The challenge of future-proof learning

Ms Lorraine Thornquist
Director of Creative Arts

Through the window of the late twentieth century, it was clear that educational imperatives for the twenty-first century would be about innovative ways of doing and thinking in our teaching and learning. We may have imagined but could not have articulated the impact of technology and globalisation as this new century began life with a will of its own taking us into vast expanses of uncharted territory, many of which we still struggle to define and negotiate.  Education has always had a busy agenda of change and transformation in its short history of schooling but the dramatic speed with which changes are occurring in local and global society, in technology and economics, threatens to leave it languishing in an outdated past.

Educationalist Dr Yong Zhao (2011) reminds us that we cannot bet on the future. Zhao is Presidential Chair and Director of the Institute for Global and Online Education in the College of Education, University of Oregon, where he is also a Professor in the Department of Educational Measurement, Policy, and Leadership. He points out that we cannot prepare students for a future where such unremitting change means that our usual reference points will no longer be relevant. When there was the luxury of looking forward to this century from the safety of the past, we knew as educators that the world would be in all probability unrecognisable and that we had an obligation both morally and practically to think about how to prepare our students. But without a blueprint, some aspects of education took refuge in pursuing a subject based approach with government imposed standards that have not quite escaped the ‘one size fits all’ model.

We only need to look at local and international testing as bench marking to still see how measuring and weighing is keeping us in a holding pattern of prescribed endings that in some ways reference nineteenth century schooling. Putting test scores and tertiary entrance on a pedestal provides only short term readiness for our young people without setting them up for real adult life. Zhao (2014) contends that standardised testing is about compliance and not about encouraging innovative thought or passion. To underscore his opinion he has written several blogs arguing that the acclaimed international PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) rankings are misleading and are taking us back to the past. He is certainly part of the serious and exciting discussions taking place internationally about the need to speed up the necessary paradigm shift in education.  Many of the theories and practice of this shift already exist in educational and scientific research but translating them into the actuality of school based student learning is rarely evident.

A key and recurring concept across various forums on the direction of twenty-first century education is that of entrepreneurship. Zhao believes education should look to “cultivate a more diverse, creative, and entrepreneur citizenry” (2014). In June 2013, the European Commission published an extended paper “Entrepreneurship Education: A guide for educators.” While there could be an assumed focus on business, this concept in the educational framework is not simply limited to commercial or business entrepreneurship. We now inhabit a world where consumption and communication changes fired by technology evolution and revolution mean that our social contexts, as well as the world of work, are already different landscapes compared to those of a decade ago. Rather, entrepreneurship is to be used in a wider sense to mean social entrepreneurship, policy entrepreneurship, and ‘intrapreneurship’ (entrepreneurs fostering an idea and product within a large corporation).

If we cannot anticipate the jobs of the future, then we need our education to anticipate the capabilities essential for the future.  What could be workable?  The role of our students in the future will rely not just on cognitive skills but also on capabilities of confidence, agility and flexibility of thinking and invention, risk taking, initiative, autonomy and perseverance, resilience and social capital. Students need to be creative, collaborative, adept at communication and not only able to solve problems but also to identify them. Schools and the realm of teaching and learning may be encouraging these capabilities but companies and work domains are expecting them.  Yong cites US figures indicating that fifty per cent of graduates with specific career degrees are unemployed or underemployed. The challenge therefore is to create work rather than to seek it (2014).

In addressing this new focus in education there has been a move to the concept of project- based learning. According to the European Commission’s paper, “’Entrepreneurship education is more than preparation on how to run a business. It is about how to develop the entrepreneurial attitudes, skills and knowledge which, in short, should enable a student to ‘turn ideas into action’” (2013). This is real life experience – an approach that gives students ownership of their learning. They are the ones driving the project, determining the outcome and asking themselves the critical questions to find out the what, the why and the how. Zhao calls this product based learning (2012).

The arts are here to help. These disciplines provide an excellent model for entrepreneurship learning. Whether composing and performing music, designing and building theatre or creating a work of art, students in the arts must make decisions and lead and negotiate their ideas to resolve a work. It is a process that often involves elements of frustration and failure – essential ingredients for arriving at a fruitful, desired outcome. In the end the product attained is of their imagination, making and owning. Importantly, they are in constant communication and collaboration with peers or teachers and this conferencing builds the skills and capabilities of the social capital they will be expected to use in their future work-life experiences. Furthermore, in an attention deficit age, the arts can be an oasis of reflection and attentiveness as students grapple privately and more publicly with charting a path to a completed project and product.

So how does this product-based learning play out in the arts learning precincts where collective and individual features are allowed to shine without being overshadowed by competitiveness? Using Year 12 student work as a reference should serve as testimony to the entrepreneurial nature of learning in the arts.

Composition and performance feature large in Curriculum Music and the final project for senior students is their individual collaboration with the professional and esteemed ensemble, Topology. Each student becomes the ensemble’s composer. They are the authors of the work and decide the form it should take. The product is resolved to a professional level through a process of conferencing with teacher and ensemble members.

Visual Art students in Year 12 work to a theme of “Life Fabric” where they select their own contextual references or explore other social, cultural and technological contexts for their inspiration to achieve expression in a work of art. This oeuvre is manifested in a variety of media, skilfully crafted by the students.

Drama tasks students with devising and making theatre that reimagines theatrical traditions for a contemporary audience. Students manipulate the dramatic languages with increasing complexity and dexterity in an inherently collaborative environment. As with Music and Art, Drama students are researching, imagining, designing and shaping a performance that goes live to a discerning audience and consumer just as any market product will.

These final products in the Senior School across each of the arts are the result of years of careful instruction and guidance under the attentive mentorship and expertise of teachers. Whether it be through musical and theatrical literacy, skills of artistic practice and product development, these attributes are built as students undertake increasingly sophisticated projects and are guided and directed through the learning curve over time.

But these student products are also elevated and enhanced by the development of attendant disciplines in the capabilities of attitude and thinking with which students in the arts must engage. These capabilities listed earlier that define entrepreneurship and that are so endemic in the arts are a perfect fit for the wider entrepreneurship that young people will require to live and work with wisdom, imagination and integrity.

We might be moving relentlessly further into the twenty-first century but in many ways the future remains uncertain and tinged with trepidation, perhaps as it always has been. Nevertheless, it is also exciting to seize ideas from a new angle, to pioneer a novel thinking about how we might educate our students and ready them for this future; to uncover and practise the types of learnings that will inspire and impel them to be globally aware, contributing and empathetic participants steeped in diversity and creativity so they may indeed be change agents in the brave new world.


Commission, E. (2013, June). European Commission. Entrepreneurship Education. A Guide for Educators, Bruxelles, 2013. Retrieved August 04, 2014, from

Kantrowitz, B. (2014, August). The Science of Learning. Scientific American, pp. 59-63.

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Salcito, A. (2012, February 21). The New Classroom Experience. Retrieved July 30, 2014, from Learning without Frontiers:

Weinman, Lynda. (2014, July 25). Project-Based Learning: STEM to STEAM. Retrieved August 07, 2014, from

Yong, Z. (2014, April 12). Creative, Entrepreneurial, and Global: 21st Century Education. Retrieved July-August 2014, from

Zhao, Y. (2011, May 26). Teach Children to Invent Jobs. Retrieved July 2014, from TEDxTraverse City:

Zhao, Y. (2012). World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students. Thousand Oaks California: Corwin Press.