Preparing for the Best and Worst of Times

Our schools need to take a mighty leap into the future: let’s dump outmoded practices and mindsets

On October 5th 1979 stuntman Kenny Powers attempted to jump his rocket powered Lincoln Continental car from Canada to the USA across the St Lawrence River; a jump of 1.6 kilometres. The preparation took more than four years; it was costly (more than one million dollars), methodical and exacting. When the day finally came for the jump the car flew about fifteen metres and plunged into the river seriously injuring the stuntman. In the end, no matter how careful the preparation of the equipment or how experienced the team or highly trained the stuntman they fell woefully short.

Fast-forward to today and our schools face a similar jump. We have spent years preparing ourselves, training, restructuring, ‘harmonising’, recruiting and developing our people. However we currently don’t have the capacity to make the jump from old ways of thinking and doing in schools, to approaches that are going to help us jump the gap from rhetoric in policy to the realities of teaching in an uncertain world. We have lots to say in our policies about creativity, innovation, effective and authentic collaboration, perceptive critical reflection and incisive communication, but in schools our teachers face complex problems, fixed mindsets and outmoded practices.

In the University of Sydney’s recently released report Preparing for the Best and the Worst of Times we discuss the complexities created for our schools from the rapid rise of Artificial Intelligence and the need for a focus on what we call ‘learning dispositions’ to respond effectively to that challenge. As we see it, Australian schools have the resources they need in energy, hope and compassion but they lack the structures and processes to make the jump.

Foundations for learning

We believe the foundations of lifelong learning are creativity, collaboration, communication and critical reflection. We call these the 4Cs. They help students move beyond just remembering ‘facts’ to help them make connections between ideas and create new ones. Capacities like collaboration and communication are not ‘caught’ or picked up by accident. Schools need to explicitly teach them through clear frameworks and diverse learning strategies. As our report recommends, these capacities also need to be put into real world settings and with real world problems. These capacities help our young people make their way through the many challenges life presents (and not only at work) by helping them understand and enact strategies that enhance and extend collaboration rather than close down ideas or opportunities because of poor collaborative practices.

We have been using the 4C approach to learning to help schools prepare for the jump; to take them from the vision of education outlined in aspirational documents such as Gonski 2 to the realities of everyday teaching in 2018 for that uncertain future.

In NSW we have now more than 30 schools who are working with our 4C team and are attempting the jump.

Learning dispositions

We believe children adopt different learning dispositions such as curiosity and focus that are critical for them to sustain and apply their learning. To be an effective learner it is not sufficient to just have good thinking skills. Effective learners need focus, empathy and teamwork so they can apply their learning to different and complex contexts. In other words schools need to develop all of these dispositions because they are interdependent. Students who are deficient in the cognitive, intrapersonal or interpersonal dispositions will struggle to sustain, apply and adapt their learning at and beyond formal education settings. We invented a learning dispositions wheel to help explain what the dispositions are and how they can work together.

The learning disposition wheel is based on groundbreaking research from the US National Research Council Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills for the 21st Century. Inventing the wheel was a breakthrough in our work with the Hospital School at Westmead who began working with us on the 4Cs in late 2016.

*The Learning Disposition Wheel © 4C Transformative Learning

The wheel has many uses but it is particularly helpful in the early stages of school transformation to establish a common metalanguage and a shared understanding of learning. In the schools we work with, the wheel provides a coherent and shared understanding for leadership, teachers and the community to work towards with individual students, staff and the school as whole organisation.

Our work with The Hospital School

The Hospital School at The Children’s Hospital, Westmead, in NSW may not be familiar to many. This school supports the education of students in Kindergarten to Year 12, who are hospitalised for more than 10 days. For some students, the hospital school is the only school setting they attend all year. The job of the school is doubly difficult in some ways; they need to tailor learning to children and young people who are at their most vulnerable while providing education that allows them to keep up when they leave hospital.

The school saw the potential to enhance their effectiveness for their students by developing learning capacities (through the learning disposition wheel) rather than focusing solely on curriculum content. The teachers and leadership had become frustrated with ‘content delivery’ that did not support the learning of students. The 4C approach was implemented (as it is in most of our partner schools) through a tailored mix of

  • intensive mentoring of leadership,
  • in and out of classroom support and mentoring of teachers
  • in depth professional learning with teaching teams
  • collaborative classroom visits, and
  • network meetings across 4C schools

Through the 4C program staff were introduced to the learning disposition wheel as a tool for diagnosing learning challenges to target specific areas where students required support, such as ‘grit’ or ‘curiosity’, ‘think why and how’ or ‘influence’. The learning disposition wheel was implemented with their normal curriculum (not instead of) to build deep and relevant learning for these students. The 4C learning team worked with the teaching staff to develop a whole school approach that delivered consistency and a common learning and teaching framework including a common metalanguage for the teaching and leadership groups.

The school staff has noticed a clear and remarkable change in student behaviour and engagement. Many students who have previously resisted schooling at this school are now enthusiastic and engaged around attendance and learning. There have also been key breakthroughs with the medical staff who are adopting the Learning Disposition Wheel to ensure that the learning and the medical approaches are integrated. For their students, the capacities they have built through the learning disposition wheel can be applied when they move back to their census school and beyond.

Similar success in student engagement and achievement is present in many of the schools that have engaged with the 4C transformation approach. In some ways if this approach can work in the unique circumstances of The Hospital School, they can and do work in other schools with their own unique and context driven features. The effectiveness of the approach works in multiple and variable contexts as it focusses on a negotiation between context and our strategies for deep learning rather than a ‘bolt on’ take it or leave it package.

Transforming Schools: a rationale for scaleable change

The 4C approach is not only about shifting curriculum. When working effectively it will transform school organization, school culture and help shape a vision for viable 21st Century schooling. The 4Cs form the basis of moving our schools from being ‘museums of pedagogy’ to vital, energetic, flexible and resilient places where learning directly meets the needs of a world where knowledge is ubiquitous but explicit skills for life and work are not. In these schools, classrooms and staff rooms, collaboratively led teaching teams are transforming learning and teaching through this approach. But it takes will, energy, inquiry, courage, determination, and most of all, it takes an explicit understanding of how to teach these sometimes elusive concepts.

The Artificial Intelligence infused world our students face is complex, contradictory and to some extent more chaotic than the world this schooling system was designed for. And yet our school systems have only changed incrementally (at best). Simultaneously, the world of work is changing so that all jobs will be changed and many in health, law, and transport will cease to exist or will be changed fundamentally. While not a cause for undue alarm, our report Preparing for the Best and the Worst of Times focusses on the steps we need to take in education to respond to the potential technological ‘‘colonisation’’ of human work by focusing on the learning dispositions our students require. Schools cannot ignore the looming changes and pretend ‘business as usual’ will adequately prepare our students for these tectonic shifts.

We believe schools need to be enabled to fundamentally change. And teachers need more than policy; they need support to make these capacities understandable and teachable for their students. More broadly, teachers need political, policy and resource support to make hard changes a reality through effective professional learning and partnerships for their school communities.

At The Hospital School and in many other schools who have embarked on this transformation, the changes are deepening and extending the learning. Like Kenny Powers (our stunt driver) we are staring at a chasm with a schooling system that is not yet fit for purpose. What we have on our side though is the bountiful and generative resource; a schooling system with inspired leaders, capable teachers and the almost boundless energy of our students. Let’s hope we have the expertise, wit, courage and vision to make the jump.


Professor Michael Anderson is Professor in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at The University of Sydney. His is an internationally recognised educational leader. He has taught, researched and published in education and transformation for over 20 years including 13 books and 55 book chapters and journal articles. His international research and practice focus on how the 4Cs can be integrated using coherent frameworks to make learning meet the needs of 21st Century learners.



Dr Miranda Jefferson is co-founder and innovative practice leader of 4C Transformative Learning. She has been involved in leading innovation in schools for over 20 years. She leads programs, initiatives and research in curriculum reform, educational change and school transformation in several schools. Miranda has taught drama and media arts learning and teacher professional practice in the Education Faculty at the University of Sydney. She has also been on advisory boards for ACARA.



For those interested in more about the 4Cs and School Transformation program

The Learning Disposition Wheel is explained fully in our recent book Transforming Schools.


*Copyright for The Learning Disposition Wheel is the property of 4C Transformative Learning and may not be reproduced without permission.