General education

Old school, new school

Professor John Fischetti / 18 December 2018

We are on the precipice of a massive transformation of schooling and the assumptions around the education of children in Australia and the world.

The current “old school” paradigm of teaching and learning is based on students sitting passively in rows, completing a required syllabus in the order they are told to do so, and with very little choice. Assessment systems sort children and reinforce the status quo, promoting learning for “some”. Obsolete uses of the normal curve ensure success for about 30% at a time when we need approaches to enable the success of all young people. This assembly-line approach to schooling too often sorts students early on based on societal socio-economic gaps or on educators’ failure to adapt the learning environment to meet individual learner needs. As an example, currently at least 40% of Australian students are disengaged from their schooling (Grattan, 2017). This disengagement is a failure for the individuals and a tragic loss of human capacity for Australia to be relevant in the ‘innovation age’ where critical thinking, problem solving, adaptive reasoning and collaboration are core skills. In the “old school” model, leadership is more management than transformation. And, in teacher and leadership education, we are too often preparing our new teachers for the schools we are holding onto rather than for the schools we need.

In the “new school” paradigm, schools will no longer be places young people go to watch their teachers work. They are learning centres, with student engagement at the forefront and personalised learning focussing the instruction on the needs of the learner. Emerging virtual reality and artificial intelligence systems (immersive technologies) will require the reinvention of content delivery and leapfrog pedagogies to new frontiers of exploring and mastering ideas and knowledge. Students in this new school approach are at the centre of the learning as they accomplish the syllabus in ways that work for each of them. Assessment from here will be formative and used to modify instruction to meet the needs of learners in real-time. That is equity in action with learning for all as a goal.

In this dynamic learning environment, a new approach to classroom and school leadership is vital. Leadership for old school approaches was primarily management with a mission statement. In new school approaches, leadership is a complex, dynamic empowerment process. The individuals who drive education forward from here—from the classroom to the school to the boardroom - will need a new set of skills to help them create the learning environments that empower every child for success and embrace the culture and expectations of the community as vital partners in the process.

In this transformational environment I am very encouraged by the practices and promise of the Big Picture design for schooling. Big Picture is the most progressive school design approach to overcoming student disengagement that I have seen.

Testament to this is the success we have seen in our students who have entered the University of Newcastle through the Big Picture Education Graduation Portfolio. David and Hamish are about to complete second year Biomedicine and Business/Law and Liam, Emily and Cheyenne are doing first year Business/Bachelor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Psychology and Primary Education respectively.

Currently the traditional curriculum and the syllabus derived from it tend to drive teaching and learning. This leads to mostly teacher-focused schools. It reinforces compliance, passivity, old school assessments and rules. Alternatively, Big Picture design starts with a focus on learner passion, community engagement and authentic evidence of student learning mapped to highly benchmarked national learning outcomes. This approach is creating a new role for teachers and schools.

The implications are also profound for teacher education. Schools of Education mostly place our students in schools as they are, not schools as they need to be.

That means we are replicating and perpetuating obsolescence.

The Origin Foundation is one of Australia’s brightest lights in supporting innovation and equity-based approaches to change to get education right for every child. The array of programs that the Origin Foundation supports is jump-starting really important improvement of opportunity across the sector. Organisations like Origin are so important as we reinvent schools for the future rather than perpetuating the past.

When Copernicus posited, and Galileo confirmed the Sun as the centre of the solar system and that the Earth revolved around it, many learned people of the time considered this heresy. The notion that the syllabus can be accomplished by adjusting it to the passions and needs of the learners is possibly considered heresy today. To some, the idea that passion and student wellbeing help drive intellectual curiosity and lead to building cognitive capacity seems impossible at worst or unrealistic at best. However, the goal of learning for all is to design schools based upon and built around the needs of learners rather than the syllabus or the needs of adults. This is the direction we are heading led by great educators in Australia and around the world who have adopted promising school designs. And, if we stay on top of the technological advances, smart tools can help us differentiate in powerful ways. By preparing new teachers differently we can provide a bridge from old school to new school without disruption.

When I talk to parents they often complain that some students on some days get different assistance from their teachers, which they say isn’t fair. Actually, it is fair, it isn’t equal. Equity is about giving each child what they need when they need it. With fairness one of Australia’s core values and as we collectively address the inequities of the past, new school designs may be part of our journey to fairness. All of us deserve a fair go as a child, not a predetermined norm-reference box we are put in. We can do this.  


The University of Newcastle is pioneering and piloting a new route to university – the Graduation Portfolio - and is into its second year of accepting selected students into tertiary studies based on their portfolio of learning rather than an ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admissions Ranking).

Professor John Fischetti is the Dean of Education and Head of School at the University of Newcastle. Currently he is Interim Pro Vice-Chancellor of the Faculty of Education and Arts. His work over the last 30 years focusses on rethinking pedagogy, assessment, schooling and teacher education.

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