Into the great unknown

Mr Trent Driver, Dean of Academic Development

Students-laptopsIMG_3827Over the past few weeks, I think I have felt a bit like my GP might feel, sitting in his office with a full list of people awaiting his attention. It has been Senior Education and Training (SET) Plan interview time, where Year 10 students sit and discuss their plans for their subject selections across Years 11 and 12 and how those fit into their longer-term aspirations. They sit in the waiting area outside my office ahead of their appointed time and, one by one, talk with me about where they are now and what they would like their futures to hold. All my conversations start the same way, every single one of them. What are you looking forward to as you head into your Senior years at the School? What are you concerned about? What is playing on your mind going into next year? What I appreciate the most is that none of the conversations ever finish in the same place.

It is rewarding to talk with girls who have clear goals that they have thought through, and a clear path that they would like to walk over the next few years. But equally rewarding for me are the girls who offer a wry smile and a shrug when we talk about where their patterns of study across Years 11 and 12 might take them in the years beyond School. These girls are looking to prepare themselves for a future they have not yet mapped out, that they want to discover as the next years unfold, who want to understand more about themselves and explore diverse paths before deciding on which to tread.


No school in Australia should, in good conscience, be preparing their students to be successful in the world of 2014. Teaching for today does not prepare students for the world of tomorrow — or for the world in the years beyond. Labour market economists forecast that around sixty-five percent of the tasks or contexts that will be completed in the world of work by students now of school age are yet to be imagined (Heffernan, 2011). So, we do not have a responsibility to prepare this generation of students for employment, but to foster the skills for employability in the future — in other words, build the skills for the twenty-first century.

Too often the focus on the capabilities that will required for success in the years ahead is simplistically reduced to digital and technological competencies. There is no doubt that the revolution in how global society accesses, manipulates, produces and evaluates information has been driven by technology. But ultimately, the technology is the medium of delivery or the tool of access. It is the medium and the tool in the same way the multi-floor library stacks, the binders of journals, or the countless reams of hand-written pages were in my school and university life. When we ask what is needed to build capacity to be a life-wide learner for the years ahead, technological skills are only a small part of the equation.


Increasingly research tells us that schools have a broader responsibility to equip students with the ability to interpret, manipulate and evaluate information. The most comprehensive analysis in this field, the Assessment and Teaching of 21st-Century Skills project co-ordinated globally through the University of Melbourne (ATC21S, 2013), defines a diverse skill set that schools need to develop: ways of thinking, ways of working, tools for working and skills for living in the world. In practice, these include creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making, communication, collaboration, and information literacy (Care, 2013). In a life context, these are the capabilities that academia and industry value now, and will be critical to success in the future.

Technological competencies and digital skills are the vehicles that enable students to develop these capabilities; they are not the end goal in and of themselves (ATC21S, 2013). In many ways this view has underpinned this School’s Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) technology initiative. As all students are using their own computers from the start of 2014 across the curriculum and personalising how they use them to deepen and broaden their learning, our use of technology becomes more focused on a product than a process. It becomes focused on the quality of the material that our students use; it becomes about the depth of thinking a presentation demonstrates; it becomes about the precision of the language in a research piece. It is not about the technical skills needed to manipulate a specific software platform or operating system — one that will be redundant in a shorter period of time than it takes to swap Prime Ministers. It is about becoming discerning and deliberate in how we access information and, more importantly, how we view it critically to make decisions based upon it. These are the real twenty-first century skills.


This is not without challenges. The Australian Curriculum, as with all curricula produced by the Queensland Studies Authority for Senior subjects, places significant emphasis on the teaching of higher-order skills. These skills sit alongside the need to develop the essential concepts and build an understanding of the broad content base within each academic discipline. While getting this balance right is the responsibility of each teacher and the school, it is also (in Queensland particularly) the focus of rigorous policy debate (Ferrari, 2013). Additionally, the balance between concepts and the critical skills of applying them influences the nature and shape of how learning is assessed, requiring schools to develop a more diverse set of assessment tasks and tools. Professor Patrick Griffin from the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education argues that this is one of the greatest challenges for schools as curricula evolve (Griffin, 2012). A test or an examination cannot tell us the whole story of a student’s capacity to be a critical and analytical thinker. If these are skills we value and wish to foster, they are skills schools must continue to assess and develop.

As teachers are bidding farewell to a cohort of students as they leave the white picket fence behind at the end of Year 12, we often say that they are off into the ‘great unknown’. It has always been a turn of phrase that draws attention to the uncertainty of the path that lies ahead for each and every girl. As I reflect on how my own work life has changed in the past decade, and the way that society and technology has changed what it means to work in schools, that great unknown is not only the uncertainty of which path a girl might take, but what the destination will look like when she gets there. It is every school’s responsibility, as it is Girls Grammar’s, to equip them well for that journey.


ATC21S. (2013). What are 21st-century skills? Retrieved October 19, 2013, from

Care, E. (2013). Challenges of internet based collaborative problem solving assessment. Paper presented in the proceedings of the 9th Annual Leading a Digital School Conference, Melbourne, IWBNet.

Ferrari , J. (2013, October 15). Year 12 external exams set to return. The Australian, p. 8.

Griffin, P. (2012). The influence of teaching strategies on student achievement in higher order skills. Paper presented in the proceedings of 2012 ACER Research Conference, School Improvement: What does research tell us about effective strategies, Sydney, Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER).

Heffernan, V. (2011, August 7). Education needs a digital-age upgrade, The New York Times. Retrieved August 31, 2011, from