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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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21st Century Learning: Acting Nationally and Internationally

Kurt Ambrose
Jill Wilson
Curriculum Corporation

In a year that has seen a renewed national emphasis on education, with the establishment of the Interim National Curriculum Board and the release of the Draft National Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians (MCEETYA 2008), Curriculum Corporation will host its 15th Annual Conference, C21st Learning: Acting (inter) Nationally, on 10 and 11 November in Melbourne.

Australian education systems are re-defining the educational goals for young people, and in the process reconceptualising the attributes, skills and dispositions young people should expect to develop during their education. This reconceptualisation of the 21st century learner is set out against a backdrop of unprecedented global change, driven by economic and technological forces and environmental challenges. The Draft Declaration recognises that Australia’s national priorities of productivity and social inclusion mean that all young people must be equipped by their education to take advantage of the opportunities offered by their rapidly changing world, and can contribute to meeting its challenges.

Underpinning the Draft National Declaration are the twin objectives that schools and education systems will create high-quality educational environments and ensure participation for all. These are also the major themes of the Curriculum Corporation Annual Conference.

How schools and education systems meet these objectives will depend on their disposition towards innovation – innovation in creating relevant learning environments that cater to the needs of the whole learner, innovation in their interaction with national priorities and local contexts, in their use of assessment to inform learning and accountability, and in their recruitment and retention of the best in the profession. All of these areas of system innovation will be explored through the conference.      

The skills shortage faced by Australia, along with international and national performance indicators that show a comparatively high achievement disparity between students from high- and low-SES groups, between non-Indigenous and Indigenous students, and between urban and remote students, has confirmed the urgency among government, the business community and the education sector to address educational outcomes for all Australian students so that they can effectively participate in the economy and their communities, and can go on to lead fulfilling lives. Recent research indicates that raising the level of educational achievement of those in the bottom of the achievement table would have more economic benefit than increasing the number of graduates. Moreover, raising the level of school completion would markedly improve Australia’s GDP (Business Council of Australia 2007).

Quality teaching and school leadership are two factors that have gained renewed emphasis in local and international research, and which have been endorsed by government in the Draft National Declaration. Professor Stephen Dinham, a keynote presenter at the Curriculum Corporation Conference, has done much groundwork in establishing just what quality teaching is and how it can be achieved in his research commissioned by the Business Council of Australia.

Teachers who are knowledgeable about their disciplinary fields are creative in their pedagogical practices, understand the learning contexts, harbour high expectations for their students and demonstrate initiative in their own professional development exhibit the attributes of quality teaching (Business Council of Australia 2008). Quality teaching, Dinham asserts, depends on recruiting and retaining the best graduates in the profession, recognising and rewarding teachers for attaining identified professional standards, elevating the status of teacher education courses to ensure that they attract only the best students, and supportive school leadership (Business Council of Australia 2008).

Recruiting and retaining the best in the profession also depends on accommodating the professional dispositions of a new generation of teachers, Generation Y. Peter Sheahan is a recognised expert on workforce trends and Generation Y. Not only is Sheahan a Gen Y'er himself, but he has worked with more than 100,000 members of this generation in seminars, panel discussions and focus groups across Australia. This experience, and the research he has gathered from around the world, will be shared with system and educational leaders at the conference.

In the opening keynote address at the Curriculum Corporation Conference, Michael Stevenson will convey his understanding of the education ‘paradigm shift’ towards collaboration and creativity, identified in the 2008 CISCO report Equipping Every Learner for the 21st Century, and describe the kind of education system that can facilitate and support the emergence of this educational paradigm. Money alone cannot buy educational success, but there is an emerging consensus about the resources needed to build a well-functioning education system – exceptional teachers and teaching methods, relevant and ‘stretching’ curricular content, accountability for outcomes and outstanding system leadership. Stevenson has marshalled data from around the world, including the views of leading educationalists in the emerging dominant economies of India and China.

Hong Kong is a recent example of successful systemic reform, where education authorities have transformed an education system with strong historical ties to the United Kingdom, to one which can produce the kinds of skills required in a globalised knowledge economy. Chris Wardlaw served as Deputy Secretary for Education, Hong Kong, from April 2002 to September 2008 and led much of this change. He will pass on his experience and insights into what matters in an education system that ranks second in science in the PISA data, and is recognised as a benchmark for a high-performing school system in the McKinsey report.   

Building exceptional educational environments relies on a capacity and disposition to innovate, and importantly, a mechanism by which best practice can spread within an educational system. According to Valerie Hannon, Director of the UK Innovation Unit, creating and fostering a climate for ‘disciplined’ innovation is central to building exceptional education environments to meet the challenges of 21st century learning (Hannon 2007). Hannon’s address to the conference will build on the idea of ‘next practice’ as a way forward, arguing that while much research focuses on best practice, ‘next practice’ provides a disciplined approach to innovation which enables jurisdictions and schools to systematically apply and scale up what is known about innovation in schools. The concept of ‘next practice’ suggests a purposeful way forward while simultaneously optimising the climate for professional creativity.

Predicting, creating and understanding what drives ‘next practice’ are important for education. The second day of the conference will be opened by Professor Stephen Heppell, who founded Ultralab in the 1980s and who is an international authority on innovation in education. Heppell’s approaches to educational innovation are diverse. His insights into the intersections between new media and pedagogy, pedagogy and the design of learning spaces and the potential of these for transforming the educational experiences of young people and promoting social inclusion are compelling.

Recognising exceptional educational practice and systems, and where improvement is needed, is reliant on assessment, and the data about student learning and achievement that it generates. Much has been done nationally and internationally to set benchmarks of student achievement, but Professor Claire Wyatt-Smith will contend that exploring the link between assessment standards and quality is key to systems clearly communicating what students are learning and achieving. She will also assert that an assessment system that recognises the centrality of the ‘masterful teacher’ has much to offer (Wyatt-Smith 2008).

The Draft National Declaration on Educational Goals for Young People clearly identifies what Australian school systems will be expecting to achieve for young people. Much of it is reliant on educational environments where quality teaching and innovative, relevant curriculum and assessment combine to create high-performing systems which value high educational outcomes for all learners. The 15th Annual Curriculum Corporation Conference, C21st Learning: Acting (inter) Nationally, will consider what is being done nationally and internationally in the move towards these educational environments. It will address how education leaders can best shape the learning experiences of all young Australians so that they might broach the uncertainties and create the opportunities of their world. 


Business Council of Australia 2007, Restoring Our Edge in Education: Making Australia’s Education System its Next Competitive Advantage, Business Council of Australia, Melbourne.

––––2008, How Can we Raise the Quality of School Education so that Every Student Benefits?, Business Council of Australia, Melbourne.

CISCO 2008, Equipping Every Learner for the 21st Century, CISCO Systems, San Jose, California.

Hannon, V 2007, ‘Disciplined innovation’, 2007 Education Research Forum, Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, Melbourne.

Ministerial Council for Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs 2008, Draft National Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, MCEETYA, Carlton.

Wyatt-Smith, C 2008, ‘Standards as central to improving student achievement’, EQ Australia, Curriculum Corporation, Carlton (forthcoming).


Subject Headings

Curriculum planning
Educational planning
Educational evaluation
Teaching and learning