The future of learning:

Australian schools in 2040

Is an Australian classroom the best place to learn French? No, a bustling café on the banks of the Seine in Paris is. What about a young graduate describing the ravages of war? Would this not be more effective in the words of an emotional veteran? Can the immense beauty of the Himalayas or Great Barrier Reef be adequately conveyed on the pages of a textbook or laptop or projector screen? Of course not.

Our present day schools have barely evolved over two centuries from industrial age clerical training institutions designed to produce ‘excellent sheep’ (Zhao, 2012, Deresiewicz, 2015). Yet the working world for which schools are intended to prepare their charges has shifted dramatically. The career ladder of past professions has become a matrix of multidirectional possibility, where offshoring and peer to peer networks such as Freelancer, EBay and Uber have facilitated a shift from job seeker to international entrepreneur across diverse industries.

A quantum shift is required if our students are to
perform new types of work in new ways for a truly
global market. It will necessitate a rethink on purpose, people, organisation, facilities, curriculum and assessment.

Despite this, school students still come to an isolated collection of buildings – ‘school’ – for approximately 200 days each year, sit on chairs at desks in classrooms and, for the most part, follow teacher directed, content heavy curricula. Teachers conduct regular assessments that benchmark students’ ability to perform standardised ‘memorisation and compliance’ tasks (Zhao, 2015) relative to their peers. The ultimate goal? A grade indicating the culmination of 12 years of formal schooling that determines what post secondary path they qualify to take. Is this really the breeding ground for global citizens who will perform work that has not even been invented yet? A quantum shift is required if our students are to perform new types of work in new ways for a truly global market. It will necessitate a rethink on purpose, people, organisation, facilities, curriculum and assessment.


Clarke (2012) argues that current educational systems are ‘wedded to the industrial model’ and presents a model of sustainable communities that encourage a shift from a human centric to eco centric perspective, an ‘ego to eco’ transition. Until now, schools have largely sought to give individuals the best possible start in life to the extent their capabilities and attributes will align them to an existing profession (Hannon, 2016). Lists of capabilities the next generations of students will need abound in futures literature. These attributes combine to form an entrepreneurial mindset, which, as Richard Branson (2016) notes, cannot be taught. However, the world needs entrepreneurs by design, not by accident. Educational systems must therefore encourage children and adolescents to broaden their perspective from individual to global, equipping them with the necessary skills to improve planetary and species longevity, including human quality of life rather than short to medium term economic output. Zhao’s Easter Island metaphor for education (2012) is a chilling one if extrapolated.


Schools will no longer employ maths, science and language teachers. Instead, learning mentors will work alongside vertically streamed cohorts of like minded students. These learning mentors need not have tertiary qualifications in an academic subject but they will need to be outstanding relationship driven communicators and counsellors, able to engage not just their students (who will already be fully engaged because they’re able to pursue interests of their choosing) but other members of the community. The role of these project mentors is not to educate or report but to guide and advise. Greater integration of schools and communities will provide opportunities for school staff to redefine their roles across an expanded learner demographic. An improvement in autonomy, work flexibility and work life balance will offset a reduction in job security. A peer to peer economy fundamentally alters the conventional employer employee relationship.


Students will not be required to physically report to a school campus for 200 days per year. There is no set time during which ‘schoolwork’ must occur and during which play is prohibited. In fact, there is a complete deregulation of the school day, week and year as students pursue individual interests and choose to work on their personal projects whenever they like. Accordingly, there is no set attendance requirement at a physical school. Rather, students must meet project milestones with their learning and project mentors. Designated project tasks can be performed at any appropriate location. School buildings thus become community hubs from which other organisations – public or private – are engaged to host mentees. Learning mentors may still ‘meet’ with their cohorts, but this need not be at school or even in person, let alone as a group, and need not be during the ‘school day’. Learning mentors will be able to allocate which hours and days they work. Homogeneity is an undesirable concept in the new learning paradigm, so heads of school, heads of year, heads of house and heads of department disappear, replaced by learning stream mentor coaches.


As students and mentors will rarely if ever be required on site at the same time, school campuses can be re-imagined to serve an alternative community purpose. As learning liaison hubs, the focus of the facilities must be on communication: e-conferencing, webinar and voice systems are paramount, as is the ability to access them remotely 24/7. Access to learning records and cloud storage are essential: technology in schools must evolve from being a tool to aid learning, to being an environment of itself, in which mentors and students reside. There would still be a need for performance spaces, creative and physical, design studios including a theatre for large scale gatherings, superseding churches as community hubs. When combined with other similar spaces worldwide, these additional facilities, networked on a global scale, would boost international relationships and provide a formidable social cohesion at an inter local level that bypasses traditional diplomatic channels, preserves Indigenous identity and therefore further develops existing global peer to peer networks.

Curriculum and assessment

Sahlberg’s (2011) GERM acronym clearly conveys his feelings about uniform, top down curricula. Curricula of the future are bottom up and personalised according to each individual’s strengths and passions, assessed in a manner and scope agreed with the learner. Just as entrepreneurship cannot be taught, it cannot be measured other than through the development of a useful or creative product or service consumed by an audience. The focus will therefore be on creating and producing rather than theory and regurgitation; knowledge has even less value in 2040 than in 2017.


Teachers are all too aware of the shift in focus from whole class to individual, and the commensurate increase in workload. Education needs to surge towards personalisation: learner voice, choice and agency (Hannon, 2016). World class learning in 2040 will see a total integration of present day schools into the business and community sectors and require wholesale changes to the roles of teachers and support staff. Most importantly, it will necessitate a complete shift in mindset regarding the purpose of education, from individual job attainment to interdependable global sustainability. Whether education unions lead or lag in this transformation will greatly dictate the extent to which school staff embrace or resist the challenging journey ahead.


Branson, R. (2016) Why aspiring entrepreneurs shouldn’t go to university.

Clarke, P. (2015) Cultivating a sustainable future: The educational challenge, Leading the Education Debate (vol. 4) (2015) Zbar, V. and Mackay, A. Eds. Centre for Strategic Education, Victoria.

Deresiewicz, W. (2014) Excellent sheep: The miseducation of the American elite and the way to a meaningful life, Free Press, New York

Hannon, V. (2016) Personalisation and globalisation: Three paradoxes facing educators, Centre for Strategic Education, Victoria

Sahlberg, P. (2011). Finnish lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? Teachers College Press, New York.

Zhao, Y. (2012) The Future of Education in World Class Learners: Educating creative and entrepreneurial students, Corwin

Zhao, Y. (2016) The danger of misguiding outcomes: lessons from Easter Island in Counting what counts: Reframing education outcomes, Solution Tree Press, Sydney.

Steve Whittington is an Organiser with IEU Victoria Tasmania. He previously taught in the independent sector and sincerely hopes he will not be freelancing in 2040.