What kind of world are we preparing our students for?

I’ve had a very busy couple of days. Actually, I’ve had a very busy last few months. I’m immersed in a new way of looking at education and it’s very hard to switch off. As much as I try and stay off the grid for periods of my day, I find myself thinking all the time. Any down time I have for housework, driving my kids to their next destinations, even having a shower and getting ready for work seems to be occupied with my head mulling over ideas about the future direction of education and how we respond to it.  (Just to clarify my interpretation of down time – none of that is really what I’d like to think of as down time, but it’s the only down time I have!!) 

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach’s visit to my school this week brought a lot of this into focus for me. Of late I’ve been reading Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind. He talks of society moving from an information age into a conceptual age, where we are going to need people who are creators with the ability to empathise with others using Right brain directed thinking. According to Dan, Left brain directed thinking is still important, but there needs to be a balance betwen the two. Hence the book’s title, ‘A Whole New Mind’.  Much of what Sheryl relayed coalesced with the thinking I have after my period of immersion.

Sheryl was speaking of the need for education to address the changing society we live in. Her focus was on the Human Network we habitate, and how we can use technology to foster relationships with people not just in our immediate locale, but worldwide and the importance of these digital literacy skills for the students we teach. Tania Sheko, who is from one of the school’s joining our cohort, was in attendance and she has written a  very good post about Sheryl’s visit. Here’s some of what she had to say ;

Firstly, she emphasised that 21st century learning, although based on technologies, was primarily a human network. These technologies enable global connections and wisdom of the crowd. Sheryl gave the example of Twitter as a means of finding the best information about buying a new car. I suppose it’s an extension of the network of friends and colleagues people turn to when looking for a good car, or finding a good plumber, only the global aspect facilitates expert knowledge more effectively. In a fast-changing world, where the information today will be outdated tomorrow, rather than teach memorisation of content from a single text, we need to teach students how to work collaboratively. As Sheryl said, ‘don’t think computers, think innovation’. Our students need to be able to be productive, self-directed and effective communicators, understanding digital communications, and not be overwhelmed by the fast pace of change in their lives. It’s not about the tools, the technology, but about learning. 

A very good summary Tania. Read her post  – she has much more there and it does encapsulate the thinking of Sheryl.


My time spent with Sheryl lived up to expectations. She loved Toorak College and felt like she’d been visiting Hogwarts. We do have the most beautiful school setting; a wonderful original building and stunning gardens. Sheryl was impressed with the examples of self directed learning taking place. A Yr 8 inquiry week and students from Yr 7 filming in groups for a Connections class. She’s a frenetically busy lady; when you listen to her describe her schedule you swear you are never going to complain again about how busy you are. When she presented to the staff at my school I’m sure none of them would have been able to ascertain that she had come off a long haul flight with no sleep. By the time I left her Thursday night she’d been awake for 33 hours and she was still sounding very lucid. We’ve chatted many a time through Skype, but this was our first meeting. I have to admit to being a little apprehensive – what if she didn’t like me or vice versa? Happy to report we got on really well. She’s passionate about what she does and so am I. That ‘s what’s important in being able to relay this message and have it heard; you have to believe it.

This brings me to Friday.  As with any staff, there are going to be people open to new ideas and people who take time to move along with change. A discussion ensued with a member of staff about the relevance of Sheryl’s message in the light of the stringent exam structure that exists in our senior years of high school. The argument that was presented suggested that our parent community wanted high enter scores. Our job at those year levels was to get our students through the curriculum and prepare them for 700 word essays, and it wasn’t helping them to have them learn how to collaborate with students from around the world. The other argument was that they couldn’t see how computers could be used for exams and didn’t see how it would be likely in their lifetime.  

My answer to these statements went something like this. What is our responsibility as teachers? Is it to prepare them for an exam, or is it to prepare them for life and the type of world they are going to be entering where these type of collaboration and digital literacy skills are going to be valuable? Will there come a time when we are going to see students use technology in exam situations? I think so. When, I don’t know, but with the rate of change and adoption in our society it could be within the next 10 years. I’ve been mulling this over the last 24 hrs and have been wondering if the English course will adapt and have students complete tasks that assess their digital literacy skills. At the moment we assess their ability to analyse persuasive language. I could see this evolving to include  assessing their ability to locate persuasive arguments from Web based sources; it seems to me that in the future, and now for that matter, it’s becoming more important to know how to find the best and most authoritive source of information in tandem with how to analyse the language and persuasive techniques (including visual stimuli) being used. Digital literacy , knowing how to find what you need, for the purpose you need it for, is going to be the vital 21st Century skill in my belief. We will all be in command of hand held devices, our phones, that are going to be able to perform so many tasks for us. We need to know how to use these to best effect and how to source the best of what is out there.

The week finished with a dinner in the city with Sheryl and local Melbourne based bloggers. Sue Tapp, Jo McLeay, John Pearce, Lauren O’Grady, Pam Arvanitakis and Darren Murphy (soon to relocate to London).  A fun evening where I got to chat with new found friends and share some ideas.

My hope is that Powerful Learning Practice is going to be the launching pad for further uptake of this kind of thinking in the school I work at. After meeting Sheryl, I know she has the passion and commitment to help us traverse this new approach to learning and hopefully give us the capacity to build this with our staff who are yet to be convinced of the need to move forward. What we’re facing is the change cycle that comes from moving from the knowledge age to the conceptual age. We are all going to have to adopt a whole new mind in order to cope with this change.

It’s the field of dreams adage, ‘If you build it,  they will come’. Hope so.

4 Replies to “What kind of world are we preparing our students for?”

  1. That was a very satisfying post, Jenny. This is the kind of synthesis that only comes from not switching off and from continuing your thinking into shower time. Interesting about the staff reaction which is not surprising. And I think that teachers need to ask these questions when they have their students’ best interests in mind; hopefully the questioning will take us all further – to new understandings. I’ve also been thinking about the senior years pulling future learning back into testing of curriculum content, and how that affects new pedagogies. With assessment the way it is, enter scores do become the focus, but the individual who comes out of school is more than the sum of the enter scores, and, once the student has been accepted into the next stage of learning, the score will be less important than the demonstration by that student of skills like independent learning, higher order thinking, collaboration, flexibility, digital literacies, etc.

  2. Jenny,

    Great post!

    The core issue is as you describe:

    “……in the light of the stringent exam structure that exists in our senior years of high school. The argument that was presented suggested that our parent community wanted high enter scores. Our job at those year levels was to get our students through the curriculum and prepare them for 700 word essays, and it wasn’t helping them to have them learn how to collaborate with students from around the world. ”

    I believe that such arguments, while inevitable, need to be tested to destruction. I have found over the years I have worked in education that the estimation of parental views held by too many teachers is, at the very least, stereotypical, and too often, rather patronising. I just wonder what would be the outcome if you (ie Toorak College) were able to find a way to test the depth and nuance of parental views on these issues.

    Of course, parents want the best for their children, and they want to ensure that they have the greatest chance possible to make progress in life. I know from our chat over dinner a few weeks ago that you want the same for your own kids as my wife and I want for ours.

    BUT – I am equally sure that most thoughtful parents are far more aware than is generally recognized in education of the need to find a reasonable balance between the demands of accreditation and entry to higher education, and the demands that life in all its complexity will place on our kids as they face the future. Too many teachers prefer to see parental views as one-dimensional and reductive in nature – I would challenge them to prove that their view is genuinely reflective of the actual views of the parent body.

    So, I just wonder what the outcome would be if you could find a way – through straight talking and honest communication – to explain the logic and the humanity behind the kinds of messages we are trying so hard to build into the education systems for today and tomorrow. I am willing to bet that many more parents would express agreement with such views (while still wanting their kids to get what they need to go where they want to go) than the more patronising teachers realise.

    Ultimately, I think that teachers and parents face the same dilemmas to an extent that we often fail to recognize. Why not test it? We might find that we can move forward together – teachers, parents, students – to find the ways and means to give our kids access to both realities.

    Beyond that, of course, we have to work globally to stop the accreditation tail wagging the learning dog – but that is in the long term. In the short term, why not work towards finding a joint understanding between teachers and parents of the very real issues impinging on schooling, and impinging on the lives of our kids.

  3. Right, this exam thing. I put forward that, teaching students to think; to apply knowledge to solutions (exam or otherwise); not to seek information without an authentic ‘need’ for it is the change we are seeking.

    Putting students into a public space to demonstrate this instills the sense of ‘global audience’ in learning context, not just a social one. Designing pedagogy that demands students seek, find and apply information in such a way that they choose to abandon low order ‘Google’ copy and paste activities creates learners who are better prepared for examination. If what they are doing, requires them to seek ‘syllabus’ facts/content – but use it to high order thinking and ‘digital’ taxonomies – then we are increasing the learning boundary.

    No longer with the repeating of facts be the goal. Using facts to argue, criticize, justify, defend and propose requires them to become reflective on their prior fact based learning.

    Boys in high school lack self-motivation to become ‘writers’, they mask their often shallow literacy and language skills with ‘technological bling’, or in the classroom developing a vocal hierarchy. Success for boys is quite different from mixed or female classrooms. Success for bicultural and bilingual boys means deconstructing bravado, language, and social structures that they act out daily in the classroom.

    If technology is able to change the incumbent social capital, to provide a supportive, non threatening learning framework, supported by (but not dominated by) teachers – who are effective at scaffolding individual learning (zone of proximity), then I think that they will be well prepared for examinations in the HSC.

    I think that if we start in year 7, and do this continuously, then in year 11 and 12 – they will be more able to ‘unpack’ content from the syllabus and develop learning strategies that ‘pass exams’.

    Right now, students don’t read the syllabus – as they really don’t understand how it works, but by teaching them how frameworks and content combine, then they may well take a very different approach to examinations. You don’t have to be a Project base learning school to do that – but you do need to realise that emerging technologies lean very favourably towards constructavism, but struggle against the tide of social change in a cartesian classroom model.

    I see learning in contructavism, I see dis-engagement in cartesian.

  4. A thoughtful post, Jenny. Finding the balance you speak of is something we all deal with and must come to terms with. I like dskmag’s comment about “unpacking” the curriculum…helping students understand why we do what we do. And I, too, hope our work in the PLP will bring clarity to this process for us.

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