An approach to Australian education characterised by success

In the article Transforming schools for a whole new world Melbourne Graduate School of Education’s Dr Marian Mahat suggested the COVID-19 pandemic offers a once-in-a-life-time opportunity to transform schools, moving towards an education system that is purpose built for the development of adaptable 21st century skills. Here, we find out how.

A high school teacher with six students in a science class

There is a lot of work to do in order to deliver meaningful transformation that fits a post-COVID-19 world. But there is also plenty of cause for hope. By way of follow up to our previous piece, Dr Mahat speaks to Laureate Professor John Hattie, world-renowned evidence-based education expert, about key goals the Australian education system should be striving for and some actionable insights to help us get there.

We need to future-proof our students

We have all heard about the importance of acquiring up-to-date skills, but even though we are a fifth of the way through the century we still seem to be tackling efforts to this end onto a 19th century factory model of schooling. We need to ensure these skills don’t become ‘extras’ in an already overcrowded curriculum of ‘stuff’.

“We must refocus on the ‘knowing how’ as well as the ‘knowing what’, with the former increasingly supported by evidence from relevant research”, says Professor Hattie. “Only then can we move towards truly future-proofing learning.”

For students to thrive, they need to become ‘expert’ and ‘extended’ learners. We (educators) need to help them acquire a body of knowledge, skills, attitudes and values that enable them to adapt and contribute in an ever-changing environment – one that we cannot predict. This will take the form of job-specific expertise incorporating technology, leadership and soft skills, as well as core capabilities in deep learning that allow individuals to evolve in tandem with their industry, interest or career.

We need to attract, develop and retain truly effective teachers

Teaching is, or should be, a complex, passionate and expertise driven profession. In the multicultural society of contemporary Australia, the attributes and character of effective teachers should include commitment, creativity, critical thinking and contextual knowledge, as well as empathy, ethics and judgement – the personal and the professional.

“Teachers become better at teaching when they have an understanding of their impact on student learning,” explains Professor Hattie. Teachers need to be viewed as professional lifelong learners, whose ability to harness and share skills and knowledge is actively encouraged as an essential part of their development and effectiveness by their employers and the education system as a whole. We need to shift perception, internally and externally, from teaching as a job to teaching as a profession based on expertise. Only then will we be able to attract, develop and retain teachers who are not only effective on entry but are also encouraged, empowered and rewarded for remaining so, to the benefit of themselves, their students and our communities at large.

We need to work towards transforming assessment

At present, the majority of assessment practices encourage learners dependent on instruction, who are tested on their ability to memorise and solve problems in a formulaic manner. The issue with this is that it fails to take into account the evolving demands of 21st century work and life in general, where competencies in literacy, numeracy, information technology and communications need to be supported by the ability to think critically and creatively, collaborate in diverse teams and display empathy and ethics through actions.

Understanding this, but also knowing that these skills are difficult to formally teach and assess, leads us to demand a different, deeper method of gauging and certifying student areas of expertise and excellence, one where learners are also engaged in the process of monitoring their performance and motivated by a more dynamic reflection of their attributes.

But assessment should be as much about measuring teachers’ impact as it is about student achievement, notes Professor Hattie. “When teachers better understand and evaluate the impact of their teaching, then they can provide the enabling environments for students to thrive.”

We need to ensure quality, inclusive and equitable education

Every Australian, no matter where they live, should have the opportunity to have a great teacher by design – not by chance – inclusively and equitably. The 2019 Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration continues to provide a commitment to excellence and equity, that places students at the centre, emphasising the importance of meeting the needs of all learners, including achievement, wellbeing, mental health and resilience.

“Australia needs to make a concerted effort to address these challenges so that every young citizen can become a confident and creative individual, who can contribute actively and successfully,” concludes Professor Hattie. This not only helps students be the best they can be, but also helps enhance our countries’ economic and social prosperity as well as realise its sustainability goals.

Educational reform is heavily influenced by historical precedent and political agendas, but schools should not be afraid to take matters into their own hands where they can – and many are. Only then will we begin to apply the widespread, action-led and evidence-based pressure necessary to prompt the systematic change that Australian education needs to flourish in a post-pandemic world and through the remainder of the 21st century.

To help champion change in their teams, establishments and the sector in general, research has shown educators need to embrace quality, targeted, 21st century-ready professional learning. In recognition of this, the University of Melbourne’s Leading Change in Learning Environments microcredential series is geared towards preparing professionals to implement, and transition into, one of the key features of future-focused education – innovative learning environments. Learn more at Melbourne MicroCerts.


With special thanks to:

  • Senior Research Fellow and Research Manager Dr Marian Mahat, Melbourne Graduate School of Education (MGSE)
  • Laureate Professor John Hattie, Melbourne Graduate School of Education (MGSE)