Preparing today's students for tomorrow's world

In 2017, Mark Scott, then Secretary, NSW Department of Education, delivered a presentation on learning for the future to the Trans Tasman Business Circle. A transcript of his presentation is provided below.


Let's start in the present and cast our gaze to the future. The five-year-olds who started Kindergarten this year will be at university in 2030 and will spend most of their working lives in the second half of the 21st century.

While it has always been the case that our schools hold the future within their classrooms, today's education system needs to set the foundations for these young children to thrive in life and work in 2050 and perhaps through to 2090.

Such is the pace of change wrought by advancing technologies, that it is highly conceivable that these young children will be living in a world radically altered from our own.

That means future thinking - and planning for the future - matters more now than ever before.

The rise of intelligent machines

Many experts are predicting that developments in artificial intelligence, robotics and automation will transform the way we live and work, on a scale similar to the industrial revolution.

Andrew Ng, a Stanford Professor of AI, has dubbed AI 'the new electricity'. He and many of his Silicon Valley colleagues believe that AI will change society as much as electricity has done in the past 100 or so years.

And, as with electricity, which enabled inventions such as television, computers and the internet, no one knows how this new technology will change the future for the generations to come.

AI is already becoming integrated into daily life - think of the smartphone in your pocket. Computers already understand and communicate using human language. Machine learning systems, which have been used in tasks as diverse as detecting skin cancer, pricing insurance, predicting crime and recommending sentences, can adapt themselves and learn over time.

AI and advanced automation are already changing jobs and augmenting complex tasks across many occupations. This is not just in the obvious examples of transport, logistics and agriculture, but in medicine - where computers can outperform doctors in diagnosing pulmonary disease - in law and accounting, where AI can do the routine work traditionally the remit of entry level roles - in financial services where algorithms can replace analysts in making investment decisions - and on and on.

Three years ago it was reported that a venture capital firm in Hong Kong appointed what is thought to be the world's first 'robo director' to its board, an algorithm with equal voting rights to its human 'counterparts'. Earlier this year the International Bar Association released a report into the legal implications of these technological changes suggesting that governments may need to define the jobs that should be performed by humans and consider human quotas across sectors.

There is little doubt about the potential for AI to radically change the types of work we will do and how we will do that work in the very near future.

We know that some jobs will be eliminated, many will be augmented and others wholly transformed. Predictions while fraught are nonetheless sobering - 40 per cent of Australian jobs have a high probability of being automatable and more than 70 per cent are likely to be substantially affected by automation and AI in the next two decades.i

We know too that jobs will be created but we cannot say with any certainty what labour market today's five year olds will enter. We cannot know with any certainty what precise set of skills they will need.

This advancing technology will not only have significant implications for employment but for the society in which these five year olds will be part, on their individual security and opportunity.

These changes will also bring new opportunities. Each previous economic age - from agrarian to industrial to computer - has opened new jobs, new businesses, new services, new work. The authors of the seminal book, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, are confident in their predictions that advancing technologies will bring greater abundance and less drudgery but are equally clear that there is no guarantee that everyone will share in the bounty:

Technological progress is an extraordinarily powerful force, but it's not destiny. It won't lift us into utopia or carry us into an unwanted future. The power to do that rests with us. i

Technological advances underpin economic progress, and the march of history has seen widespread gains from innovation. But we must be alert to the crucial decisions that will affect the impact of technological change on individuals and communities, and especially on those already facing significant disadvantage through lack of education or job opportunities. Technology itself is not a 'natural' force; it is designed, deployed and diffused through a set of public and private decisions. These decisions will need to direct technological advance on its most positive trajectory, one which helps overcome disadvantage and widely spreads economic and social gains.

What then the role of education?

Education for a changing world

In NSW we are exploring the strategic implications for education of these advancing technologies because education will be the foundation to liberate opportunity.

We're closely examining what these rapid changes will demand of school education in particular. What does it mean to say that we want these five year olds to leave school with the depth of knowledge, skill and confidence required to navigate a more complex world?

We have research underway to understand these issues better. We have commissioned papers by authors from a range of fields to consider the implications of AI for education from their diverse perspectives. Some of these papers have been published today and our aim is to prompt discussion and debate and to push ourselves and others to think deeply and broadly about these issues.

I've held roundtables with leaders from industry, business and the education sector. I've heard the challenges they are grappling with, the impact of rapid technological and economic change in their worlds, the major shifts they are seeing in the workforce, and the changes the tertiary education sector in particular is making to get ahead of the curve.

The themes that are starting to emerge from this exploration are both comforting and challenging.

It is in part comforting because there is much that is not new. That's good news because the pace of curriculum change is invariably slow. At times it feels like it will be overwhelmed by continental drift.

Literacy and numeracy will continue to be the building blocks on which all learning rests. Strong discipline knowledge still matters, not so students can regurgitate facts, but because it is fundamental to deep understanding, strong thinking skills and the ability to learn.

It is just as important today as it ever was for students to understand the core values of the Enlightenment.

But the themes emerging from our explorations present challenges too. We will need to lift the bar much higher, free up space to enable students to delve deeper, to inquire as much as to answer and to apply their knowledge to real life contexts.

In an era of acceleration and increasing uncertainty, we cannot be in the business of predicting what employers will want in 2030, much less 2050. But we can describe the kind of citizen we want to emerge from our schools - students who are critical and reflective, open to a lifetime of learning and relearning, who are comfortable with change, have empathy and a global outlook.

This demands that we all take a broader perspective about what we judge a good education to be because students with these skills and attributes will likely be best placed to flourish in a world of intelligent machines.

The challenge for education systems

Deep learning for all students not just the machines

The fundamental importance of the 'three Rs' - reading, writing and arithmetic - are recognised by educators the world over. Without these foundations higher order learning and more complex skills cannot be developed. But basic literacy and numeracy skills are not enough for today's complex world.

Many of the routine jobs for which basic literacy and numeracy were sufficient will be performed by machines that will be able to do them more quickly, more accurately and, over time, less expensively.

The profound changes ahead demand an education approach that lifts the proficiency of all students. As Dylan Wiliam, Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at University College London, has so succinctly put it:

Our world is becoming more and more complex, and so higher and higher levels of educational achievement will be needed to be in control of one's own life, to understand one's culture, to participate meaningfully in democracy, and to find fulfilling work. iii

What might this take? There are many factors at play but a critical one is the role of teachers in providing not the basic facts but the framework on which students can build deep understanding, to help students to learn how to apply their knowledge creatively and effectively, and to be strong and critical thinkers. We need to teach students to find and make meaning in their learning not to simply master a list of skills.

Marc Tucker, President of the National Centre on Education and the Economy in the United States, puts it this way:

Our students will have to understand the big ideas in the core subjects in the curriculum. They will need to have deep understanding of the underlying concepts that structure knowledge in those core subjects. They will have to use those concepts every day to solve complex problems in domains they find interesting and even compelling. iv

It will mean providing opportunities for students to develop their skills further by testing ideas and solving real problems. This is the way many university courses are moving, and it is what the best of vocational education has always done.

Schooling should provide young people with the knowledge they need to approach the future with a dynamic and forward-thinking mindset.

Futurist Richard Watson urges us to teach students about the connected nature of knowledge:

We should be giving them the confidence and skills to question conventional wisdom and solve fluid and connected problems - all of which comes back to teaching people how to think for themselves. v

The importance of mindset

If future citizens will need to reinvent themselves and constantly adapt to change, then education will need to focus even more on learning how to learn as well as what to learn.

The concept of education being about what happens during the 13 years of compulsory schooling is no longer enough. We will need to continue learning throughout our lives and consequently think about the role of governments, industry and employers in a world of lifetime education that requires constantly re-skilling.

To borrow a phrase from UTS Vice-Chancellor Attila Brungs, we need to prepare students for "life-long learning on steroids", and to be resilient as they change jobs or as their job changes many times. Tertiary education is already responding to these changes, and many in that sector have changed their courses to develop these skills.

The attitude our students have to learning will be vital.

Given the uncertainty it's imperative we support students to develop a mindset towards learning, to challenge themselves and put in the effort to master new skills and knowledge through hard work. We want them to persevere, to have the confidence to take on the unknown, to take intellectual risks and learn from failures.

But the challenge for our schools doesn't end there.

More than ever the future demands that our children develop connections with one another, a sense of community, citizenship and collaboration. This will require them to be well-informed and engaged, well-educated in ethics and civics, and to have the social and emotional ability to understand and work with people from diverse cultures.

Interpersonal competencies are increasingly the focus of education systems around the globe. Interpersonal intelligence has at its foundation tolerance and respect and incorporates collaboration, teamwork, trust, leadership and responsibility, communication and influence.

Empathy has been described as a key 21st century competency. Beautifully put by Marc Tucker:

In a very tightly laced world, empathy is the coin of the realm.

Teaching empathy involves considering the complexity of issues in an interconnected worldview. How we build empathy into education systems is a big question, as it is for the corporate world which has traditionally considered empathy a 'soft' and lower value skill.

The young leaders of today are telling us this. Here's Belinda Parmar, CEO of The Empathy Business and a Young Global Leader with the World Economic Forum:

Our empathy is something that computers will always struggle to emulate. We need to celebrate what makes us different from even the smartest of the machines. While the future belongs to those who are able to navigate this increasingly digitalised world of ours, the choicest spoils will fall to those who can combine technological fluency with emotional intelligence. vi

Add to this list too, flexibility and adaptability given that our young people will need to take the initiative in a less predictable and more complex world.

They will need to be creative, able to persevere and think about the long-term when considering solutions to challenging problems. Why? Toby Walsh, Scientia Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of New South Wales, explains:

Even if machines can be creative, they cannot speak to the human experience about love, death and all the things that make us unique. If machines take over the sweat, this could leave us with time to create the next Renaissance.

Measuring a broader set of skills and attributes

These skills are not new, and many of our schools are focused on them. But the challenge of devoting sufficient time and space to the breadth and depth of education I am describing here cannot be underestimated. Nor can we underestimate the challenge of measurement and assessment.

A theme emerging from our investigations is that some of the key skills and attributes of the future are not necessarily the ones that we directly measure in our major assessments.

We are good at assessing literacy and numeracy skills and students' depth of content knowledge in core subjects. These will continue to be critical. But what of these broader skills and attributes, such as resilience, that idea of the growth mindset, the capacity to fail and try again, to persevere?

There is some movement in this direction. Internationally, the OECD, UNESCO and others are developing frameworks, standards and assessments for intrapersonal competencies as well as concepts such as 'global skills' to support greater cross-cultural collaboration. Nationally, we have a set of general capabilities in the Australian Curriculum such as critical and creative thinking and intercultural understanding.

But can it be said that we know enough about how some of these skills are acquired and how to support students to develop them? Do we know enough about the most effective teaching practices, the tools and resources schools need to nurture them and how best to assess their attainment?

All the while we must take care in discussions about measurement of these skills to avoid the pitfalls of the high stakes test.

The move to include so-called non-academic factors in school accountability regimes in the United States has been criticised as "high stakes character assessments" where students' level of 'grit' become part of the judgement of school performance. This is something even the pioneer of the concept of grit, Professor Angela Duckworth, has publicly opposed, and it is not something we should seek to replicate here.

Learning beyond the four walls

Connected to a broadening of perspective on education is the idea of where and when learning takes place. While school education is often framed as "classroom learning", to state the obvious, learning takes place not only in the classroom but outside the classroom and outside of school.

Beyond the four walls of the classroom is often where real-life problem-solving occurs, where students work and play in teams to set goals and use determination, hard work and planning to achieve them. Consider the discipline and collaboration built into a sporting team... Or the creativity that comes from a school play... the empathy that's built into raising funds for Legacy and volunteering at a homeless shelter ... or the critical thinking involved with debating.

Clearly our challenge then is how to create this wide range of opportunities and how to value them as legitimate experiences for students to learn that are equally worthy of a school and its teachers' investment.

If what happens outside the classroom is just as important as what goes on in class, how do we carefully plan and track this learning for every student? We need to codify this important learning so we can confidently articulate it and monitor it just as we do with traditional studies of literacy and numeracy.

Lifting our maths and technology skills

I can't address the topic of Preparing today's students for tomorrow's world without touching briefly on some disciplines that warrant specific attention.

I've heard again and again from business and industry about the importance of STEM skills. We know we need to lift the bar for science and maths subjects, and spark an early interest in children, particularly girls and particularly in maths.

In Australia only 16 percent of STEM qualified people are female and we see a stark gender inequality in the more practical and challenging STEM subjects. In the NSW Year 12 exit exam, the Higher School Certificate, girls account for 36 percent of enrolments in Mathematics Extension 2 (the most advanced course); 22 percent of enrolments in Physics and 6 percent of enrolments in Engineering Studies.

The perception of girls about their abilities, particularly in mathematics, is of real concern. The research is clear: You can have girls and boys with similar educational outcomes and achievement levels, but girls' perception of their ability to go on and have success in mathematics is lower.

This translates into patterns of gender participation that advantages boys' achievement prospects, despite there being no corresponding achievement differences. Resolving this issue of gender inequality in STEM subjects requires a change of mindset from the very earliest years of schooling, it's not just about the end of high school.

Looking beyond maths and science, it is clear that the impact of advancing technologies means students need to be digitally literate and skilled in designing creative solutions to take full advantage of these technologies.

As Professor Walsh points out, all citizens should have an understanding of the fundamental principles of computation. He calls for a population informed about how machines are making decisions and the choices embedded in computer code.

This doesn't mean we need to teach everyone to hack code. But we do want people to understand the building blocks of computation, to appreciate what can - and can't - be done, to abstract problems so that they can be automated, to decompose problem-solving into a series of algorithmic steps, and to generalise to work across problem domains. These problem-solving skills will become essential in many new jobs. vii

We need to help all of our students to be digitally literate in the fullest sense - to have strong skills in computational thinking and to critically engage with what Walsh describes as "computational ethics".

As AI and automation infiltrate many more aspects of our lives, it will become increasingly important not only that we are fostering these skills but that our students are able to engage with the ethical questions that they raise for all of us - the privacy implications, issues of transparency and fairness and the potential for in-built biases in the algorithms that are making automated decisions that affect our lives.

Teaching - inspiration and innovation

Great teaching will never become obsolete. The challenges that advancing technologies present to education can only be met by exceptional teachers and school leaders. Indeed, in the age of AI just as now, great teaching is the most important element.

Modelling by Oxford University researchers Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne on the susceptibility of jobs to computerisation, places the teaching profession as among the least likely to be automatable.viii That said, the rapid pace of technological change will have implications for our teaching workforce, with new skills required, new knowledge and new ways of working.

We don't want to lose sight of our teachers? greatest strengths - those that are uniquely human
- and we need to grow those strengths. The relationships teachers form with students, to inspire them and lead them to greater things, will be more important than ever.

Research is now examining how AI can improve education, with some of the most notable work in this area funded by Bill Gates.

AI has the potential to benefit education by enabling more personalised learning because it has the capability to recognise individual areas of need and find ways to better explain concepts. Teachers can use AI to make adjustments to lessons and create customised content for specific subjects and students.

There are dozens of examples of AI being used in classrooms around the world - Carnegie Learning's Intelligent tutoring and assessment systems used in Philadelphia schools to transform the maths classroom; Third Space Learning's online math tutoring platform used by over 500 schools in the United Kingdom; Brainly's Intelligent support for collaborative learning which has 80 million unique users monthly across 35 countries and which uses a social network to help millions of students collaborate through the power of AI.

While some of this is already happening in our classrooms, and with positive effect, our immediate challenge is to move from the current ad hoc approach to innovations in this area as well others to a more systematic and agile scaling.

As a system we need to get better at looking to global best practice, to trial systemically and invest where evidence tells us what works. Anything less will sell our students short.

The future is now

To end, I return to the beginning. The future in the classroom is now. We are at a crossroads and we can't sit back and wait for the revolution to happen to us. We need to lead the change. This is education's moment.

The fundamental questions we need to ask ourselves are: What do we value in terms of the skills and knowledge our students need to have when they leave school? What sort of citizens do we want them to be? How will we ensure we overcome disadvantage and avoid the risks of further equity gaps? And what sort of world do we want them to create in the future?

The implications of AI for work, for life and indeed for the education system are great. The challenges that we need to turn our mind to now are not easy. I would contend that we will not solve them in isolation. Business has an obligation to partner with education to help us meet these challenges.

Whether today's young people are well prepared to take advantage of tomorrow's opportunities - how well placed today's kindergarten student will be to experience happiness and success in life and work in 2030 - will depend on the policies and approaches that we develop now.

The future is not an abstract concept for educators; it is evident on the faces of children in our classrooms today. What will be their future? How can we help them flourish? Did we understand the scale of the challenge they will one day face? And did we act to help them when we could, in the classrooms of today?

Mark Scott
Former Secretary NSW Department of Education
29 June 2017


  • i CEDA 2015, Australia's Future Workforce?, Committee for Economic Development of Australia; Hajkowicz, S. et al 2016, Tomorrow's Digitally Enabled Workforce: megatrends and scenarios for jobs and employment in Australia over the coming 20 years, CSIRO, Brisbane, January.
  • ii Brynjolfsson, E. & McAfee, A. 2014, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, WW Norton, New York. Bernstein, A & Raman, A 2015, 'The Great Decoupling: an interview with Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee', Harvard Business Review, June.
  • iii Wiliam, D. 2016, "Wales Pisa results: 'Little will be learned'", BBC News, 4 December.
  • iv Tucker, M. 2017, "Educating for a Digital Future: Notes on Curriculum", Education: Future Frontiers Occasional Paper Series, NSW Department of Education, June.
  • v Watson, R. 2017, "On education in the 21st Century", Education: Future Frontiers Occasional Paper Series, NSW Department of Education, June.
  • vi Paramar, B. 2017, 'Students need more than tech prowess to thrive', World Economic Forum Global Agenda, April.
  • vii Walsh, T. 2017, "The AI Revolution", Education: Future Frontiers Occasional Paper Series, NSW Department of Education, June.
  • viii Frey, C. & Osborne, M. 2013, 'The Future of Employment: how susceptible are jobs to computerisation?' Oxford Martin School Working Paper No. 7.


  • Teaching and learning

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