Only 18 Years: The near future for schools

Hamish has a 25-year background in leading education across schools, libraries, and education companies using design thinking and intercultural learning. As the General Manager at Cool Australia, he leads the development of initiatives to ensure education has the resources to address environmental, economic, and social sustainability.

2040 has been identified as a pivotal milestone for our earth. A milestone that will signpost how we’ve addressed the significant challenges of climate change and how we’ve adapted our resources, technology, and communities. Education is core to all this. The design, scale, and shift we bring to education will help us meet this near future - one that is only 18 years away. The same time it takes for a child to move through school. 18 years ago, it was 2004.

Each author that accepted to respond to this provocation was struck by the same conundrum - What will change? What will stay the same? How can I possibly capture that balance and scope in such a short piece?

This series of articles on the 2040 milestone comes from six education perspectives -

  • two system leaders,
  • a school principal,
  • a school teacher,
  • an early childhood educator, and
  • a student.

They all wrestle with what’s happened and what’s to come with different levels of experience and perspectives on education. With one simple truth - education must evolve faster than we’re currently seeing.

Even if we take an 18-year retrospective back to 2004 and assume that education and our world will change at the same pace with similar impacts since that time, we must surely realise that much more needs to change. Since 2004 we’ve seen the rapid and frequent evolution of technology hardware and services, of curriculum, of economies and employment, of climate disasters, of pandemics, of job disruption, of war and human injustice, and of the extinction of flora and fauna. Having those same areas evolve again in the next 18 years would make any head spin. This is the probable future.

Our authors don’t see it all this way - they have preferred futures. They come with lived experience and insight on how we can do better and how we are shaping more promising systems and services around education. This includes envisioning and enacting better education around First Nations people and culture, around the role of play, on a shorter school week, by connecting our ecosystems, by elevating social-emotional learning, and by listening to youth.

Many know the parable of the boiled frog. If you put a frog in boiling water, it will jump out. But if you put it into cool water and heat it slowly, the frog will not notice and eventually die. This is an allegory about our inability to notice a slow change. In my opinion, humans are the worst at slow change. We are great in a crisis and immediate disaster, but we ignore and become complacent on issues that break down and fracture gradually. Education is a classic example.

We have adapted and experimented with schools for a very long time. People like to believe that education hasn’t changed, when in fact schools have had to modify, absorb and switch their pedagogies and curricula regularly; at least every 5-10 years. Especially when data comes out showing that some ranked scores have slipped. We quickly impose another rapid response on schools, forgetting that the underpinning system of schooling continues. We know inequity exists and we know models of schooling are not sustaining our students, their pathways, let alone our teachers. Yet we continue to fiddle at the edges. It’s like putting solar on your rooftop and assuming you’ve addressed climate change.

If our world changes, so too must systems that support life. Therefore having an education is core to our evolution. An education that helps us shift how we interact with our world to ensure a more sustainable and harmonious existence. Cries of ‘back to basics’ are useless if the world no longer provides us with the basics - water, air, food. Taking the ripples of the last 18 years and repeating them again should be a powerful reminder that we need to make bolder, more innovative changes. This is not to say that schools as centres of learning are not viable. Instead, we need to make them more interactive and representative of the needs of our world. Using technology, green energy, real-world challenges, well-being, amongst others. As a matter of priority, we need to nurture relationships with each other and our environment.

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Recently I was at a conference that featured a broad student panel across primary and secondary students. When discussing their aspirations for education in the future, one student wanted teachers to note a reminder - “Remember, you’re teaching human beings, not subjects.” It was a stinging remark. These highlight calls to balance the academic and the vocational, knowledge and skills, play and work, efficiency and time. As the world around us continues to re-correct, so too must we find new ways to balance what’s important and valuable.

We have many guiding documents helping us map out the preferred future. Australia’s ‘Mparntwe Education Declaration’ (2019) sets goals for the next decade, with equity and excellence central themes. More recently, the UN has published the ‘Youth Declaration on Transforming Education’ (2022), collating about 450,000 youth voices across 170 nations resulting in 25 demands for education. While these might set some benchmarks, it remains to be seen if leaders and nations really listen.

There’s a famous saying attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus 'We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.’ I hope you can hear the voices of our authors coming through loud and clear. Education 2040 is only 18 short years away, a near future we all aspire to make better for our learners everywhere.

About Cool Australia:

Cool Australia designs effective online resources to enable high quality teaching to engage students in real-world learning. We want to develop active, empowered citizens to nurture a healthy, happy, sustainable, and just society.

Cool’s work involves creating contemporary, curriculum-aligned resources, helping over 200,000 educators and parents weave real-world issues and actions for young people to learn. This is achieved through our three pillars of sustainability – social sustainability, economic sustainability, and environmental sustainability.


Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.