Leading reform from the classroom, one innovation at a time


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People have never been particularly good at predicting the future. With the introduction of word processing in the second half of the 20th century, futurists thought the main outcome of introducing computers to the office would be a dramatic increase in the productivity of the company typing pool.

Quoted in the Los Angeles Times in 1966, Dolores Lefevre advised her fellow secretaries to take up small chores like emptying ashtrays and sharpening pencils as security against their jobs being automated: “After all, ladies, that’s your security against being replaced by a computer.”

As is often the case, the accuracy of these predictions was mixed: the demand for typists did evaporate as the task of word processing was handed back to officers and managers, but it’s been a while since anyone emptied a corporate ashtray. In the 1960s and ’70s, it was impossible to anticipate how profoundly the personal computer would revolutionise our society and the way we do work.

The challenge of adapting to AI

Just as our professional lives have been shaped by our ability to adapt to new technology over the first decades of the digital age, young people today will need to grapple with the opportunities and very serious challenges presented by the increasing implementation of artificial intelligence.

With artificial intelligence, however, the social and economic consequences have the potential to be much more significant. We’ve already started to see some of the unsettling and discriminatory outcomes of applying machine learning in domains such as facial recognition, legal sentencing, HR recruitment, and national defence.

Education is on the frontline when it comes to preparing students for this new world, in which citizens will be required to not only work alongside artificial intelligence but to also ensure its application is fair and ethical. But for institutions established well before the digital age, it will take concerted effort to adopt new mindsets and develop processes that will allow public policy reform to keep up with the rapid advancement of technology.

NSW’s Education for a Changing World initiative

That’s why the NSW Department of Education is flipping the system through its Education for a Changing World initiative. In establishing our unique approach to future-focused education reform, we first recognise teachers both as leaders of innovative educational practice and as experts in identifying the evolving needs of students. Informed by forward-looking research commissioned by the department from industry and education sector leaders, our Catalyst Lab innovation program is structured to give teachers the opportunity to propose their own solutions to the stickiest problems posed by the massive technological, demographic and social changes ahead.

By modelling the Catalyst Lab on design-thinking principles adapted from cutting-edge industry practice, we take measured risks to support the development of promising classroom innovations while acknowledging that not every good idea will work at scale.

The best ideas are guided through a rigorous incubation process, before an expert panel selects the top proposals for progression to an intensive eight-week accelerator program to develop and test a prototype of their concept.

The first round of the program in 2018, involving teams from 10 NSW schools, created two exciting prototypes: a digital platform that facilitates applied learning by geotagging history and geography curriculum materials to locations in the real world (along with teaching materials to integrate this into English, maths and history lessons), and a much-needed software platform — together with substantial curriculum support — to integrate the assessment and recording of student learning in essential modern capabilities like critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration. Tested across some 115 schools and 400 teachers over the past year, we now have confidence the prototypes offer useful reform.

We knew that equipping teachers with these tools would have exciting implications for classroom practice, but we didn’t anticipate how ground-breaking it would be for our technology partners to work closely with teachers. For our developers, this was the first time they had worked extensively alongside end-users throughout the entire product-development process, and as a result, the prototypes not only met the needs of teachers but also helped establish a robust technological infrastructure that we can adapt for future Catalyst Lab products.

Letting student needs direct policy development

This year, Education for a Changing World is exploring ethical reasoning, another dimension of the core ‘thinking skills’ that will best prepare students for a future of growing complexity.  Here, too, we have sought to marry the best of Australian and international evidence with the on-the-ground wisdom and creativity of teachers and students.

Where a conventional policy program could reasonably take years to tackle the big challenges of AI and education, the Catalyst Lab finds, prototypes, tests and validates new approaches in months. When we honour the expertise of teachers by supporting them to share their best ideas with colleagues in NSW and around the world, we ensure that our policy development is led by the needs of young people in classrooms today.

We know that the core elements of a good education will remain the same. But if we want students to thrive as citizens of an increasingly dynamic world, we need to bring innovation into the classroom, nurture the capabilities that young people will need to successfully navigate new technologies, and encourage the development of vital transferable skills.

The world is changing fast, and business-as-usual will not prepare us for all that lies ahead. By embedding agile innovation processes into our work, the NSW Department of Education is accelerating education reform to match the speed of progress.

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