For decades, futurists have warned us that the only certainty the future holds is uncertainty. Students graduating from schools today face a more unpredictable future than ever before – a so-called VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, changeable, ambiguous). And this VUCA world is why students of the 21st century need to be Agile Learners.

Agile Learners thrive in the most challenging and unpredictable environments. How do they do this? In three ways:

1. Agile Learners Have a Growth Mindset

Agile Learners recognise that they can develop their most basic abilities. They have what Professor Carol Dweck calls a “Growth Mindset”. This means that when Agile Learners encounter challenges beyond their current abilities, they know they can develop the skills they need to succeed.

An Agile Learner’s Growth Mindset gives them the courage to take on challenges. Even when a challenge is beyond their current abilities, and they cannot immediately see a solution, the Agile Learner knows they’ve been in a similar situation before – and succeeded. So, they are prepared to take on the unknown, confident they can develop the abilities required to find a solution.

But understanding that you can develop your talents and abilities is different from actually achieving that development. This highlights one of the biggest misunderstandings about Dweck’s work: a Growth Mindset is not growth. It is merely the understanding that growth is possible.

A Growth Mindset tells us, “I can grow”, but it doesn’t tell us how. An Agile Learner does more than believe in their ability to grow; they understand how to grow and engage in the types of actions required to achieve that growth.  

2. Agile Learners Challenge Themselves

Agile Learners constantly seek to challenge themselves. They step outside their Comfort Zone and put themselves in environments that help them grow.

Unfortunately, many students don’t understand what getting outside their Comfort Zone really means. They confuse doing something new but easy with doing something new and more difficult.

Not every new task is beyond our current abilities. Many of the so-called “challenges” our students take on are not challenging at all. They are merely “easy things they haven’t done yet” and not outside their Comfort Zone. Spending time in our Comfort Zone gives us an illusion of growth. It keeps us busy. But the Agile Learner understands that getting busy isn’t as good as getting better!

Agile Learners know that stepping outside their Comfort Zone means attempting something beyond their current abilities. It involves stretch and challenge. In the words of expert Anders Ericsson, co-author of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, “This is a fundamental truth about any sort of practice: If you never push yourself beyond your Comfort Zone, you will never improve.”

Agile Learners embrace challenges in the spirit of late US president John F. Kennedy, when he famously announced the United States’ Apollo spaceflight program: “We choose to do these things … not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Agile Learners not only take on the challenges they “need” to take on, but they also seek other challenges for additional opportunities to grow.

3. Agile Learners Develop their Habits of Mind

To succeed at a truly challenging task, we need more than the belief that we can succeed. And we need to do more than simply take on that challenge. To succeed, we must also learn to behave in new and more intelligent ways.

Agile Learners develop the behaviours required to succeed. They develop their Habits of Mind.

Professor Art Costa and Dr Bena Kallick have defined the dispositions that are skilfully and mindfully employed by characteristically successful people when confronted with problems, the solutions to which are not immediately apparent. In other words, these are the behaviours learners must engage in when they step beyond their current best, outside their Comfort Zone.

Agile Leaners understand that developing these 16 dispositions enables them to succeed at increasingly difficult tasks – even ones they haven’t encountered yet. They embrace challenges because they allow them to develop their Habits of Mind.

(A full list of the 16 Habits of Mind can be downloaded here.)

As Albert Einstein said, “Today’s problems won’t be solved with the same level of thinking that created them.” Agile Learners understand this. They know that to succeed at increasingly difficult tasks, they must learn to become better thinkers. By developing their Habits of Mind, they learn how to behave more intelligently, succeed at more challenging tasks, and constantly push at the edges of their Comfort Zone. 

Agile Learners: Prepared for an Unpredictable Future

In his book, Antifragile, author Nassim Nicholas Taleb says, “We cannot predict the future, but we can prepare for it.” Agile Learners prepare for a VUCA world by embracing challenges and developing their Habits of Mind, levelling up their thinking in preparation for the next unknown challenge.

Agile Learners understand they are capable of growth – and they know how to achieve that growth. As a result, they not only survive in a VUCA world; they thrive. They go beyond resilient to become what Taleb describes as “antifragile”. (Learn more about becoming antifragile.)

As you reflect on your students, how many of them are Agile Learners, prepared to thrive in an uncertain future?

If you’d like to know more about how to teach your students to become Agile Learners, you can purchase a copy of  James Anderson’s book “The Agile Learner” or download the first chapter for free here.