Reform challenges in school education
Schools everywhere face ongoing challenges in better preparing young people for their future and ensuring that every student learns successfully and meets high expectations.
Globally, these 2 challenges are now viewed as urgent. Countries are re-evaluating the kinds of learning prioritised by school curricula and questioning their adequacy for the future. In response, many are placing less emphasis on passive, reproductive forms of learning and more emphasis on developing students’ deeper conceptual understanding; skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, collaborating and innovating; and personal attributes such as resilience, empathy and global competence.
In parallel, there is growing global concern over the numbers of young people who fall behind in their learning as they move through school and so fail to achieve minimally acceptable exit standards – even in essential areas such as reading and mathematics. This is a major concern in developing countries, but even among the world’s top-performing nations, significant percentages of students fail to reach minimally adequate standards.
These 2 educational challenges are no less urgent in Australia. School curricula in this country are sometimes overloaded with factual and procedural content that students are expected to memorise and reproduce, leaving reduced time for deep conceptual learning, opportunities to transfer and apply knowledge, and the development of broader competencies and student attributes. Perhaps reflecting this, there has been a long-term decline in Australian 15-year-olds’ abilities to apply knowledge and skills in reading, mathematics and science to everyday situations.
At the same time, large numbers of Australian students perform below expectations throughout their schooling. In each year of school, the gap between the most and least advanced students corresponds to about six years of learning. Among the least advanced learners, some demographic groups are significantly over-represented – including students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, First Nations students and students living in rural and remote locations. And no obvious progress has been made in closing these achievement gaps over recent decades.
In a recent paper I argue that progress in addressing these 2 challenges will require fundamental reform of the framework within which schools operate (Masters, 2023). This framework includes the curriculum, assessment and reporting requirements, credentialling arrangements, additional supports for students who require them, and processes for preparing and developing teachers and school leaders. In Australia, these framework components are primarily the responsibility of federal and state education authorities.
But the need for fundamental framework reform is often underestimated. Instead, it has become common to pursue improved educational outcomes through the tighter specification of what teachers should teach and how they should teach it, resulting in detailed curricula, increased government testing and a search for teaching strategies that all teachers can be encouraged or required to use.
In contrast, many top-performing school systems – such as Estonia and Finland – have moved in the opposite direction in recent decades, making their curricula less prescriptive and giving teachers more flexibility to make professional judgements about what and how they teach. Their improvement efforts have been focused instead on transforming the frameworks within which teachers and schools work.
Reform in these countries has involved reviewing and reforming most, if not all, aspects of the schooling framework. The objective has been to better address current challenges by creating a coherent learning ‘system’ underpinned by common, evidence-based principles.
First, is the importance of recognising the personal nature of learning. Too often, schooling arrangements are designed for groups rather than individuals. They assume that students in the same group – for example, age or year group, First Nations students, socio-economic group – have the same or similar learning needs. This is patently not the case, and many students can be treated inequitably as a result.
A transformed learning system would be designed to better support teachers to establish and respond to individuals’ backgrounds and current learning needs, including through more flexible curriculum content and structures, and more adaptive teaching and learning resources and assessment processes.
Second, is the importance of broadening what is valued. Too often, learning at school is dominated by the need to memorise and reproduce facts and procedures. Across geographies, countries now recognise that just as important as what students know is what they can do with what they know. This depends on how deeply they understand; whether they have skills in knowledge application (such as critical and creative thinking and problem-solving skills); and the development of personal attributes such as persistence and resilience.
A transformed learning system would promote more ‘holistic’ student development, including through curricula and assessment or examination processes requiring the close integration of knowledge, skills and attributes.
Third, is the importance of recognising the developmental nature of learning. Too often, learning at school is a matter of mastering a defined body of content in a specified period of time. Students are then assessed and graded and move in unison to make a fresh start on the next body of content. In reality, students are at very different points in their long-term progress and often require different kinds of learning support.
A transformed learning system would respond to this reality and be built from an understanding of learning as ongoing and lifelong. Curriculum, assessment and reporting processes would be redesigned to better support teachers to establish where individuals are in their long-term progress, to target their teaching accordingly and to monitor a student’s growth across the years of school.
In my paper, I explore implications of these 3 principles for reforming various components of the schooling framework.
Masters, G. N. (2023). Reform challenges in school education. ACER Press. https://research.acer.edu.au/tll_misc/39
Editor's note: This article was updated on 4 July 2023 to remove the reference to forthcoming related articles.