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Opinion | Ann Kirschner and Dana Born

Education is not preparing students for a fast-changing world

Lesley Becker/Globe Staff/Adobe

Attention: Your acronym of the day is VUCA.

VUCA stands for “volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous,” a handy shortcut used by the military to describe these uncertain times, and a framework to shape its leadership programs.

But VUCA is an important signal for more than military educators. Change is coming at us with bewildering speed, driven by globalization, demographics, the corrosive effect of increasing inequality, and the seductive quicksilver of technologies ranging from artificial intelligence and blockchain to nanotechnology and quantum computing. We all must be preparing for the challenges of a VUCA world.

Sadly, as the world of work spins faster and faster, the world of education has actually slowed down. We have dreamed the American dream of upward mobility through education, but the numbers tell a different story. We placed an unimpressive 38th out of 71 countries on the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment, which measures math and science literacy and other key skills among 15-year-olds around the world. Of the 20 million currently enrolled American college students, only an estimated 57 percent are likely to graduate. In fact, six-year graduation rates are the current national standard for higher education, not four. Even for those who graduate, more than 40 percent will be underemployed, filling jobs not commensurate with a college education. With over 6 million jobs currently unfilled in American companies, and record-setting levels of student debt, something is woefully out of whack.

We have a graduation gap, an employment gap, and a skills gap.


These are global trends but perhaps most acute in the United States, where we have championed college education for all at the same time that we have not paid enough attention to the link between learning and earning. The false choice between vocational training and the lofty devotion to the life of the mind is particularly damaging to first-generation college students with no parental safety net or networks of their own. Career services remain the Siberia of most college campuses, visited rarely and woefully under-resourced.


Looking back again at our military analogy, there is much to be learned from the last 25 years of research on advances in military leadership development, especially the emphasis on professional development, continual improvement, applied knowledge, and the strategic shift from seeking one star leader — the perfect general — to building constellation leadership.

We need to do the same in education: inspire our students to be continuous, lifelong, and self-directed learners with the ability to build collaborative knowledge networks and assemble teams that augment their own skills and styles. The days are over when any front-loaded university education could provide sufficient fuel for a long career. These are times that call for new models of leadership and learning.

The VUCA future is evident in the shape of new coalitions between educational institutions, government, and the private sector, and the explosion of new pathways to knowledge and certification. Starbucks sends its baristas to study online at Arizona State University. Disney announces that the Magic Kingdom will now support its hourly employees with advanced educational options. Pluralsight and Khan Academy create networks of online experts offering just-in-time learning. AT&T partners with Udacity for computer science “nanomasters.” Degreed identifies skills gaps and matches mid-career professionals with the rich and growing array of learning opportunities available through certificate programs, MOOCs, articles, and podcasts.


Today’s students need to prepare themselves for job descriptions yet unwritten. In the VUCA environment, there is no robot-proof major. Instead, students need to steer a course between “Will” and “Watson,” between the humanities and social sciences (as represented by William Shakespeare) and computational thinking and STEM fields (as represented by IBM Watson). This is not merely our wishful cheerleading for literature and history. The skills they foster — critical thinking, clear communications, empathy, and self-awareness — are what employers consistently promote as essential characteristics for job candidates.

But the ultimate skill is the ability to learn how to learn. The goal of continuous, lifelong learning is implicit in everything that happens in education. We need to make it explicit and intentional and respected as the most important preparation for an uncertain world. That readiness for a lifetime of learning is the “mission accomplished” of education.

This approach raises a howl from those who rail against the “corporatization” of the university, a concern that we will tilt too far away from research and intellectual pursuits. Those battle lines are tired and anachronistic. Universities today are engines of economic opportunity, of knowledge entrepreneurship, and the irreplaceable wellspring of research and scholarship. Their institutional pride should also rest on their proven ability to assure bright futures for students from all backgrounds.

It’s time to look with fresh eyes at aligning American education with those values and a new appreciation for the VUCA imperatives. The future of work is the future of education.


Ann Kirschner is university professor at the City University of New York and dean emerita of Macaulay Honors College at CUNY. Dana Born is codirector for the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School of Government and professor emerita and former dean of the United States Air Force Academy.