school transformation

What if compulsory schooling was a 21st Century invention?

There are many long-running debates in Australia around the schooling our children. Often the battle lines are drawn between traditional approaches to education versus new designs for schooling.

There is often a huge divide over concepts such as quality, equity, mastery, assessment and the case for what some call future-focused skills. There is even debate on the notions standards and what learning is. Much of the research literature and media attention about assessment focuses on successful or poor education results overseas or Australia’s weaker than expected performance on international assessments.

Gurus and pundits regularly tour Australia, either challenging us to be more like Finland or more like we ‘used to be.’

We decided to take a completely different approach.

We examined what schools might look like if they were invented today and how that could help model possible futures for schooling, particularly in light of trends to personalise learning that are taking hold around the world.

We took a counterfactual approach for our research and propose that we come at the opportunity to reconsider schooling, learning and teaching as a question, “What if Compulsory Schooling Was a 21st Century Invention?”

What is “counterfactual thinking?”

Galileo is credited with perhaps the most famous example of counterfactual thinking in history with his thought experiment that challenged the dominant thinking of Aristotle about the principles of motion. When Copernicus posited, and Galileo confirmed the Sun as the centre of the solar system and that the Earth revolved around it, many learned people of the time considered this heresy because they believed the opposite. Copernicus and Galileo had taken a very counterfactual thinking approach.

A contemporary example of counterfactual thinking is a TED talk by Matthias Müllenbeck, a director of the science and technology company Merck KGaA, who asked, “What if we paid doctors to keep us healthy?

Counterfactual thinking is the comparison of a factual situation to a simulated alternative one.”  “Counterfactual thoughts refer to mental representations that are explicitly contrary to facts or beliefs.”  

We took a future lens to the counterfactual space to ask our question about compulsory schooling.

What did our study do?

We looked at 156 empirical studies comparing traditional and alternative approaches to instruction or assessment to examine the potential for compulsory schooling to be redesigned.

Despite much debate in the literature generally arguing the benefits of traditional versus student-centred approaches, we found no major study that sought to extensively address this question through a large scale, longitudinal comparative study. We found no study that sought to evaluate formative assessment approaches (assessment by teachers during the learning process) across at least one educational system over time.

Whilst ten studies were based on an initiative that was in place for at least one year, most studies involved a short intervention with no further follow up to consider long term benefits or challenges. The systematic review process highlights opportunity for further research to focus on evaluating initiatives over a longer period of time as well as seeking to follow up the impact of initiatives post intervention.

Using foresight strategy, a discipline that helps us to explore a range of plausible alternative futures from our current perspective, we were able to identify sixteen ‘weak signals’ that, while not predicting the future, could identify significant factors or forces that could become important.

What did we learn?

Weak signals are “the early signs of possible but not confirmed changes that may later become … represent the first signs of paradigm shifts, or future trends, drivers or discontinuities”. Identification and critical analysis of weak signals benefits strategic decision-making.

We identified 16 weak signals in the literature:

What are the implications?

This work points to several key points that inform our current conversation about the future of schooling:

Weak signals point to areas that are underrepresented despite their importance:

  1. Lack of large scale, longitudinal comparative studies
  2. Student Centred or Assessment for learning practices might offer some potential benefits for indigenous education. Learnings about indigenous ways of knowing may also offer benefits to all students
  3. The impact of poverty beyond the school is understated

Weak signals point to emergent hypotheses for further inquiry:

  1. Significant positive differences for experimental groups focussed on student centred approaches or formative assessment practices, compared with control groups, were more likely when the intervention lasted for more than four weeks
  2. Standardised assessment may better gauge top end performance but can lead to criteria compliance (such as teaching to the test) that limits the development of advanced learners
  3. No evidence of a reduction in gender gaps through standardised assessment
  4. Standardised assessment may push for improvement but this could be a proxy measure for school improvement practices

Weak signals point to claims that are contested:

  1. There are some possible advantages of teacher-centred approaches to support lower level students (remedial work) whilst students in the middle and upper bands are more likely to be advantaged from student-centred approaches
  2. Standardised assessment might be leading to poorer pedagogy for equity groups
  3. Standardised assessment is accepted by parents and students but is more likely to promote shallow, test-focused pedagogy
  4. Monitoring of system level improvements through standardised assessment can lead to distortion of results through the use of exemptions for equity groups

As we build new buildings, embed emerging technologies and learn coding, entrepreneurship and STEM alongside of traditional literacy and numeracy, we may have failed to look at what the knowledge-based informs us.

We may also have an ultimate counterfactual question: “Can we imagine what schools might look like if we’d never seen one before?”

Can we design them so they promote engagement, learning and wellbeing? Can they be inspiring places of love and life, passion and positiveness? Can they embed indigenous perspectives and multicultural frameworks that guide their vision? Can we imagine and then design something that we ourselves didn’t take part in?

That may be our challenge. Our children’s future is on the line.

Jason McGrath is a New South Wales school principal who is currently undertaking Ph D studies at the School of Education, University of Newcastle. The research question is ‘ What if compulsory education was a 21st century invention?’. Jason is on Twitter @Mcg_jason

Professor John Fischetti is Interim Pro Vice Chancellor of the Faculty of Education and Arts at the University of Newcastle. John’s research focuses on reframing teacher education, school transformation and learner-focused school design. John can be reached at or on twitter @fischettij

For those who want more What if compulsory schooling was a 21st century invention? Weak signals from a systematic review of the literature