The World is Always Uncertain: How Should School Leaders Respond?

Sean Slade
August, 2023

Originally published in EdWeek, this article draws our attention to the changing world – more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous – and discusses what our school systems and leaders should consider in response.

We have talked a lot during the pandemic of what the new normal of school and education should or could be, from learning ecosystems to greater student agency and voice, through to harnessing online environments including the Metaverse (readA whole new world: Education meets the metaverse for a quick update).

But there is more to this equation than imagining or reimagining the future. As our world gets more complex and more uncertain, our schools will need to respond. The pandemic has demonstrated that we will need schools that can make quick, nimble, and effective decisions that reflect the changing environment. While the past two years have been tumultuous, there is a good chance that our world will become even more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous from here on.

What will the skills and mindsets of our education leaders (the word “school” has purposefully been excluded) need to be to not only prepare us for this future but also to guide us into this uncertain future? Pedagogy will still be core but so, too, will be team development, decisionmaking, pivoting, empowering others, and being comfortable in uncertainty. But these are just my thoughts.

As an educational leader, I wanted to hear from education futurists, and strategists, and school leaders to see what they believe will be the skills and mindsets most needed in our education leaders and why. I asked them two core questions about what mindsets will school leaders need to lead “into the future” and “for the future.”

Read on for responses to these questions from Homa Tavangar and Will Richardson (Big Questions Institute), Jose Vilson (EduColor), Katherine Prince (KnowledgeWorks), Mark Sparvell (Microsoft), and Future Ready Schools advisers Adam Phyall and Henry Turner.

What are the skills and mindsets that our school leaders will need to lead our schools “into the future”?

To lead into the future, to set up schools or learning environments where all students can learn requires a mindset of visioning and being open to possibilities. This frame of mind or mindset is key to allowing and becoming comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. The second core area was around values: What do we value? What do we hold sacred in education, or rather, in the purpose and potential of education? Perhaps not coincidentally, it is the strength of our values that allows us to keep visioning and exploring new and varied paths while always keeping true to our and education’s purpose. A dilution of values prevents us from seeking new paths—as the only value we find is the path we are on.

Katherine Prince: To lead “into the future,” school leaders need to engage in imagining future possibilities and planning for multiple possible futures alongside others who will be involved in and affected by the co-creation of the future of learning. They need to listen and participate alongside others.

Henry Turner: Empathy is the most critical skill [and], visionary thinking is the most important mindset. We’ve talked a bunch in our district about the Ronald Hefitz message that sometimes you have to get off the dance floor and go to the balcony. For the last few years, our work has kept us on the dance floor, making day-to-day decisions. We need to go to the balcony even during movements of crisis. In order to move our schools into the future, leaders have to get to the balcony and understand where do we need to go and what do we need to leave behind.

Adam Phyall: Our school leaders’ most powerful mindset to develop is a new understanding of what schools have become. No longer can we consider schools as brick-and-mortar buildings. The side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on education have been wide reaching … more students can learn anywhere and anytime. School leaders need to cultivate these new skills in their students and teachers.

Kathrine Prince: Leaders need to clarify their own values, understand the roles they play and the impact they have on other people’s current realities and futures, consider who needs to be present in conversations about change making and the future of learning, and identify whose voices need to be counted and centered—and why.

Mark Sparvell: Skills include frequent formative feedback; being intentional in offering growth-mindset praise; focusing on learning and growth through discourse and reflection; an understanding that learning needs pressure and support; and embracing an unconditional positive regard for the capacity of those you lead.

Will Richardson: If we began to think of effective leaders as those who are the most effective learners, we would begin to see leadership as deep inquiry. At a moment when so much is uncertain and fast-changing, answers are fleeting and hard to come by. Leaders must know what questions are now most important to ask, focus on the what and the why before the how, and engage with diverse communities both local and global in that work.

What are the skills and mindsets that our school leaders will need to lead our schools “for the future”?

Whereas the responses to the first question revolved around a view to the future and an openness to change, the answers to the second were more discreet. Addressing diversity, more personalization, greater understanding of the learner, learning to live in the uncertainty, were all repeated. Along with a strong focus on the human side of education and the human side of living. Because as Henry Turner summarized, “There will not be one story of what the profile of the graduate will look like.” Diversity and diversifying learning will be key.

Homa Tavangar: I’d advocate for anything that leads us from scarcity to abundance. For example, from silos, exclusive, tribal, either-or, us versus them, fixed mindsets TO inclusive, collaborative, equity-centered, global, curious, welcoming, and creative mindsets.

Will Richardson: Everyone these days, not just leaders, needs to improve their sense-making skills. One of the big questions we now face is how we humans figure out what’s true and what’s not true in a world filled with billions of accessible voices. And how we come to the conclusions that we do about the voices we hear and listen to.

Mark Sparvell: Meeting the needs to increasing diverse-learner populations and paying careful attention to the well-being of students and teachers alike.

Henry Turner: Skills that leaders will need to have in the future will be an understanding of how to engage with a diverse group of thinkers, learners, and practitioners. Our country is becoming more culturally diverse, but diversity here is even broader. We need to have the skills to work with students with disabilities, disrupted learning, and other challenges that our schools will face.

Adam Phyall: School leaders that are able to pivot and capitalize on these new skills will have students who are well rounded and prepared for the future.

Underpinning all the responses were core fundamental ideals around the value of equity.

Jose Vilson: We need to ensure that active listening and deep engagement are part of any school leader’s work. Listening to student and community voice is an equity issue, and using these voices to make strong determinations about how school engages with the rest of the world makes a huge difference.

Henry Turner: As leaders, we need to have the skills to be able to organize our communities around the core values of your school, and if our core values include supporting all students, then we need to be fearless to take on work that is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Homa Tavangar: Realizing equity and inclusion aren’t just for the people on the margins and it’s not a zero-sum game, everyone will benefit from the health of the whole community and the viability of all students as global citizens whose education might make a difference into the future.

Are these skills and mindsets different? Well yes and no. Skill sets perhaps—they are the skills of pivoting, adjusting, organizing, bringing others along, and engaging others. But the mindsets are likely very similar. Hope and optimism in the future and core belief in the power of education and the potential of youth.

Kathrine Prince: I think that the two forms of future-oriented leadership are different in subtle ways. Leading “into the future” focuses on bringing people together to co-create a preferred future for the school or at least to hold true to a shared sense of vision or destination that aligns with shared values as the school navigates change. Leading “for the future” emphasizes the mindsets associated with understanding the changing external environment and engaging in long-term thinking in order to consider what kinds of futures could emerge, for whom, and what futures the school and its community want to create.

Will Richardson: Leading “into the future” is more about the skills and dispositions needed to learn our way through whatever challenges or opportunities present themselves. It requires radical acceptance of current and future realities, whatever they may be. Leading “for the future” is about capacity building and design. How do we use “fearless inquiry” to interrogate our current structures and systems, audit their alignment with the futures we seek, and reimagine those practices that stand as barriers to that future.

In summary, these are new times being forced upon us quickly, and we need to adjust—at least our mindsets—equally as quickly because “schools,” as Jose Vilson stated, “don’t just provide a service; they’re critical institutions for a healthy and well-informed community.” This premise was echoed by Mark Sparvell, who reminded us that “if we believe schools are places where society is created and re-created, then we need to accept the frightening and amazing opportunity we have to literally create preferred futures and not stagger toward inevitable probable futures.”

It’s time to lead both into and for the future.