In Postnormal Times our Students need to be Brave

In contemporary times, we understand the importance of creativity, imagination and ideation. We are living in times shaped by chaos, complexity and contradiction where we confront ‘wicked problems’ such as climate change, globalisation, rapid technological transformations. These are times of rapid accelerations and ‘post normality’. The patterns of action and the organisational structures which served our needs in the past no longer apply and we are constantly confronted by challenges for which we do not have ready-made solutions. Only through the deployment of our most creative and innovative dispositions will we think our ways forward. 

“In an uncertain and often volatile world, successful organisations and their leadership must embrace ambiguity, disruptive change, risk, and the exponential quickness of the digital 4th industrial revolution.” (Jefferson & Anderson, 2019)

In “Normal” times, we had action stories which served our purposes well. In schools, these action stories revolved around the transfer of knowledge and skills from one generation to the next. Normality was normal because we had a clear understanding of what was required for young people to participate in the world of adults. There was an obvious body of knowledge and set of skills which would serve the school leaver well. Reading, writing and arithmetic, combined with a knowledge of some history, world place names, an understanding of some basic science and solid interpersonal skills mostly centred on following social norms was sufficient for a citizenry in normal times. The structures of our schools served these needs sufficiently well and our exit slips provided future employers with the evidence they required to determine which of our students would be the most suitable candidates. 

All that was ‘normal’ has now evaporated; we have entered postnormal times, the in-between period where old orthodoxies are dying, new ones have not yet emerged, and nothing really makes sense. (Sardar, 2010)

But now we are in Postnormal times and what once worked is at best no longer sufficient, at worst it is outright dangerous. The skills our students need to develop are centred around dispositions not readily learned in a teacher directed classroom. Creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, problem-finding, ideation, hypothesising, and innovation are now critical skills where but a short time ago they may have been viewed as the innate properties of certain individuals. Each requires that students are learning within environments which provide frequent opportunities that demand these skills. Each is learned not through direct instruction but through immersion in a culture where thinking in all its forms is the norm. 

“We need to transform our schooling system from a predominantly test-driven transmission model of learning to a place where creativity, collaboration, communication and critical reflection are central to learning.” (Jefferson & Anderson. 2018)

Coupled to this drive towards creativity and innovation is an understanding of the importance of individual and collective agency. In these times of volatility and chaos it is easy to see the world as something that happens to us and turn towards despair. The postnormal era is also the Post-truth era and it is easy to lose faith in the institutions in which we once placed great trust. Our politicians seem to play games with the truth, science is openly questioned and painted with the same brush as opinion. 

‘Our beliefs come first; we make up reasons for them as we go along. Being smarter or having access to more information doesn’t necessarily make us less susceptible to faulty beliefs.’ (Brotherton, 2019)

Empowering us against despair is our sense of agency; the degree to which we are able to imagine our capacity to influence and shape events towards our purposes. Where the individual full of knowledge and possessing a pre-defined set of skills achieved through a traditional education may find themselves lacking in times of rapid and volatile change, the creative and agentic innovator will see opportunity and new possibilities. 

“agency,” is the ability to make choices and direct activity based on one's own resourcefulness and enterprise. This entails thinking about the world not as something that unfolds separate and apart from us but as a field of action that we can potentially direct and influence. (Ritchhart. 2015)

If we are to cultivate the dispositions required in these times of postnormality and post-truth we need to establish cultures in our classrooms which will allow them to thrive. As we strive to do so it is likely that we will recognise the need for a classroom culture that is safe and where risk-taking and mistake making are not only tolerated but embraced. As we move towards a valuing of creativity we move away from notions that there is a right or wrong answer. There is not a known method and it is unlikely that success will be achieved on the first attempt. In building this culture we seek to eliminate messages that are likely to restrain or limit thinking and we value the creative process at least as much as the creative product. 

In this drive towards the provision of environments which are safe and risk-tolerant there is a danger that we might go too far. We have done this in the past when in an effort to create safe playgrounds, we removed every possibility of risk. The result is a generation of children whose safety is ensured by the structures in which they spend their days but who have not developed the ability to evaluate risks. 

Creative, innovative, agentic thinking demands bravery. If, in our efforts to provide environments which support risk-taking we remove all risk or deny the bravery demonstrated by individuals who take risks with their thinking, we do our students a disservice. Rather than removing risk, we need support all learners to take risks and to be brave. We need to acknowledge brave thinking as a step towards learning. We need to ask our students to be brave in their imagining, their questioning, their appraisals of truth, their confronting of power and their agentic actions. We need to show that we are brave and that bravery is a part of our lives. As Nelson Mandela shares "I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear."

By Nigel Coutts

Rob Brotherton (2016) Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories. Bloomsbury Publishing.

M. Jefferson & M. Anderson. (2019) Transforming Organizations: Engaging the 4Cs for powerful organisational learning and change. Bloomsbury Publishing.

M. Jefferson & M. Anderson. (2017) Transforming Schools: Creativity, Critical Reflection, Communication, Collaboration. Bloomsbury Publishing

Ritchhart, R. (2015) Creating cultures of thinking: The eight forces we must truly master to transform our schools. SanFrancisco: Josey-Bass  

Sardar, Z. (2010). Welcome to postnormal times.Futures, 42(5), 435-444.