School education in Australia has many bright spots, but we do not have a system of excellence or an adaptive education system that identifies excellence and systematically spreads and amplifies it.
This discussion paper argues that our current education system is not fit for purpose given the complex challenges it faces. These challenges show up in flat or declining performance in national and international tests; in the unacceptable number of students who are not ready for life after school; and in the persistent equity gaps among our schools, despite increased needs-based funding.
At the most basic level, we know far too little about how to translate the growing research about what works best into daily classroom practice. More broadly, we have failed to create an education system that adapts and improves over time – a learning system that systematically learns.
It is neither possible nor desirable to prescribe what or how to teach in all circumstances. Local contexts differ, and each classroom has its own unique dynamics. Individual teachers are responsible for how they teach their students (informed by the research), and for adapting their teaching over time to maximise impact. This is an inherently local process. The point is that it should not be done independently in every classroom. If each teacher or school tried to evolve and improve in isolation, we would never achieve the gains needed, because there would be no systemic learning or adoption of best practice.
An adaptive education system would balance local decision-making with top-down guidance and resource allocation. This means learning by doing, with an explicit focus on inputs (what is done), outcomes (what is measured), and a learning process that closes each feedback loop. Getting it right will require changes at all levels of the system, including to the evidence base, classroom practice, career pathways, leadership capability, and reporting, accountability and governance.
This discussion paper does not have all the answers. But it aims to highlight the right questions, by exploring the conceptual relationship between adaptation and education: why better teaching is an adaptive process; why we need an adaptive system; and how to create one.
It proposes six ways Australia can make its education system more adaptive, thereby improving outcomes in the medium term and increasing the effectiveness of the improvement process itself over the long term.
First, teachers and schools must be better able to track the progress of their students over time in ways that directly inform their teaching.
Second, we need to continue building better ways to spread and share information and practices, both within schools and across schools.
Third, Australia should make better use of its most expert teachers, using them to teach other teachers and spread evidence at scale.
Fourth, teachers and school leaders should do more to embrace the benefits that come from standardising elements of teaching practice.
Fifth, schools and systems need to innovate more systematically and intentionally to prepare their students for a changing world.
Sixth, and this is a big one, policy makers need to change the way they think about system leadership. In an adaptive education system, the ultimate role of the centre is system design.
Australian school education faces three big – but very different – challenges: to improve learning outcomes in core academic areas; to better prepare young people for adult life; and to do so in a way that is fair for all. The only way to simultaneously tackle these challenges is to make our education system more adaptive.