, which describes conditions that are volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – a neat encapsulation of the global lived experience in 2021. Aside from the coronavirus pandemic, we are faced with climate change, a rejuvenation of nationalist politics and widening inequality. How do we prepare young people to venture out in this world, to not simply survive it but to understand it, take up a critical position in relation to it, and eventually work to change it for the better?

On 28 January 2021, Andreas Schleicher, director in the directorate of education and skills at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, discussed as part of the Davos Agenda the future of global education, in an article titled What Will Education Look Like in 20 years? Here Are Four Scenarios.

Against a backdrop of educational turmoil wrought by the pandemic, Schleicher considered “to what extent are our current spaces, people, time and technology in schooling helping or hindering our vision? Will modernising and fine-tuning the current system, the conceptual equivalent of reconfiguring the windows and doors of a house, allow us to achieve our goals? Is an entirely different approach to the organisation of people, spaces, time and technology in education needed?”

The status quo — standardised content and spaces, a focus on individual learning experiences — was contrasted with a vision of a transformed educational system, which would “involve re-envisioning the spaces where learning takes place; not simply by moving chairs and tables, but by using multiple physical and virtual spaces both in and outside of schools” and “full individual personalisation of content and pedagogy enabled by cutting-edge technology”.

There can be few educational institutions in 2021 that aren’t grappling with a version of this dilemma. Do we retreat into a conservatism that refuses change; do we discard traditional methods? Or, if we chart a course somewhere between the two extremes, how do we resolve the tensions that are introduced?

At St John’s these questions were made concrete through the completion of construction in 2020 of the preparatory school buildings, designed by Mark Pencharz of Pencharc. The St John’s campus is home to some of the oldest and most beautiful of Johannesburg’s buildings. The original Parktown campus was designed by Herbert Baker and buildings were added in 1925, 1939 and 1957 to accommodate a growing enrolment list.

The new building’s design took place before Covid-19 existed, but navigating the tensions between the traditional and modern were nonetheless top of mind. Pencharz took design cues from the existing campus and integrated the new building harmoniously and sensitively within that idiom. More importantly, the building was intended to offer a space that would support the school’s conception of modern, vibrant, effective pedagogy. It was designed to encourage collaboration, complex problem-solving and creativity, and to suggest new ways of working and teaching without destabilising the learning paradigm that St John’s has honed over more than a century.

The building’s design sought to encourage flexibility in the way children choose to approach their work. Collapsible walls allow for spaces to be created to support learning goals, furniture can be moved and clustered to get away from neat, hierarchical rows, and technology is integrated into the spaces so that teachers and learners have instant access to digital environments. An Innovate Centre on the bottom level of the building is a space for experiential projects in fields such as robotics. Breakaway spaces are incorporated throughout the building to encourage the children to take an active, experimental approach to problem-solving.

Energy efficiency was fundamental to the design, with solar panels providing electricity for lighting and temperature regulation accomplished passively through the intelligent use of materials and orientation, and actively through a smart regulatory system. 

In summary, the design allows students and teachers to take a creative, flexible approach to the educational practice that takes place in it. It has proved successful and has begun to receive critical acclaim — it was recently announced as a finalist in the Gauteng Institute for Architecture Awards for Architecture.

During the finalisation of its construction, I arrived to take up the position as headmaster of St John’s Preparatory. Over my decade in senior school leadership positions, I have developed an approach to education that prioritises four pillars.

First, developing content knowledge, even in the information age, is critical. In many ways, teaching, especially in the phase encompassed by the preparatory school, focuses on creating mental schemas; cognitive platforms that form the basis of future knowledge acquisition, comprehension and critical thinking. These schemas do not arise independently of specific content knowledge; content and form take shape simultaneously, each influencing the other.

Second, learning should acknowledge the context in which it takes place. When our children leave our school they enter into a specific work, social and political environment. They need to be able to apply the skills and knowledge they’ve acquired. Developing applicable skills — communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity — allows them to navigate, interpret and excel. 

Third, the character needs to be developed in concert with the mind. Preparing our children for entry into a Vuca world requires an emphasis on integrity, honesty, courage and empathy alongside learning and critical thinking. I believe in the dualities of a traditional education, which places an emphasis on character, alongside innovation and progression. Together, they keep our institutions relevant and responsive.

Finally, the basis of our approach should be a commitment to ensuring the children in our care are mentally, physically and emotionally healthy. Their wellbeing forms the foundation of our other work. In this, I have been influenced by Martin Seligman and his work around positive psychology.

These pillars might seem abstract when laid out in point form. But their application in the context of 2020, the opening of the new building and the changes necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic were immediately tangible.

Although the building was designed before a pandemic, it has enabled an effective response to it in ways that suggest an ongoing approach to flexible learning that encompasses the best of the old and the new. The flexible spaces allow us to maintain physical distancing in a way that traditional classrooms don’t, the integrated digital technology enables safe collaboration in a classroom environment, and the flexible approach to learning actively involves children in the process, as opposed to sitting at home and being fed an online-only curriculum.

It has been wonderful to observe the children’s reactions to the new space. Walking into classrooms that are 80 square metres — double what the children were accustomed to — was initially a disconcerting experience. And there was an initial hesitancy about what would be allowed in this new space: “Can I sit here? Is this room for us?”

But after nearly a year of growing accustomed to the space, alongside a sense of ownership, there is an atmosphere of excitement that accompanies the increased agency they have in designing their own educational experience. This is training in flexibility, agility and navigating complexity — without a word being said.

There is a powerful, and perhaps under-considered, relationship between the spaces in which learning takes place, the possibility of setting and accomplishing learning objectives, and the learning experience as a whole. Spaces that inspire, involve and subtly suggest values — creativity, collaboration, innovation — have the potential to revitalise and energise the learning and teaching experiences.

The St John’s teachers, administrators and wider family thought deeply about the ways in which education might be altered by the strictures and opportunities that materialised over the past eighteen months. This process of intense reflection resulted in a renewed commitment to certain aspects of the educational experience.

We believe in the pivotal role of the teacher in developing and populating children’s mental schemas, to set the basis of constructive self-directed learning and a critical approach to knowledge gathering. We do not believe that a shift to online-only education serves the needs of either teachers or students. And we have committed to our ethos of encouraging creative, collaborative, experiential and experimental learning, underpinned by a concurrent focus on values-based character development.

In his Davos Agenda article, Schleicher posits four possible scenarios for the future of education but then clarifies: “We can construct an endless range of such scenarios. The future could be any combination of them and is likely to look very different in different places around the world. Despite this, such thinking gives us the tools to explore the consequences for the goals and functions of education, for the organisation and structures, the education workforce and for public policies. Ultimately, it makes us think harder about the future we want for education. It often means resolving tensions and dilemmas: What is the right balance between modernising and disruption? How do we reconcile new goals with old structures? How do we support globally minded and locally rooted students and teachers?”

In a way, the education process rests on our ability to instil a capacity for constructively resolving tensions and dilemmas. St John’s has a proud history of educational excellence and is a school that merges the duality of a traditional, values-based educational approach with progressive, cutting edge and contemporary approaches to education. Our particular strength, I am increasingly coming to believe, is in our ability to emphasise these tensions instead of avoiding them, and to seek their productive resolution not just in our curriculum but in our approach to pedagogy and the spaces in which it can most effectively take place.