What are we teaching for?

Vice President Joe Biden talks with children in Mrs. Keebaugh’s 4th grade classroom at Goode Elementary School in York, Pennsylvania, October 18, 2011.
(Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)


What are we teaching our students for?

This is not a personal, existential question, but a literal one. What future are we preparing our students for?

Parents send their students to school to be educated in what they know – consciously or not – is both a socially & culturally dynamic environment. Many school environments try to reflect the world that their students are entering but this task is becoming increasingly difficult as that world itself is undergoing such rapid changes.

A report by Mckinsey & Company,released in January 2017 highlighted the potential impacts of automation on employment and productivity. Despite warnings of mass unemployment from some well-respected individuals (Elon Musk, Steven Hawking & Bill Gates among them), the reality is existing issues such as workforce ageing and labour shifts will for the most part off-set the direct impacts of process automation.

The issue that concerns me most as an educator is how the existing design of the education system is not conducive to preparing a workforce that is able to adapt to the rapid changes occurring in the workplace. Students entering their final years of secondary education in 2017 will be looking to attend University at the completion of their education in numbers not seen in recent history. This is despite studies showing that the much vaunted “graduate earnings premium” that comes from having a University-level degree is no longer guaranteed.

Additionally, an increasing number of corporations are demanding a new type of skillset from their employees – skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, communication and the ability to collaborate globally. Some corporations have moved to offering cadetships to school leavers that combine paid work with further education, offering students targeted and individualised learning opportunities in the context of a real workplace. If the wealth of literature on the benefits of differentiation and the individualisation of learning in the compulsory years of education is anything to go by, such a model is more relevant than the traditional model of non-specific undergraduate degrees.

For those of us working in the Primary and Secondary education systems, these recent changes are not by any means a reason for despair. There is much we can do to ensure that we are teaching our students for a world that will demand a different set of skills from them. For many good teachers, these are the skills that we spend every day focusing on – working well with others, being respectful of differences, asking good questions, being creative in our thinking and our learning.

If anything, let’s hope that an increased focus by society on the value and importance of these 21st Century skills will relax some of the pressures we experience to just teach more content.

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Success by numbers

VCE Results

Today, about 50,000 VCE students will be receiving their final ATAR ‘score’ (although it’s a ranking, not a score). For more of an explanation, check out the VTAC website.

This is an important result for students, because many Universities use this ranking as an entry requirement for their courses. It is in an important result for schools, because many use their students’ results as evidence of their efforts in developing outstanding students.

It’s also a very emotionally charged day. There is a live blog being run by a major newspaper¬†– just in case you wanted some more!¬†Some students have been hanging on this day for a while – some report not sleeping so well last night out of anticipation. By definition, a ranking system means that some students are going to be towards the bottom of the ladder. That shouldn’t discount their efforts, their aspirations or their capacity.

I’m torn about how I feel about this day. The ranking is a data set that gives valuable feedback to students, schools and families about how their student performed against the rest of the students completing the VCE this year. Data is valuable to improve teaching and learning. Their is also a huge emotional toll, however; which concerns me. The ATAR is perceived (rightly or wrongly) as being a very big deal by students and their families. This pressure is not always handled well and has lead to spikes in mental health issues.

Where is the balance to be found? I think that the VCE is a high-quality and necessary process for students to be a part of. Achievement comes from hard work and our efforts are often compared against those of others. That is the real world. I also think that there is a lot to be said for educating students broadly and in a manner that develops in them the skills that will enable them to be successful life-long learners and productive contributors to our global society. Being successful in one area does not preclude anyone from being successful in another. Likewise, experiencing success in one area, does not mean that you will experience success in every area.


In education, we often speak of a changing landscape that is shifting quickly towards adaptable, agile learners who are innovative and willing to take risks. Working with young people to be their very best will sometimes mean that they get an amazing ATAR – it will also mean that some leave the traditional education path and explore other opportunities.

Neither is better than the other. We live in a rapidly changing world and we will need a diverse range of people to make it a better place.

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