Navigating the Expanding Universe of Education: Purpose, Pedagogy and Possibilities (and a few challenges)

Coeducation is education for life. Naturally


Professor Yong Zhao with All Saints' College students

The visit to All Saints’ College (ASC) this week of Educational Disrupter and visionary, Professor Yong Zhao, was both challenging and illuminating. His provocations and suggestions illuminated the synergies between our most recent visitor, Jan Owen, CEO of the Foundation for Young Australians, and the ongoing work in our College on developing a culture of thinking and learning, supported by Mark Church and the work of Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero. Zhao challenged educators and students alike to step boldly forward into the expanding universe of education and reimagine the possibilities. Dean of Teaching and Learning Ms Esther Hill, talks about what impact the visit has had on ASC and its existing work underway in this space.

On Purpose….

‘Prioritise the right skills: Ensure enterprise skills are elevated in the curriculum and developed through the most effective teaching methods.’ The New Work Smarts, Foundation for Young Australians, 2017

The Foundation for Young Australians recently released a new report, The New Work Smarts, which has used big data analytics to predict ways in which work will be different in the year 2030, 13 years from now. One thing that is clear in this report is that there will be a significant reduction in the need for workers to complete routine manual tasks. And there will be an increase in the time workers will spend focusing on people, solving strategic problems and thinking creatively. So what does this mean to us as educators? What expectations and models do we need to change if this is the case? The report clearly states the importance of developing enterprise skills and reinforces that effective pedagogies are crucial in ensuring these competencies are developed in our young people

On Pedagogy……

‘The agenda of education should not just be passing along the contents of already open boxes but fostering curiosity for those still unopened or barely cracked open’ Professor David Perkins, Harvard’s Project Zero

Teaching for understanding, beyond the transmission of knowledge model that has characterised the industrial model of education, requires shifts in pedagogies that ensure that we pay attention to the ways in which students understand and learn. Our work with Cultures of Thinking has focused our attention on the importance of paying attention to student thinking, developing thinking dispositions that foster deep learning within and between disciplines.

Professor David Perkins of Project Zero argues that conventional education is content focussed; dedicated to ‘learning about’ rather than ‘thinking with’; wedded to and segregated by traditional versions of the disciplines; and largely prescribed. It needs to make way for progressive imaginings of learning that matters, and move beyond the conventional in the following ways:

  1. Beyond content – 21st century skills, competences, etc., such as critical and creative thinking, collaboration, communication, self-­‐managemen
  2. Beyond local – Global perspectives, problems, and studies, as with our global economy or worldwide problems of energy or water supplies.
  3. Beyond topics – Content as tools for thinking and action, for instance with regard to some of the big issues above.
  4. Beyond the traditional disciplines – Renewed and extended visions of the disciplines, for instance broader views of history or studies of contemporary communication technologies.
  5. Beyond discrete disciplines – Interdisciplinary topics and problems, such as the roots of intergroup human conflict or poverty.
  6. Beyond prescribed content – Learners as choosers of what they learn well beyond the typical use of “electives”.

(David Perkins, Learning That Matters, 2012)

UNESCO’s December 2015 report, What kind of pedagogies for the 21st Century? suggests a blueprint for future pedagogies that includes:

  • Fostering participation
  • Personalising and customising learning- one size does not fit all
  • Emphasising project and problem based learning
  • Encouraging collaboration and communication
  • Engaging and motivating learners
  • Cultivating creativity and innovation

“All things considered, the ‘transmission’ model is highly ineffective for teaching 21st century skills… 21st century education will require more personalised learning with an emphasis on supporting rather than stifling creativity” UNESCO Future Learning Report, 2015

Professor Yong Zhao with All Saints' College students

Esther Hill and Professor Yong Zhao talking to Creative Industries students at All Saints’ College.

On Possibilities….

“In the digital age, we need not to become more mechanical, we need to become more human.” Professor Yong Zhao at All Saints’ College, 2017

Professor Zhao argued that, given the disruption of our traditional labour market through the technological revolution, it is imperative for education to be more than the mechanical consumption and parroting of content. He suggested that significant changes needed to be made to the focus of schools, whereby our attention, whether as educators or parents, shifts to finding and amplifying the unique talents of our children. Private Schools in Perth, Zhao argues, should provide opportunities for students to develop their capacities to add value to the lives of others through the expression of their unique talents, his definition of entrepreneurship.

Zhao’s analogy for the failure of tinkering on the edges of education systems is that you can modify a horse and cart endlessly, but it will never get you to the moon; suggesting a radical reimagining of education for the future is needed if we are really committed to developing the unique capacities of each of our children for the new work order (FYA, 2016).

On challenges…..

In listening to Zhao speak (VIDEO HERE), every educator shares in his description of the impetus and imperative that he describes. We know that 21st-century learning emphasises the need for deep and applied learning, and we struggle to marry this with the fact that much of our national testing and externally set examinations focuses on surface knowledge and disingenuous ‘investigation’ and ‘inquiry’. We know, too, that without the opportunities to practice and apply new knowledge in a variety of contexts, our students will not retain, adapt or integrate that knowledge.

Professor Zhao describes our current models as producing mediocracy (rule by the mediocre), limiting greatness and bypassing individual needs. Instead, we should consider how we can create structures that support the pursuit of individual interests, passions, and talents. Going beyond student-centred learning toward student-driven learning, or heutagogy, requires some bold reimagining of the current constraints of curriculum authorities and rigid timetables.

If creativity, innovation, and enterprise will be central to our children’s success beyond school, a final challenge is to find ways in which these capabilities can be central to their experience at school, rather than a focus for a couple of periods a week or a sideline in a co-curricular program.

It is clear from the conversations that have emerged following his visit that Professor Yong Zhao, as a disruptor and a provocateur, has challenged both the teachers and leaders at ASC. Zhao’s impact crystallises and clarifies our ideas on purpose; continues and further sharpens our focus on effective pedagogies; and suggests exciting possibilities that challenge us to leapfrog the barriers and go beyond the limits into that expanding universe.

Press play below to listen to Professor Yong Zhao talking on ABC 720am breakfast radio about his visit and the change needed to better prepare our young people.