New century, same old system

“Twenty-first century skills.”

Almost every single school, state and sector in education uses and abuses this phrase on an almost continuous loop. It is among the buzziest of buzzwords in education currently (pair it with STEM or STEAM and it goes to a new level, and I say that as a STEAM teacher). Everyone is in agreement that we need to be developing these skills in our students. We all agree that they will need them to navigate the modern and ever-changing world. We all agree that teachers and schools have a big role to play in their development. We all see the role of critical thinking, creativity and collaboration for our students. I too believe these skills, among other ‘soft’ skills, will be critical to young people’s ability to succeed in their lives.

But what are we as teachers, systems and society actually changing about school to innovate and to develop these skills? What are we doing to meet the modern needs of our young people?

In reality, I would argue very little.

Our education system still places a primacy on absolute, ranked achievement, where the ultimate measure of success in school is a grade and a high ATAR ranking. Our policy makers and politicians still fixate on standardised testing of knowledge, achievement standards and compliance measures for teachers and schools. They propose technical and structural solutions to highly complex and adaptive problems, perhaps somewhat ironically exposing deficiencies of their own in the “21st century skills” they supposedly want to develop in students.

As a society, we succumb to seductively easy solutions to the difficult problems we experience in our education systems. We want a quick fix, so pull the easiest levers. We demand smaller class sizes, raising standards, parent choice of school, streamed classes, new buildings… The list of “common sense” solutions goes on.

Yet when you examine the educational research, none of these supposed solutions has any major, positive impact on student success in school. Take the example of smaller and/or streamed class sizes. No doubt a smaller, less diverse class will probably make management of that class easier for the teacher. However that does not guarantee better quality of instruction for those students. In fact in the instance of streaming students based on prior achievement, deleterious effects can occur for many. Middle- and low-achieving students lose more capable student role models, and are often left with the least capable teacher of their subject. They quickly fall further behind as a result. This situation leads to “minimal effects on learning outcomes and profound effects on equity”, something we cannot accept as a “solution”.

The same can be said of parent choice in schooling. The lack of value add from private schools in terms of student achievement has been well documented. However, the criticism of school choice as a concept can be run even further. John Hattie and his fellow researchers have shown that intra-school variability is greater than any inter-school variability. On average, you will see more variation between classrooms in the same school than you will between neighbouring schools.

None of these proposals will change the education system and bring about the modern skill development our young people need for success. In his 2016 Jack Keating Lecture at the University of Melbourne, John Hattie calls for a “reboot” of education in Australia. He outlines the many ways that he thinks this reboot needs to happen, but the idea that really sticks out is almost a throwaway one in the speech:

We are trying to bolt 21st century skills onto an industrial, 19th century model of education.

All of the supposed solutions above are operating within the existing paradigm of an education system that is rapidly becoming unsuitable for our modern (and future) society. In a world where the very nature of work is changing all the time, assuming that tinkering with the edges of the education system will allow students to cope is fanciful in the extreme. We need a total rethink on the purpose of education and the structure and methodologies of teaching and learning.

As individual teachers we need to be focused at all times on the development of students as people, and as learners. Our job is not to create young people who are vessels of facts, to be recited like parrots when we demand them to do so. Our job is to develop engaged, motivated and capable thinkers. Our job is to develop the capabilities of our students, not just their knowledge.

As schools and systems, we need to provide the time, space and structures to support teachers in this work. We need to move away from the fixation with quick fixes that lack evidence of efficacy. We need to move towards a model of educational success that rewards the development of thinking and problem solving at all levels of schooling. We must move away from the obsession with achievement relative to imagined or outdated standards and develop new, relevant, genuinely 21st century standards to guide our schools and students. The agency of students in their learning must be respected and developed as a non-negotiable in learning programs.

Instead of easy, superficial changes that reinforce the old ways, we need to find modern, innovative ways of teaching and learning. We need to explore systems such as those developed by Michael Fullan and colleagues. Such systems place deep learning at the core of all teaching and demand the development of the modern capabilities via the “6Cs”. These need to be examined and evaluated as potential solutions to this significant challenge.

Students will need to engage with and actively change their world in meaningful ways as adults in the workplace. But they also need to be doing that now! They have the appetite for that challenge. As the adults around them, we must make sure that our own skills or ideas are not the limiting factor for what is possible for them. The status quo is not working and our students need our help to do something about it.

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