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Spring 2007

Curriculum for the 21st century

Taking bearings

For all its wealth and its strong contribution to education, research and development and innovation,Cheryl O’Connor believes that Australia is at risk through underinvestment in what is already the 21st century.

Australia is riding high on an economic boom and the Australian Government has collected an unprecedented financial windfall as a result. Since the current conditions are predicted to continue well into the future, this is the time to invest to ensure that the dividends result in an Australia that we would wish for ourselves and for future generations.

Australia has demonstrated a singular capacity for innovation when confronted with a problem to be solved. Examples abound in our national stories of ingenuity on battlefields, on farms, in business, in sport and recreation and around the house.

The political decision that Australia’s international reputation for sporting prowess was at risk resulted in serious investment in facilities, scientific performance analysis and assessment, sports medicine, training, coaching, and mentoring with splendid results. To maximise the profitability in the current minerals and energy export opportunities, money has been invested in research and development. The result is greater efficiency at home and the export of international best practice. Australia has made momentous contributions in scientific and medical research, but there is also a ‘brain drain’ to countries where research and development (R & D) are valued and financially supported.

Our neighbours are out-investing us in R & D. China is spending $11.9 billion and India spent $5.8 billion in 2005 with plans to double this to two per cent of its GDP within five years. South Korea is already spending three per cent of its GDP and aims to have ten cutting edge nanotechnologies and 12,600 nanotechnology experts by 2010—note, in two and a half years! India has a pool of 14 million young graduates, with an annual graduation of 2.5 million in science, engineering and IT alone. Every year China has about 170,000 scientists returning home from work and study overseas, bringing back the expertise developed offshore. Farther away, Russia and Brazil are emerging giants.

All countries recognise that the education of the population is at the heart of the country’s future, and our young people are unavoidably part of a global community whether they live and work in Australia or overseas. Our small population and geography mean we will never have access to a large onshore network of ‘cheap labour’. Investments now will make this the smart country that it is well and truly capable of being.

Where once educators from southeast Asia came to Australia to gain insights to guide their education futures, Australians are now learning from the innovative practices of their neighbours. Education in Singapore goes from strength to strength, with an increasing focus on the achievements and well being of students from all backgrounds and with intense and high quality professional development for teachers. High tech buildings and programs in China are generating great interest and respect. Some independent schools for national students in Papua New Guinea are providing leading edge goals and expectations for staff and students. Farther afield, the Emirate States have allocated $10 billion to redevelop their education system, with English as the language of instruction.

Meanwhile in Australia, a rich country with a small population, about 20 per cent of students do not complete high school and drop out of education altogether, and the achievement gap between privileged and the disadvantaged students grows wider.

Australia clearly has the capacity to address current problems and to invest in an infrastructure that ensures that its population is intellectually smart and savvy.

Investment with a keen eye to the needs of the 21st century means a country fixated on providing appropriate intervention and support at every stage of learning and development to ensure an Australian population that is healthy, energetic, confident and competent—enjoying the benefits of being part of a wealthy and influential country playing a vital role as an internationally competitive and responsible world citizen.

So what are some of the priorities for the future?

Invest early for a well-educated and confident community

The evidence is overwhelming! The years from birth to eight are critical and also provide the best return on the dollars that are spent. The health and well being of future generations depends heavily on the support that is given to families during the early years of a child’s life.

The ways children begin to learn and process information from birth will have a marked impact on their future in education and life in general.

Invest in education, across the board

The full extent of the skills and knowledge needed for the next 100 years can only be guessed at! Australians will need to be proficient with the learning tools of the future, grounded in old, ‘new’ and emerging basic skills. As well, they too will be expected to know how to work together, to communicate well, to solve problems, to look for new ways, and to behave ethically. Their education must also be for the whole person—the basic skills and economic imperatives are insufficient for a community to be expressive, creative and humane, to have a deep understanding of history and heritage.

They will have to continue their learning throughout their lives— this is already in evidence.

Invest in research and development befitting the 21st century

Additional new funding will have to provide for research and development of new technologies to ensure Australia is in the position to exchange and trade ideas that will help to build the future. Governments have every reason to expect support from entrepreneurs provided the needs and interests of the public are assured by contributions, made in their interests, from the public purse. Australia’s intellectual capital deserves to be supported.

Invest in learning the language of neighbours and trading partners

Currently, the study of other languages and cultures is in decline in Australian schools and universities—and a largely unrecognised national problem. At the same time, countries, including those in the Asia-Pacific region, are investing in the study of English to ensure their populations can be globally effective.

There are Australians who are fluent in more than one language but who are insufficiently valued. Learning other languages has many intellectual and cultural benefits, and this country’s stubborn monolingualism makes us increasingly vulnerable both in our interpersonal effectiveness and our global competitiveness.

Invest in educating educators, wherever they work

The ongoing professional learning of the teaching profession is utterly necessary. Because the knowledge and skills of those who teach are of fundamental importance to the future of the community, their ongoing development must be carefully planned and supported.

Educators in their turn have a responsibility to approach their work with confidence to ensure that they continue to learn and that their specialised knowledge is heard and respected. Further, those who teach share the responsibility to reassert their influence in the public debate about the condition and future of education.

Invest to ensure all Australians value education

The Australian Government would do well to unite the community, and especially parents, in understanding that education is a national imperative and a shared responsibility to be valued and celebrated.

Parents play a fundamental part by expecting that their children will make the most of the educational opportunities that are offered. A quick scan of academic results from schools and universities will give a clear indication about the families for whom education is vitally important.

Value diversity

Conformity is easy in the short term, but in the end it is a burden that robs people of energy and the courage to risk change.

Australians are justifiably proud that something in our national makeup has resulted in remarkable achievements from so small a population. We are known to be risk-takers, somewhat individualistic, somewhat conformist, but robust and capable of achieving well above the norm in many fields of human endeavour. Risk taking is a measure of confidence, and must be valued in the processes of learning and living—this too is in the long-term national interest.


The Rising Tide—Asia’s innovation boom, as documented by ‘The Atlas of Ideas’ in Campus Review, Vol. 17, No. 5.

author picture Cheryl O’Connor is chief executive officer of the Australian College of Educators.