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The Real World Just Walked into Your ClassrooM

Re-Engineering Education for a VUCA World

Educators are often encouraged to make the real-world part of what they teach on top of everything in the curriculum. Well, in March that real world came roaring into most classrooms on the planet and literally threw everyone out of them.

The real world is a messy and unpredictable place and it is not going away. Students may be back in classrooms in the fall, but those spaces will not be the same. The move to more collaborative learning signaled by the removal of rows of desks to create clusters of seating will have to yield to the need to limit close face-to-face interactions. Stations, which are the physical manifestations of blended and personalized learning, will be difficult, if not impossible to set up and maintain. Learning through application and discovery via hands-on activities can not happen when surfaces touched by multiple hands increase the odds of disease transmission. Classrooms that had just begun to change, will once again look more like the ones our grandparents sat in. Desks will be in rows, students will be stationary and looking at the back of the child in front of them, and teachers will be up front and distanced from the class. The physical space of learning will take a step back, but we should be careful not to let the progress made to bring education into the 21st century be lost.


“School” is a complex blend of space, procedures, cultural norms, pedagogy, and curriculum. Your COVID-era classroom may end up looking like your grandmother’s, but your grandmother’s classroom did not exist in this world. This is a world that embodies the concept of VUCA . It is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. This volatile, changing, and complicated world has been the reality for several decades, but it took a pandemic to bring that idea to the forefront of education. We now know that our lives can change in unimaginable ways in days and we also know and expect that it will happen again. If we failed to fully grasp the gap between the order of our classrooms and siloed curriculum versus the chaotic, hyper-connected nature of the real world outside our doors before COVID-19, we do now. We can no longer ignore the fact that we are connected globally, that our social and economic is strung together by intricate and dependent webs and systems, and that something that has a diameter of about 100 nanometers can cause changes we never imagined (1). It does not get much more volatile and complex than that. If the purpose of formal education is to prepare children for the future, how we teach needs to change now and it needs to change for the long term.

It is often said that the only constant in today’s world is change; contrast that to the slow-moving evolution of education. We now have a challenge that we cannot ignore. We will need to educate differently – we were just forced to do just that. We can choose to see that as a negative or a positive. As an engineer, I see problems as reason to develop new solutions. Change creates challenges and challenges create opportunities. Clearly, as we move from all remote learning to whatever hybrid we hope to deploy in the fall, we have the opportunity to do things differently. Whether you are an engineer by trade or by nature, you know that changing constraints will reframe your design space and create a need to consider different solutions. And because the constraints we will face will be significant, we will need to be more creative than ever. We also now know what is likely coming and we can be proactive rather than reactive, developing solutions that are agile and resilient. Most importantly, we have the advantage of having prototyped a model or multiple models for three months. It probably was not a huge success – few first prototypes are. But it undoubtedly added to your understanding of the challenge and gave you a chance to learn from failure. Take time now to take advantage of the most important benefit of an early prototype - analyzing the results (good and bad) and using them to modify and optimize. As we look to the start of a new and different school year, we have new constraints that will spur creativity, we can take a proactive stance and we can learn from a well-vetted prototype. As engineers of learning , we are good to go! We are so much better equipped for success than we were a few months ago.



As someone who advocates for hands-on and project-based learning, I am following my own advice and my training as both an engineer and educator. Many things worked during remote learning. Students often had an opportunity to pursue some of their own interests. Do not give that up; it supports engagement. Teachers had to re-think delivery of core curricular concepts and assessing student understanding; there was no classroom to stand in front. Use what you learned form that and don’t revert to being a talking head with a PowerPoint. We always structure projects with multiple ways to support knowledge acquisition and the discovery of key concepts and ideas, both at the start and through a project. I suspect many of you had to do a lot of that this spring. Please consider projects – not “units” or topically focused “lessons”. Projects will transfer to a distance learning model more readily than traditional delivery of information model prevalent in so many classrooms for so long (2). Project-based learning supports understanding through application, moving students closer to mastery of a topic (3,4). And projects provide a natural way for distanced students to collaborate with classmates and with you, whether they are separated by 6 feet in a classroom or 6 miles in a distance learning model. Obviously, the end-product of any project may have to change from a physical prototype to some sort digital format but that can increase options for creativity and mastery of tech skills. Remember, every challenge creates opportunities.


There is a lot to consider as we try to resume school in the fall. But being forced to do things differently gives us a chance to re-imagine and re-engineer what education will look like. At ProjectEngin, we are in the middle of doing that as we work to modify our approach to Engineering Design projects and activities to ensure that they work both in the classroom and in a distance learning model. This an opportunity to engineer change in education and our goal is to support teachers as they launch the next model. We hope to share more ideas and suggestions throughout the summer and into the fall. Follow this blog, keep up with us on Twitter, or join our Community of Practice on Participate. We need your input if we hope to meet your needs and we need you and your students to try out new prototypes for learning. Together, we can engineer a model that can handle change and uncertainty while empowering and engaging the young people who will design our future. Right now, we may not be able to change the world outside our classrooms. But we can educate our students to be ready to do just that.


1. Not sure how small that is? Try some online learning from Kahn Academy

2. https://www.pblworks.org/blog/pbl-and-blended-learning-part-1-important-questions-next-school-year

3. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2015/03/24/the-real-stuff-of-schooling-how-to-teach-students-to-apply-knowledge/

4. Sousa, D. A. (2006). How the brain learns (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

5. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201801/the-neuroscience-proactive-vs-hyper-reactive-thinking



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