Re-Assessing Schooling for the 21st century

School education needs radical reform if students are to thrive in an increasingly complex world, writes Greg Whitby.

For the past 150 years, schooling has remained largely unchanged. For many, the launch of the Federal Government’s Digital Education Revolution initiative in 2008 was the first sign schooling needed to be modernised. However, much more radical educational reform is required than simply providing a laptop program. The very nature of schooling must be transformed to ensure our young people are best prepared to meet the opportunities and challenges of a rapidly changing society.

Our world is very different from that of the early 19th Century when ‘modern’ schooling began. Known as the industrial model of education, schools were run like factories, turning out students who were processed rather than taught. This one-size-fits-all approach to learning and teaching put students out into the world with a limited set of skills required to do one job, and likely the same job, for the rest of their lives.

Technology has changed the way we live, work and learn, but schools are still operating as they did in the past. In general, classrooms don’t reflect what is happening in a world our children understand and in which they participate. Last year, about a third of all Australian children aged five to 14 owned mobile phones, and 90 per cent of children in that same age group had accessed the internet. But how many schools let students use mobile phones and tablet computers in the classroom for learning?

Every parent recognises their child is unique, so why do we seem to forget this as soon as they enter school? Students become a homogenous mass, arranged into year groupings and herded into classrooms where they are offered one way of learning. This is traditionally based on logical and verbal learning styles, which means young people who are visual, physical or aural learners often fail to develop their natural abilities, and instead
of school being a place in which to thrive, they find it boring or even traumatic.

Just as we can personalise our clothes, homes, cars and technology, learning also must be able to be personalised. This means catering to children’s individual needs, based on a thorough understanding of how each learns, and how best they learn. By personalising learning, teachers can use various strategies and tools to enhance and deepen the process.

Ideally, schools should allow students to take control of some aspects of their learning; to work at a pace that suits them, and to express their understanding in their own way. This method of learning and teaching is often based on students solving real-world problems. Some schools, such as Silverton Primary School in Melbourne,  take the approach of ‘discovery learning’, where students reflect on and write their own research questions based on an area of interest.

Parramatta Marist High School engages students in project-based learning, which combines subject areas and integrates technology, especially social-media tools, in the retrieval of information and presentation of student work solving real-life problems and challenges. For example, Year 9 students studying a combined subject of Catholic Studies and Information-Software Technology were asked to research and write a feature article for a local newspaper on the topic, ‘Does the internet destroy or develop young minds?’, discussing any moral and ethical issues. As part of the project, a journalist from a local newspaper visited the school to teach the students how to write a feature story.

Many students who describe school as boring or pointless say so not because they don’t like learning, but because they simply can’t see the value in what they are learning.

Learning must also be relevant. Many students who describe school as boring or pointless say so not because they don’t like learning, but because they simply can’t see the value in what they are learning. The skills and knowledge taught must be relevant and of value to students so they are able to make a direct connection between their learning and its application to their lives, now and in the future. This can be as simple as introducing professionals from a chosen field to share a real-world application of school learning – for example, an architect who relies on knowledge of geometry, or a marketer who uses persuasive language to create effective advertising campaigns.

Unlike their grandparents, it is highly unlikely today’s students will remain in one job for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is predicted Generation Z (those born between 1995 and 2009) will have about five career changes and 17 employers in their lifetimes. Schools must ensure students are equipped with the skills to be able to learn, relearn and adapt to a rapidly
changing world.

re-assessing-schooling-2160With the rise of ‘self-service’ online education, such as the Khan Academy and MOOCs (massive open online courses), some people believe schools and teachers will become extinct. However, they have never been more crucial. With the ubiquitous nature of technology and
an abundance of information, we need to teach students how to navigate, discern and apply new knowledge to present-day challenges and opportunities. This requires working collaboratively, thinking critically and creatively, using a range of tools and technologies, and developing a lifelong commitment to learning.

As schools respond to the challenge, it is inevitable new ways of learning and teaching will replace traditional approaches. In my own system of Catholic schools in western Sydney, we are identifying more flexible ways of learning and teaching that allow for greater collaboration between students and teachers. Spaces are now being designed to accommodate a range of different learning experiences, such as allowing multiple classes to work together with their teachers or supporting an integrated approach to the curriculum by combining subject areas. Traditional classrooms with desks, chairs and a whiteboard at the front are making way for agile learning spaces with a range of settings for group work and individual study, including comfortable furniture, performance spaces and multimedia studios.

I often say the best ‘app’ for a student is a teacher.

This has led to the development of more collaborative and connected learning communities, where students work with and learn from peers of varying skill levels, gaining firsthand experience of team dynamics, which is an invaluable component of many workplaces. Integration of technology means students and teachers can connect across the room, school or even the globe. Teachers can plan, program and evaluate together, and students benefit from a pooling of resources that offers a wider range of expertise. This environment also encourages teachers constantly to reflect on what they are doing and challenge each other to improve.

While we are seeing more and more examples of contemporary schooling in Australia and abroad, it is not enough. Every school and system needs to ask questions, such as: why do our buildings look the way they always have? Why does schooling take place at certain hours of the day? Why should the teacher be at the front of the room? What place does technology have in learning? Once we accept that the way we have always done things is not necessarily still the best way, we can start seeking answers and making a big difference to the way our teachers teach, and in turn, the way our students learn.

I often say the best ‘app’ for a student is a teacher. Technology is no substitute for a good teacher and the relationship and trust they build with each learner. Teaching is more than an ‘expert’ telling a ‘learner’ what they need to know. Today’s students have already amassed a wealth of knowledge and skills before they walk through the school gates for the first time. Technology has given young people access to an unprecedented amount of information, and while parents and teachers are key to children developing knowledge, they are not the only sources of knowledge. Teachers need to send students on a journey of discovery, teaching them the skills and enabling access to tools to explore and discover the answers for themselves.

I am often asked what technology schools need and how tech-savvy teachers need to be. Given the rate at which technology is changing, becoming too attached to any one tool or device is not the answer. By the time our students are in the workplace, the technology they used at school will be obsolete. Technology should support teaching by enhancing learning like any other tool, but the knowledge and skills learned by using the tools are more important than the technology itself.

It is difficult to predict what schools will look like in 20 or even 10 years. I envisage them as small communities embedded within larger communities of learning, where teachers may be experts drawn from many fields. The curriculum will be diverse and accessed within and beyond the school, and rather than testing what students can remember on a particular day in exams, students will be assessed on solving ‘real-life’ problems or making a purposeful contribution to the communities in which they live. Students will still read books and even use pen and paper, as well as accessing a range of physical and virtual tools within their learning spaces and across the globe. Learning and teaching won’t be limited to set hours but will happen anywhere, any time and anyhow, and parents will have access to more information and rich data about their child’s learning and be able to contribute to it in a range of ways.

In essence, schools will become microcosms of today’s societies – connected, collaborative and creative, continually adapting and innovating and open to new ways of working and learning. American author, educator and blogger Will Richardson wrote that it’s an amazing time to be a learner because, “we live at a moment of ubiquitous learning, one few of our ancestors could have imagined”. The challenge is set and it’s up to us – learners, teachers and parents – to make it happen.

Greg Whitby AM is executive director of 78 schools in the Catholic Diocese of Parramatta NSW, serving over 43,000 students and employing more than 4,500 staff.  Author of Educating Gen Wi-fi: How to make schools relevant for 21st-century learners.

Illustrations by Natasja van Vlimmeren

This article was first published in CHILD magazines 2013