How Australia can regain centre stage on education

By The Mandarin

Friday March 2, 2018

Teacher sitting with schoolboy using laptop with girl in background

Mitchell Institute international adviser Professor Bill Lucas offers some counsel over Gonski reform proposals, drawing inspiration from the Melbourne Declaration as a think bank.

As a regular visitor to Australia I am struck by how real discussions about education seem to feature more prominently in your press than they do in the UK. The latest Gonski review is clearly a good catalyst for this. Just last week, while working in Sydney, I read proposals to abolish year-based performance grades, introduce careers education into early primary and move away from reliance on the ATAR towards an emphasis on non-cognitive skills.

The latest Gonski terms of reference encourage bold thinking. They invite Australians to think about the biggest question of all: what’s the point of school these days? While one of the three objectives of the review looks at your place in international assessment league tables, the other two invite radical reappraisal about how to prepare students for life and learning after school.

It has been 10 years since the inspirational Melbourne Declaration on educational goals for young Australians set you on a path towards the important vision that all young Australians become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens. In today’s challenging world, this kind of thinking seems more relevant than ever. Along with a relatively small number of countries such as New Zealand, Singapore and Finland and Scotland, Australia is unusual in that, as well as a focus on knowledge and skills, its national curriculum explicitly requires schools to teach certain capabilities.

I urge you to hold to the Melbourne Declaration’s bigger vision and not get side-tracked by international comparisons of literacy and numeracy. While these are important, they can be addressed with well-evidenced approaches without prejudicing the bigger debate about creating a capable, highly employable nation of innovators.

Your concerns about relative underperformance in NAPLAN and PISA can be addressed at local levels. For it is within schools rather than between schools that most variation happens. Help all teachers to be confident in using data to track their students’ progress. Focus on interventions known to work; making better use of feedback, building trust so that mistakes are seen as opportunities to learn, using deliberate practice techniques and so forth. John Hattie has argued the case for these approaches well[1] and there are many repositories of “what works” on which teachers can draw[2]. Enable groups of teachers to learn together, making many small improvements to their practice and sharing the results as they do so. In short, focus on small data at classroom level, rather than being swayed by one aspect of big data at a level of international scrutiny.

It would be all too easy to get distracted, to give up too soon. But you are only just getting started. The general capabilities articulated in the Melbourne Declaration are only now beginning to be understood and taken seriously by teachers and policymakers. A creative nation like Australia is surely not going to give up so soon in the innovation cycle.

Australia could be on the cusp of returning its education system to world-leading status, with other countries looking to you for ideas as they did in the past. Indeed the rest of the world is catching up with your thinking. In 2021, PISA will for the first time test Creative Thinking, a concept which is suspiciously close to your general capability of Critical and Creative Thinking. We know that creative thinking is positively associated with success in later life and there is growing evidence of its impact on performance in a range of contexts. There is every reason to believe that Australia could feature close to the top of this new international test.

Here in the work of the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority and supported by bodies like Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute, Australia leads the world in thinking about how best to teach capabilities and how to use assessment to drive improvements in learning outcomes. In my recent book, Teaching Creative Thinking: Developing learners who generate ideas and can think critically, I have documented examples of how schools in Australia from Rooty Hill High in Sydney to Brunswick East Primary in Melbourne are at the leading edge of thinking.

Seeing schools as the foundation not just for knowledge and skills but also the capabilities necessary for success and well-being in later life is surely the most pressing issue of our time. It requires teachers to change and policymakers to hold their nerve while these changes are worked through.

Bill Lucas is Professor of Learning at the University of Winchester, co-chair of the PISA 2021 tests of Creative Thinking, International Adviser at Mitchell Institute at Victoria University and author of many influential books including Educating Ruby: What our children really need to learn.


[2] For example

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