Designing an Education System for the 21st Century

July 2017

Key Points

  1. Recommendation 1: Implement Gonski’s reform agenda while building a culture to support personalised learning
  2. Recommendation 2: Teach emotional intelligence and entrepreneurship 
  3. Recommendation 3: Embrace the flipped classroom model  
  4. Recommendation 4: Implement a ‘Temporary Teacher Program’ to engage parents and bring workforce experience into the classroom


Never before has there been so much uncertainty about the future of our workforce and the skills we will need for it. Constant change is the new normal. Yet as the skills requirements in our workforce are changing rapidly, our education results are declining and our students are falling behind their peers in comparable economies.[1]  [2]

This dichotomy is both damaging our nation’s future competitiveness in a global economy and threatening the employment prospects of Australia’s youth.

Despite the fact we have one of the best education systems in the world by OECD standards, by any measure we are falling behind.[3] This is particularly apparent in the skills that are continually highlighted as being the most important; science, technology, maths and engineering (STEM). The reason these skills are important is because they are the lifeblood of emerging knowledge based industries including biotechnology and advanced manufacturing. [4]

Not only are our results slipping, evidence demonstrates learning gaps are widening between high performing and low performing students, cementing entrenched disadvantage in low socio-economic areas.[5] In the land of the ‘fair go’, learning opportunities are increasingly characterised by whether a child’s family can afford to provide a ‘higher level’ of education for them.

What are we doing wrong?

The reasons for our declining results are complex and varied.

Some academics say we have a lack of available and qualified teachers. [6] Others say the problem results from expenditure on the wrong things like small class sizes which are a winner with parents but don’t actually improve results.[7] There are claims we are disproportionately focused on political correctness, cultural sensitivies and students’ self esteem. There is also evidence to suggest participation and investment in the critical phase of early education in Australia is still too low.[8]

The reports continue to pile up making various claims about our educational decline, political debates about funding rage on and the issue remains unresolved, with little consensus.

Perhaps what we can all agree on is that Australia urgently needs a more thoughtful debate about what is going on in our classrooms. We need a renewed focus on what strategies need to be implemented to better support teachers who are coaching a new digitally literate generation. Of course funding is relevant to this conversation, but it is not the only factor that will ensure success. The debate needs to shift, to focus on what style and methods of teaching will improve results, supported by adequate funding.

Employers increasingly report ‘soft’ skills such as creativity, imagination, emotional intelligence and social intelligence as being equally as important, if not more important than STEM skills. New funding sources will not necessarily equip our children with these abilities.

Solutions lies in new thinking for how to adapt the classroom to embrace the digital age, including collaborative problem solving and critical thinking. New learning approaches are needed to prepare students for a different workforce from the one their parents knew and teachers need to be better supported to prepare our children for jobs that don’t exist yet. This requires greater emphasis on developing resilience, creative and collaborative thinking as well as coping mechanisms. We also need better integration between the new digital workforce and our schools to improve practical application of theoretical learning. Ultimately we need to modernise our education system for the 21st century while we are resolving its funding challenges.

What our results show:

The OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) released in December 2016 showed Australian students to be one and a half years behind Singapore’s top performing students in science, one year behind them in reading and two and a half years behind them in maths. [9]

In recent times, there has been significant disagreement at the Federal Government level about funding pathways and the education debate is characterised by funding cuts, bad results and increasing numbers of narcisstic children who can’t cope without immediate gratification.

On May 2 this year, Prime Minister Turnbull announced the Commonwealth would increase their education funding from $17.5 billion in 2017 to $30.6 billion in 2027. Turnbull also announced the Government would proceed with a ‘needs based’ funding model and re-engaged respected businessman David Gonski who released Labor’s review of education in 2011, to undertake another review, dubbed Gonski 2.0. [10]

While Gonski 2.0 provides an education funding boost, the amount is $22 billion less than Federal Labor committed to under Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Showing the partisan nature of the education funding debate, Shadow Education Minister Tanya Plibersek labelled the Coalition’s announcement ‘an act of political bastardry.’

Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham stated last year, “Commonwealth funding for schools has increased by 50 per cent since 2003 while our results are going backwards. I’m not suggesting that money is not important, of course it is vital, but … Australia ranks as spending the fifth highest amount on education in the OECD and once you get to that level there is little value in just increasing spending.’[11]

Birmingham is right that improving education outcomes is about more than money. The original Gonski report noted that the new funding arrangements it recommended would not address the challenges Australia’s education system faces alone.[12] The report referred to more systemic failures including a distinct lack of co-ordination with the current approach to funding as well as duplication and inefficiency between the Commonwealth and the states and territories. Further, the report notes Australia’s principals and teachers need to be empowered to lead and drive change and deliver teaching methods that meet the individual needs of students to empower their learning. The existing ‘one size fits all’ approach to education doesn’t work and does not suit the culture of a digitally enabled world and a digitally literate student body.

The future of learning

As digital disruption affects so many areas of our lives, technology will change educational institutions as we know them today. Embracing that change and harnessing the opportunities it brings will be the most challenging part.

Some of the factors that will drive this change include:[13]

  • Technology will enable remote, self-paced learning based on a student’s own preferences and learning techniques;
  • Students will need to adapt to project based learning to be prepared for collaborative workplaces;
  • Understanding how to develop, manipulate and interpret data will become a critical part of the curriculum and the workforce in the future;
  • Schools will need to provide more opportunities through internships, mentoring and work experience for students to access ‘new world’ skills;
  • Q&A and rote learning will no longer be a sufficient way to learn new information. The way students are tested will be revolutionised from ‘yes and no’ answers to application of learning ‘in the field’;
  • Input from students and student designed learning will become a contemporary style of learning; and
  • Mentoring will become more central to education as the traditional teacher/student dynamic will be disrupted. 

How it works in Finland

In a similar approach to these trends, Finland has recently introduced reforms to their education system[14] based on four main objectives:

  1. Phenomenon based learning where students focus on real world challenges, giving them a broader understanding of the complex world we live in and positioning their thinking for problem solving, not repetition of learning;
  2. Individual school designed curriculum intended to cater for local student and community needs;
  3. Student designed learning, meaning students are involved in the planning of their learnings and have to articulate what they have learnt from it – moving away from rote learning; and
  4. Developing schools as collaborative learning communities – this means not relying entirely on teachers alone to navigate the educational application of the new world order.

These reforms are based on the premise that students will continue learning core subjects such as mathematics, history, art and music but in a broader context, factoring in real world issues like the political and economic challenges of the European Union or climate change.

They are also about recognising the world is changing and to embrace that change instead of waiting for it to be forced upon you.

It is important to note, in the first instance, that Finland’s system has fundamental differences from Australia’s. Their system is decentralised and schools are able to comply with national educational objectives while having the autonomy to make decisions that suit their specific area. Finland has a National Curriculum Framework which sets high level standards but allows the freedom for educators to respond to local needs. This is in comparision with Australia’s centralised system where schools are answerable to two levels of government and operate under a relatively inflexible national curriculum, creating excessive compliance and a one size fits all approach which has significant limitations in the consumer empowered, information age.

Recommendation 1: Implement Gonski’s reform agenda while building a culture to support personalised learning

Australia’s education results demonstrate educational disadvantage is becoming more entrenched.

In addition to our results slipping on the international tables, a far more concerning trend shows gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students have continued to widen. The difference at Year 12 graduation now equates to approximately three years of schooling. One of the critical themes of the Gonski report depicted that the gap between our highest and lowest performing students, particularly students from low socio-economic backgrounds and indigenous backgrounds is far greater than many OECD countries. [15]

In 2000, only one country outperformed Australia in reading and scientific literacy and only two outperformed Australia in mathematical literacy. By 2009, six countries outperformed Australia in reading and scientific literacy and 12 outperformed Australia in mathematical literacy.[16]

Addressing this trend is urgent in the context of strategic economic policy and fair social policy where every student has an equal opportunity to get ahead and develop the skills they will need to be successful.. It is also critical to underpinning value as a destination for international education, which should be one of Australia’s economic growth areas in the Asian Century.

Rooty Hill High School in south west Sydney is making changes to how it works with its students through the help of Gonski funding.[17]  Principal Chris Cawsey is implementing high quality personalised learning to a student body with higher than average levels of disadvantage.

At Rooty Hill High School, in any given year, up to 80 per cent of students arriving in year seven are behind on basic literacy and numeracy skills – some of them up to three years. Now, each newly enrolled student now has a personalised learning plan throughout their time at the school. From 2016, each student will also have a personalised digital portfolio.

The results to date have shown above state average growth in year 9 NAPLAN results in writing.

In addition to this new approach to personalised learning, the school has also employed three in-house consultants to provide professional development assistance to teachers also, recognising they need to be supported to continue the learning process also.

Recommendation 2: Teach emotional intelligence and entrepreneurship

The Skills of the Future

Deloitte’s ‘Future Workforce’report identifies management cability, creativity, entrepreneurship and complex problem solving as key skills that will be critical in our future workforce.[18]  We cannot be confident we are adequately preparing our students for the modern day workforce if we don’t start instilling these skills in them as early as possible in their school life through reformed learning styles and promotion of emotional intelligence.

We need to develop a collaborative approach to learning between students and teachers, empowering students to be proactive as they are expected to be in the modern workplace.  This doesn’t mean discipline and boundaries are superfluous. But if students are more engaged and consulted in their learning, they are more likely to play a constructive role in it. The ‘us and them’ or ‘disciplinarian and receptor ‘ is a 19th Century style of learning and should be treated as such.

Another significant difference in the Finnish education system has students becoming involved in lesson design, planning classes and assessing what they have learned from it.

There is a range of thinking about this approach. While it breaks down the dominance of traditional subjects and the isolation of teaching, some teachers see it as a threat to their role as the educator.

But it presents us with an opportunity to modernise the education system and prepare students for a digitally enabled world where traditional structures are breaking down and they can explore and learn on their own, with teacher’s as their anchor.
Entrepreneurship can be taught by teaching a mind-set and a skill base that supports the activity of it  – discovery, curiosity, experimentation and reflection.

Recommendation 3: Embrace the flipped classroom model

Teachers need support too

‘Isolation is the enemy of improvement. The classroom should be open, teachers should be able to walk and learn from each other, parents should visit often.’ Tony Wagner [19]

Teachers in Australia are under pressure. They are teaching a generation of technology savvy students and trying to prepare them for a future which no one can accurately predict. There is more pressure to deliver services to students with complex needs coupled with constant literature about how our students are falling behind. Often that blame is laid at their feet.

While students’ needs are changing, teachers also require new types of support that utilise digital tools. The classroom needs to be transformed to emulate the workforce today – collaboratively and openly. As with other professions, the role of technology means teachers need to become lifelong learners to keep pace with the changes in our society and to prepare students with real-life skills.

The teacher centric classroom was designed in a different era to position the teacher as the central point of information, knowledge and authority. In the information age, the teacher is simply an anchor amongst various sources of learning and classrooms need to modernise accordingly. Problem solving and collaborative learning is proven to improve a students understanding, compared with being talked at lecture-style. For this to work, teachers must be prepared to share authority with students, which will also build accountability, resilience and a shared environment for learning and knowledge. [20]

Relevant to this discussion is also the concept of a ‘flipped classroom’. Although, there is no perfect model for a flipped classroom, the core components are student engagement and active learning facilitated by online lectures to be viewed prior to the class. This allows class time to be utilised differently – for interaction, group problem solving and to test and apply the knowledge they have gathered during the audio or video lecture which was viewed prior. This also supports an important aspect of personalised learning – students can move at their own pace through the theoretical phase of learning and come to the classroom to put into practice what they have learnt in a group setting. These learning practices are far more emblematic of the modern workforce, enabling students to transition more seamlessly into it.

Recommendation 4: Implement a ‘Temporary Teacher Program’ to engage parents and bring workforce experience into the classroom

Temporary teachers

Finnish education reforms talk about building a learning community – essentially meaning doing more than relying on teachers to navigate the challenging transformations to improve our educational outcomes. There is a role for business, through parents and the local community, to become part of the classroom too.

Gonksi’s report recommends schools to develop connections with parents and the community, as key partners in children’s learning and attitudes to school.

The Department of Education report family involvement as one of the most important influences on a child’s education. Active engagement in learning is demonstrated to deliver results in better educational outcomes, better behaviour and attendance as well as increased social skills.[21]

Yet parents report demands from schools on their already packed schedules as an added pressure and an irritating one that can often be inflicted upon them at the last minute. Setting up a ‘Temporary Teachers Program’ would enable local schools to work with their parental community through the P&C and plan the visitor’s education slots ahead of time, allowing parents to volunteer in the classroom when they are able to. Parents could talk about what they see in the workforce, what they do, what skills they think are important and design a collaborative activity for the students to demonstrate what they have learnt from the experience.

Forward planning can ensure the experience is beneficial for all parties and ultimately will provide the classroom with a broader and more modern perspective than the standard curriculum.

The P&C could distribute an electronic calendar to parents who could nominate a particular day they are able to give up their time, briefly, to contribute to education at the school. This information could then be passed to the teacher who could organise that session in advance.

Parental involvement is proven to be beneficial to teachers also. Staff experience higher job satisfaction, reduced stress levels and improve social skills when communication between parents and teachers is working well.


Just like many other industries around the world, the traditional education system is being disrupted. Although the institution of schools and the teacher/student relationship will remain central to a child’s learning, teachers will become a central part of the jungle of information students will access. We need to modify our teaching styles appropriately with support from parents and local communities to achieve that change.

To address Australia’s educational competitiveness slipping behind comparable economies, a new approach is required that instills skills in our children to prepare them for a modern, digitally enabled world. Students need to be engaged in designed learning to prepare them for the skills our workforce needs such as collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity.

Teacher training is necessary to better support ongoing learning and update educational styles that will improve student engagement and educational outcomes. Education reform will require upsetting the status quo and doing more than just debate which funding model will work best. Change will not come easily and it will not come about through increased investment alone.

Australia stands to gain economically and socially from pursuing education reform that prepares our children for a new digitally enabled world.


[1] Thomson, S., Wernert, N., O’Grady E., & Rodrigues, S. (2015) ‘TIMSS 2015: A first lok at Australia’s results’, Australian Council for Educational Research,

[2] Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (2014) ‘National Report on Schooling in Australia 2014’, ACARA,

[3] OECD (2015) ‘PISA 2015: Results in Focus’, PISA (The Programme for International Student Assessment),

[4] Australian Government Chief Scientist (2014) ‘Science Technology, Engineering and Maths: Australia’s Future’, September 2014,

[5] Bonner, C & Shepherd B. (2016) ‘Uneven Playing Field, the state of Australia’s schools’, Centre for Policy Development, June 2016,

[6] Ingvarson, L., Reid, K., Buckley, S., Kleinhenz, E., Masters, G. & Rowley, G. (2014) ‘Best Practice Teacher Education Programs and Australia’s Own Programs’, Australian Council for Educational Research, September 2014,

[7] Australian Government Productivity Commission (2012) ‘Schools Workforce: Productivity Commission Research Report’, April 2012,

[8] The McKell Institute (2016) ‘No Mind Left Behind: Building an Education System for a Modern Australia’, October 2016,

[9] Bagshaw, E & Smith, A. (2016) ‘Eduction policy not adding up: OECD asks what’s wrong with Australia’s schools?’, The Sydney Morning Herald, March 25,

[10] Belot, H. (2017) ‘Malcolm Turnbull announces ‘Gonski 2.0’ schools review, funding boost’, ABC News, May 2,

[11]Munr, K. & Bagshaw, E. (2016) ‘Australian school students two years behind world’s best performing systems’, The Sydney Morning Herald,  December 6,

[12] David Gonski AC, Chair (2011) Review of Funding for Schooling: Final Report, Australian Government, December 2011,

[13] Henny, C. (2016) ‘9 Things That Will Shape The Future Of Education: What Learning Will Look Like In 20 Years?’, eLearning Industry, June 1

[14] OAJ (2016) Curriculum Reform 2016, Opetusalan Ammattijärjestö Finland,

[15] David Gonski AC, Chair (2011) Review of Funding for Schooling: Final Report, Australian Government, December 2011,

[16] David Gonski AC, Chair (2011) Review of Funding for Schooling: Final Report, Australian Government, December 2011,

[17] I give a Gonski (2016) ‘Gonski unlocks potential’, May 05,

[18] Deloitte (2016) ‘The Future of the Workforce: Critical drivers and challenges’, July 2016,

[19] Wagner, T. (2010) The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schols Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need –and What We Can Do About It, Basic Books, New York.

[20] eduTopia (2012) ‘Collaborative Learning Builds Deeper Understanding, December 6,

[21] Australian Government Department of Education and Training, ‘Engaging parents in education’, February 2017,