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Schooling Australia II: the 21st century learning furphy

By Fiona Mueller and Deidre Clary - posted Friday, 28 September 2018



What is life like in Australia?

What has made your way of life in Australia just what it is?

How can we improve the Australian way of life?


    Social Studies for Australians (1952 – Book 4 Sixth Grade)




Here we are in the second decade of the first century of the third millennium, worried (at least in Australia) about the declining performance of students and once again looking across the seas for solutions. This time around, the holy grail of school education is ‘21st century learning’.

Notwithstanding the slightly awkward reality that students and their schools and communities are already well into the 21st century, the rhetoric is everywhere and hard to counter, especially given the powerful references to building a better world. But what does it all mean?  Will it deliver real and lasting improvements to education in this country and give everyone confidence that all is in hand to prepare young Australians for post-school life?

Or is it a bit of a furphy?

Current school education policy and practices rest largely on the two overarching Educational Goals of the Melbourne Declaration, agreed to by state, territory and federal ministers ten years ago. The first goal promotes ‘equity and excellence’; the second describes students as ‘successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens’.

According to the Declaration, ‘major changes in the world ... are placing new demands on Australian education’ and ‘in the 21st century Australia’s capacity to provide a high quality of life for all will depend on the ability to compete in the global economy on knowledge and innovation.’ In 2008, the Declaration asserted that a national commitment to ‘world-class curriculum and assessment’ would enable all young Australians ‘to take advantage of opportunity and to face the challenges of this era with confidence.’

As state and federal governments fret about school funding, NAPLAN results, academic standards, teacher quality and myriad other issues that never seem to get closer to resolution, education authorities around the nation are undertaking their own research and consultation as they explore possible solutions. Many countries and systems, including Australia, are taking note of curriculum work led by United Nations bodies such as the OECD and UNESCO.


Fundamentally different assumptions about schooling underlie the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of learning in the 21st century.

The OECD’s 2018 Education 2030 Position Paper  ‘summarises a global effort for education change.’ According to that document, students will be well prepared for post-school life in the 21st century if they are ‘future-ready’ and educated through a ‘learning framework’ that

encapsulates a complex concept: the mobilisation of knowledge, skills, attitudes and values through a process of reflection, anticipation and action, in order to develop the inter-related competencies needed to engage with the world (p. 6).

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About the Authors

Dr Fiona Mueller is a teacher of English and foreign languages and a former Head of ANU College at the Australian National University. In 2016-2017, she was Director of Curriculum at the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). She is particularly interested in the history of education, international education, single-sex schooling and K-12 curriculum design.

Dr Deidre Clary is Adjunct Senior Lecturer in English and education at the University of New England in New South Wales, Australia. A former secondary teacher and deputy principal, her research interests include disciplinary literacy, critical literacy and new literacies. More recently, Deidre has engaged in comparative curriculum studies involving the Australian Curriculum.

Other articles by these Authors

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All articles by Deidre Clary

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