Supporting future-oriented learning and teaching: A New Zealand perspective

Publication Details

This research project draws together findings from new data and more than 10 years of research on current practice and futures-thinking in education. The report discusses some emerging principles for future learning, how these are currently expressed in New Zealand educational thinking and practice and what they could look like in future practice.

Author(s): Rachel Bolstad and Jane Gilbert, with Sue McDowall, Ally Bull, Sally Boyd and Rosemary Hipkins, New Zealand Council for Educational Research. Report prepared for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: June 2012

Executive Summary

It is widely argued that current educational systems, structures and practices are not sufficient to address and support learning needs for all students in the 21st century. Changes are needed, but what kinds of change, and for what reasons? This research project draws together findings from new data and more than 10 years of research on current practice and futures-thinking in education. It aims to support the Ministry of Education's programme of work to develop a vision of what future-oriented education could look like for New Zealand learners. The work is guided by three high-level research questions:

  1. What could future-oriented learning and teaching look like, what ideas and principles underpin it and what makes it different from other teaching and learning practices?
  2. What are the conditions that enable future-oriented learning and teaching? What are the issues and challenges?
  3. How might transformational future-oriented learning and teaching approaches be promoted, enabled and sustained?

What is "21st century learning" or "future learning"? Educationalists first started to talk about "21st century learning" during the latter years of the 20th century. At that time, the phrase held connotations of the future, of change, of something "different" from practices of the day. However, now that we are in the second decade of the 21st century, the phrase is increasingly problematic. Does it still connote ideas and practices that are different, visionary or futures-oriented? Or does it simply describe ideas and practices that are currently happening? To avoid confusion, it is tempting to discard the term, yet this is also problematic since "21st century learning" has gained traction and is associated with an extensive body of relevant research. In this report we use the terms "21st century learning" and "future learning" interchangeably. We also begin from the premise that "21st century/future learning" is not a fixed prescription or known formula. Rather, it can be considered as an emerging cluster of new ideas, beliefs, knowledge, theories and practices-some of which may be visible in some schools and classrooms, some which exist only in isolated pockets and others which are barely visible yet. This report discusses some emerging principles for future learning, how these are currently expressed in New Zealand educational thinking and practice and what they could look like in future practice.

How can we research the future of education?

The challenge is to develop a view of how the emergent cluster of principles that underpin future-oriented teaching and learning can be embedded at the whole-system level, enabling local and systemic development to support all New Zealand learners to successfully participate in, and contribute to, our national and global future as well as their own personal futures.

Research into present-day practice in schools and classrooms on its own cannot provide sufficient knowledge about how to address system-level challenges for innovation and transformation. However, looking at today's innovative teaching and learning practices can provide some insights into future possibilities, when integrated with theoretical arguments about the future of education.

Why change is needed

During the latter half of the 20th century, international thinking about education began to shift to a new paradigm. This shift was driven by an awareness of massive and ongoing social, economic and technological changes, and the exponentially increasing amount of human knowledge being generated as a result. International thinking began to seriously examine questions about the role and purposes of education in a world with an unprecedented degree of complexity, fluidity and uncertainty.

Alongside economic, social, political and technological changes, many serious challenges characterise the 21st century world. Some authors describe these as "wicked problems". They are "highly complex, uncertain, and value-laden", spanning multiple domains: social, economic, political, environmental, legal and moral. It is argued that learners-and teachers, school leaders and families/communities-need support to actively develop the capabilities they need to productively engage in 21st century wicked problem solving.

Many significant international projects have considered how schooling might change to better match the changes that have taken place in the 21st century. Two important ideas that underpin this work are (1) a shift in the meaning of "knowledge", and (2) the need to build education systems based around what we now know about learning.

New meanings for "knowledge"

The terms "knowledge age" or "knowledge economy" refer to a reorganisation away from an Industrial Age economy, where exploitation of natural resources, primary production, mass production and bureaucratic management hierarchies were the standard model for economic development. In the Knowledge Age, the ability to generate value through innovation (and the rapid creation of new knowledge) has become the basis for economic development. It is argued that education for the Knowledge Age must foreground the development of learners' dispositions, capacities or competencies to deal with new situations and environments, including those with high degrees of complexity, fluidity and uncertainty. This does not mean that knowledge no longer matters, or that the school curriculum does not need explicit goals for students' knowledge development. Rather, the future-focused education literature suggests we need to adopt a much more complex view of knowledge, one that incorporates knowing, doing and being. Alongside this we need to rethink our ideas about how our learning systems are organised, resourced and supported.

New understandings about learning

Research clearly shows that people do not learn well as "spectators", as passive recipients of pre-packaged, bite-sized pieces of knowledge delivered to them by experts: good learning requires active engagement in the "whole game". The more people learn, the more they are capable of learning. Although some of these principles are understood by many teachers, our education systems and practices are often set up in ways that do not support these principles to operate in practice. If we are serious about building an education system that is capable of preparing young people for the "knowledge societies" of the future, we need to reconfigure it in new, more knowledge-centred ways. However, it will only be possible to do this when there is wider public awareness of the growing gap between the kinds of learning our young people are getting, and the kind of learning they need. There will also need to be wider public support for teachers and school leaders as they attempt what is effectively a paradigm shift in practice.

A useful metaphor: "Unbundling" schools

"Unbundling" is defined as "a process in which innovators deconstruct established structures and routines and reassemble them in newer, smarter ways". This term is often used in the business and technology sectors but is also helpful for thinking about the education system. It involves multiple ideas and practices coming together in ways that could "re-bundle" learning and teaching to better reflect the context and demands of the 21st century world.

The question is, which ideas should sit at the heart of this rebundling? Our work suggests at least six emerging principles. None of the principles is entirely new or revolutionary. However, the challenges of the 21st century provide a fertile context for all of these principles to come together to finally provide a coherent direction for designing a future-focused education system.

Emerging principles for a 21st century education system

Theme 1: Personalising learning

Personalising learning aligns with the idea that education systems must move away from an Industrial Age "one-size-fits-all" model. The idea of "personalising learning" calls for reversing the "logic" of education systems so that the system is built around the learner, rather than the learner being required to fit with the system. This challenges us to think about how to deploy the resources for learning (teachers, time, spaces, technology) more flexibly to meet learners' needs. It also requires us to think about the new resources that may be needed, beyond those traditionally thought of as part of the schooling system, and to think about how best to support learners' access to those resources. While personalising learning-based approaches are being implemented in a limited way, in pockets and/or at the margins of the sector, we are not yet seeing the kinds of "deep personalisation" argued for by future-focused educationalists.

Theme 2: New views of equity, diversity and inclusivity

Current educational policy typically concentrates on the issues of diversity, equity and inclusivity in relation to particular groupings of learners and communities for whom educational success has lagged behind that of other learners and communities. There is a recognition that these learners' and communities' needs have not been well met by the education system in the past, and a major goal of the current education system is to address the needs of "diverse" learners in order to raise overall achievement levels and reduce disparity.

However, a future-oriented approach suggests that we need to develop new ways of thinking about equity and diversity. Achieving equity is not just about addressing the underachievement or disengagement of particular groupings of students and communities and bringing everyone closer to a single normative standard of what counts as success. This is particularly important given the arguments that currently accepted markers of success in education probably do not adequately reflect the kinds of learning that are needed for the demands of the 21st century. "Diversity" needs to be recognised as a strength for a future-oriented learning system, something to be actively fostered, not a weakness that lowers the system's performance. Diversity encompasses everyone's variations and differences, including their cultures and backgrounds. This calls for greater engagement of learners, family/whānau and communities in co-shaping education to address their needs, strengths, interests and aspirations, while also ensuring that all students-no matter where they are from or where their learning happens-have opportunities to develop and succeed according to the high-level educational aspirations set for, and agreed to, by New Zealanders as a whole.

A second idea that commonly comes up in discussions of equity/diversity and 21st century learning is that 21st century citizens need to be educated for diversity-in both the people sense and the knowledge/ideas sense. The changing global environment requires people to engage-and be able to work-with people from cultural, religious and/or linguistic backgrounds or world views that are very different from their own. Alongside this is another different but related imperative. Doubts about the ability of existing paradigms to solve current social, environmental and economic challenges mean that a future-focused education system must provide learners with past paradigms and the ability to think between, outside and beyond them-that is, the ability to work with a diversity of ideas. It is argued that future-oriented learning should provide all young people with opportunities to develop these capacities.

Theme 3: A curriculum that uses knowledge to develop learning capacity

One of the biggest challenges for education in the 21st century is that our ideas about curriculum are currently underpinned by at least two quite different epistemologies, or models of what counts as knowledge. The first view is the "traditional" idea of knowledge as content, concepts and skills selected from the disciplines to form the "subjects" or "learning areas" of the school curriculum. From this point of view, the learner's job is to absorb and assimilate that knowledge into their mind and demonstrate how well they have done this through various means of assessment. It is assumed that this knowledge will be stored up for later use during the learner's life.

The second conception of knowledge is associated with the Knowledge Age/"21st century" literature. In this view, knowledge is seen as something that does things, as being more energy-like than matter-like, more like a verb than a noun. Knowledge, in the Knowledge Age, involves creating and using new knowledge to solve problems and find solutions to challenges as they arise on a "just-in-time" basis. These ideas about knowledge have emerged in the world outside education-driven in large part by economic, social and political changes, often facilitated by new technologies.

The Knowledge Age literature argues that reproducing existing knowledge can no longer be education's core goal, because (a) it is no longer possible to determine exactly which knowledge people will need to store up in order to use it in their lives after school, and (b) the "storing up for future use" model of knowledge is no longer useful or sufficient for thinking about how knowledge is developed and used in the 21st century. Instead, the focus needs to be on equipping people to do things with knowledge, to use knowledge in inventive ways, in new contexts and combinations. An individual's stock of knowledge is important as a foundation for their personal cognitive development: however, for it to be useful as a foundation for their participation in social and economic life, the individual must be able to connect and collaborate with other individuals holding complementary knowledge and ideas.

What this means for the school curriculum is a shift in what is "foregrounded". Instead of simply assuming these capacities will be developed through engagement with disciplinary knowledge (the traditional view), there is a shift to focusing on the development of everyone's capabilities to work with knowledge. From this point of view, disciplinary knowledge should be seen, not as an end in itself, but as a context within which students' learning capacity can be developed. While the use of the term "learning areas" in The New Zealand Curriculum (NZC) document signals this, it is clear that this has not changed underlying thinking for many educators. It seems clear that the work of building a 21st century education system must involve supporting educators-and the public-to understand the paradigm shift in the meaning of such apparently common-sense terms as "knowledge" and "learning", and how this might change the way curriculum is interpreted into learning and teaching experiences.

Theme 4: "Changing the script": Rethinking learners' and teachers' roles

Twenty-first century ideas about knowledge and learning demand shifts in the traditional roles or "scripts" followed by learners and teachers. If the purpose of schools is not to transmit knowledge, then teachers' roles must be reconceived. Similarly, if the learner's main job is no longer to absorb and store up knowledge to use in the future, then learners' roles and responsibilities also need to be reconceived. This calls for a greater focus on recognising and working with learners' strengths, and thinking about what role teachers can play in supporting the development of every learner's potential.

The idea of changing the scripts for learners and teachers is often shorthanded with phrases such as "student-centred pedagogies" or "student voice", alluding to the need to engage learners (and their interests, experiences and knowledge) in many decisions about their learning. However, the idea of sharing power with learners can be met with resistance, particularly if this is interpreted as an "anything goes" approach in which learners are given complete freedom to set the direction for their learning. The challenge is to move past seeing learning in terms of being "student-centred" or "teacher-driven", and instead to think about how learners and teachers would work together in a "knowledge-building" learning environment. This is not about teachers ceding all the power and responsibility to students, or students and teachers being "equal" as learners. Rather, it is about structuring roles and relationships in ways that draw on the strengths and knowledge of each in order to best support learning.

Theme 5: A culture of continuous learning for teachers and educational leaders

All of the principles discussed above suggest that teachers, school leaders, educational policy leaders and other adults supporting young people's learning need particular attributes and capabilities that enable them to work effectively towards a future-oriented learning system. It is important to note that some of the approaches advocated for 21st century learning-and the ideas that underpin them-may differ from what today's teachers, school leaders and educational policy leaders experienced in their own school learning. Teachers and school leaders may resist adapting current approaches if they don't see the need for change, or if they aren't convinced that adapting current approaches is possible, let alone likely to lead to better student outcomes.

It is important to note here that many "21st century" ideas about what meaningful learning looks like, and how to support it, are actually not new. They have been around for a very long time and are well supported and practised by many teachers. The challenge here is how to achieve a system shift that creates a more coherent educational ecology that can support what is known about good learning and that can accommodate new knowledge about learning and, importantly, new purposes for learning in a changing world.

This means that education systems must be designed to incorporate what is known about adult learning and cognitive development as well as what is known about young people's learning and development. This has implications for thinking about professional learning approaches and structures for teachers and school leaders: Are adults in the education system able to access the kinds of learning supports that they need in order to be the best leaders for a future-oriented learning system?

Theme 6: New kinds of partnerships and relationships: Schools no longer siloed from the community

Learning for the 21st century, it is argued, should support students to engage in knowledge-generating activities in authentic contexts. Students must learn to recognise and navigate authentic problems and challenges in ways that they are likely to encounter in future learning situations. However, today many learners encounter learning situations in which the "messiness" of the real world is simplified as contrived learning tasks with answers or outcomes already known to the teacher.

This implies that learning will require additional resources/support/expertise/input from a much wider range of people. Teachers ought not to be the only people from whom young people learn. As already argued (under the themes of personalising learning and equity/diversity), learning needs to be more connected with the community. Teachers still need strong pedagogical knowledge, but they also need to be able to collaborate with other people who can provide specific kinds of expertise, knowledge or access to learning opportunities in community contexts.

A final argument associated with this theme is that education and learning systems will not have traction to shift towards more 21st century approaches if this shift is not supported by the wider community. Public education is a collective good in which everyone has a stake. To be legitimate it must build our collective social and economic capacity and meet individual needs-immediate (and/or perceived) and future. To do both requires community understanding of, support for and contribution to what is being attempted. This "buy-in" could be achieved by engaging community members in authentic educational activities that draw on their expertise.

Subthemes: New technologies and collaborative practices

The Ministry of Education expressed interest in exploring two subthemes within this work on 21st century teaching and learning. These are framed by the questions: "What is the role of current and emerging technologies?" and "What is the role of collaborative practices?"

The role of current and emerging technologies

As OECD/CERI notes, "the rapid development and ubiquity of ICT are resetting the boundaries of educational possibilities. Yet, significant investments in digital resources have not revolutionised learning environments; to understand how they might requires attention to the nature of learning."

For the most part, educational thinking has moved on from the idea that simply introducing new ICT tools and infrastructure into schools will trigger beneficial and meaningful educational change. In New Zealand at least four strategies have been used to support educational ICT developments: providing enabling tools and infrastructure; providing inspiring ideas and opportunities to connect ideas; enhancing capability; and supporting innovation. Our analysis suggests that educational ICT development needs to be supported by all four strategies. This synthesis identified a range of ideas and practices associated with ICT-some of which reflect 21st century ideas about teaching, learning and knowledge, and others which do not. The potential of new technologies to transform teaching and learning is heavily dependent on educators' abilities to see the affordances and capacities of ICT in relation to the underpinning themes for learning for the 21st century outlined in this report. It is further dependent on schools having the infrastructure, inspiration, capability and opportunities for innovation to achieve these kinds of teaching and learning.

Role of collaborative practices

While networking and clustering have become increasingly popular in education, the range of reasons for, and outcomes of, networking and collaboration are often unexamined. School networks can vary in terms of their goals (which could include school improvement, broadening opportunities [including networking with nonschool agencies such as social services or business] or resource sharing), and their timescales, from short term to longer term relationships. Networking and collaboration in themselves do not necessarily support the emergence of future-focused learning practice. However, research suggests that educational clustering and networking provide opportunities for professional learning and expanding ideas about what is possible.

Policy implications

We conclude by putting forward three key ideas as a way to structure the thinking that will be needed to develop a policy/system response to the question of how we can rebuild New Zealand's education system for the 21st century. These three ideas are "diversity", "connectedness" and "coherence".

While these three key ideas inform all six of the key themes, they also allow us to see a way forward that goes beyond "ticking the boxes": that is, are schools personalising learning; are they educating for diversity (as well as working to achieve success for all learners); are they building learning capacity; are they reconceptualising the roles and responsibilities of teachers and students; are they engaged in continuous professional learning; and are they developing a range of new "real" partnerships with their communities? What is needed is, not more effort focused on the parts of this system, but strategies designed to put these ideas together: to join all this up in a way that is driven by a coherent set of shared ideas about the future of schooling and its purpose and role in building New Zealand's future.


  1. Two subtheme questions of particular interest to the Ministry of Education run across the three high-level research questions. These are: "What is the role of current and emerging technologies?" and "What is the role of collaborative practices?"
  2. This work has strong parallels to the OECD/CERI work summarised in The Nature of Learning: Using research to inspire practice (Dumont, Istance, & Benavides, 2010, p. 621).
  3. See Frame and Brown (2008, p. 226).
  4. See Perkins (2009).
  5. Hess and Meeks (2010, p. 41).
  6. Green, Facer and Rudd (2005, p. 3).
  7. See Leadbeater (2004, 2005).
  8. In New Zealand this has been a particular policy focus for Māori and Pasifika learners and those with special learning needs.
  9. Ministry of Education (2007b)
  10. See Dumont et al. (2010).

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