Leading in the VUCA World: Not Much Has Changed


By Dr. Jeff Dillon

Leading in a VUCA World initially seems unattainable when education is so firmly built upon traditional pedagogical instructional models. As educational leaders, we take comfort in this model because it is predictable and safe. Why would a leader leave this place of self-comfort to embrace the VUCA World?

The COVID-19 pandemic has upset our world of comfort, but to be truly honest, this has been coming for some time. The shift to a technology driven society has been knocking on our doors for many years and we have been hesitant to open the door and embrace effective technology practices. We forgot we were required to prepare students for their future, not our past.

Five years ago the Wilder School District decided to do just that: prepare students for a future of living in VUCA times. As a leader of a K-12 school district, this required me to leave the comfort of tradition and take on an unknown, unfamiliar and often unfriendly ground of personalized-competency based learning.

We needed to create a system of personalization for all students who will be required to demonstrate competency before progressing forward. This meant no bells or grade levels. The radical transformation required a shift in culture from a teacher-centered model to a student-centered model. Our approach to helping students become self-directed was to embrace the 16 Habits of Mind. Teachers were required to provide instruction for learning the Habits through a mentoring model. They were given time to practice the Habits of Mind throughout the year and for every year that followed. This continuous learning and practice built a system that showed how much we valued the empowered and engaged student.

As I look back on our success in being acknowledged one of the nation’s most innovative districts (2019 Successful Practices Network & AASA case study), I realize that the driver to success was not the technology in itself, but the infusion of a life changing mindset for students of the 16 Habits of Mind. Educators can put a device in the hands of a student and require them to learn, and very little authentic learning will take place. But, if you empower a student with the skills to own and manage personal habits that produce success, offer a rich and varied use of devices, their learning flourishes.

Prior to the “stay at home” order, our instruction and learning model placed the ownership of learning in the hands of the student. 85% of our K-12 students demonstrated the ability to effectively use the Habits of Mind and therefore were given greater autonomy. 15% of the students needed additional support to achieve success pacing their own learning. When we received the notice to close school, teachers and students took their devices home and virtual learning began. The future thinking of transforming prior to the COVID-19 pandemic created a calm and seamless transition from what was “normal” in our school to a home school model. Yes, we still take daily attendance and then learning progresses forward as if they were here on campus. Teachers are available to mentor, coach, and continue to design a blended model for learning. The Habits of Mind provide an anchor for their social, emotional, and academic learning.

I can say because we pursued leading staff through the insecurities of the unknown over five years ago, with tremendous high quality professional development, we met the challenge of COVID-19 and the transition was seamless and easy.


Dr. Jeff Dillon serves as the Superintendent of the Wilder School District and Principal for Wilder Mid/High School. In 2013, Dr. Dillon initiated a technology plan, in partnership with the school board, to re-engineer teaching and learning in the high poverty, rural school district. The transformation began with a successful partnership with the Apple ConnectED team and has propelled their school district into a nationally recognized student centered learning environment where student voice and choice is valued and the right of each student is to have a personalized learning plan that drives their mastery-based learning pathway.



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