Uncertainty, a gift and a challenge

How best can we prepare our students for 2040?

The National Initiatives and Performance Directorate, which sits within the External Affairs and Regulation Division, develops cross-divisional policy proposals and strategic projects and pursues opportunities to leverage national policy reform. The work of the National Initiatives and Performance Directorate aims to position NSW as a national leader in education, including through the Education for a Changing World project.


The NSW Department of Education challenged a consortium of University of Sydney academics, led by Professor John Buchanan, to consider the important question: what will today’s kindergarten students need to not just survive, but thrive, in the 21st century? This research project forms part of the department’s Education for a Changing World initiative, which is considering the predicted changes that artificial intelligence (AI) and other developing technologies could bring to Australia’s economy, workplace and community, and the implications of this for school education.

What will today’s kindergarten students need, to not just survive, but thrive, in the 21st century?

The University of Sydney’s report, ‘Preparing for the Best and Worst of Times’, draws on the expertise of scholars from faculties across the university, including engineering, health, business and education. The report encompasses a range of themes that are thought-provoking and challenging for both educators and the broader community.

Future Frontiers: education for 2040 panel discussion (1 hr, 27 mins, 53 secs), moderated by Leslie Loble, Deputy Secretary, External Affairs and Regulation, was introduced by Mark Scott, Secretary of the Department, and featured a panel of academics, practitioners and business personalities discussed the implications for education of the current artificial intelligence and other emerging trends.

About artificial Intelligence

While exactly how far AI can and will develop remains contested, consensus exists that it will have an increasing and substantive effect on our future work, lives and communities. This influence is predicted to extend to the job types and roles available to our children, and the structures and processes we use to connect socially and make decisions. Most importantly, perhaps, AI is predicted to amplify and accelerate societal change, including through its intersection with other factors such as labour market fragmentation, globalisation, social and economic inequality, and climate change.

Exactly how these changes will manifest is, of course, a great unknown. Yet it is this shifting landscape that the report’s authors identify as the core challenge for today’s educators, raising the question: how can we best prepare our students for uncertainty and a rapidly changing future?

How best can we prepare our students for uncertainty?

The report advocates that any effective educational approach, serious about preparing students for uncertainty, must grapple with the following four questions:

  1. What types of pupils do we want to develop: highly flexible ‘labour’ or flourishing, productive citizens?

    Many prescriptions in the current ‘future of work’ literature are predominantly concerned with developing what may be described as the ultra-flexible worker. That is, people able to meet ever-changing market requirements. In contrast, the health, humanities and social science disciplines highlight the importance of investing in, and educating for, human purpose beyond the individual’s employability or skill-set relevant to industry.
  2. How can education contribute to people flourishing over their life course?

    Human development is a complex, multi-dimensional process. The early school years are critical for developing people’s ‘learner identity’ or disposition, which can be understood as the propensity for curiosity, ability to concentrate, resilience in the face of challenge, and the capacity to develop learning relationships that support them in their learning journey. Ideally, a well nurtured learning identity can result in people who are empowered to, and are ultimately excited by, learning.
  3. What is the relationship between developing general learning dispositions and developing specialist expertise?

    Literature from disciplines as diverse as cognitive psychology, education, philosophy, engineering and applied labour economics provides evidence for the argument that having specific knowledge is important. Gaining ‘generic’ skills or, more accurately, learning dispositions which embrace, for example, collaboration and problem solving, may be most effectively acquired in the context of mastering specific disciplinary, trade or professional expertise. In other words, content matters when it comes to developing and utilising the capacity to solve real-world problems, and contribute to the collective effort to tackle complex challenges. These arguments from the report were recently endorsed by Dr Alan Finkel (2018, PDF 630KB) at the Australian Science Teachers Association Annual Conference.

  4. Are current approaches to gaining specialised knowledge providing students with well-developed learning dispositions?

    The mainstream academic curriculum focuses on fairly abstract analytical skills, and is perceived by many students as ‘too academic’ and irrelevant to real-world situations. In contrast, the focus of vocational education and training is viewed by many as ‘too narrow’ and overly focussed on the immediate needs of any one job. In fact, academic disciplines should better highlight their broader application to diverse problems beyond those traditionally encountered in the labour market; and vocational education would benefit from broadening existing domain definitions to allow greater job role flexibility. In developing broad capacity by bringing together the academic and the applied, we may be upskilling students to better cope with uncertainty and change.

Implications for schooling

The report’s authors argue that there needs to be greater engagement with AI by educators, including formal documentation such as the curriculum. For the authors, this means much more than teaching students how to code. Rather, students need to be provided with opportunities to learn about and apply ‘digital fluency’ – the ability to reflect on both the ‘covert’ and ‘amplifying’ impact of AI – to real-life scenarios, including the changing requirements of the future workforce.

They further argue the challenges associated with AI require more than marginal adjustments to established arrangements. Education, like most social domains, benefits from engagement from the private and public sectors, community organisations and the broader community. But stronger partnerships are needed to deliver the education experience that young people will need to prepare them for the future. While many schools are endeavouring to do this, the authors contend that quality engagement from the business sector has been limited.

Central to these stronger partnerships will be teachers, who will remain the custodians of pedagogy, and the guardians of how best to educate for the flourishing citizens of tomorrow.

References and further reading

Buchanan, J., Ryan, R., Anderson, M., Calvo, R., Glozier, N. & Peter, S. (2018). Future Frontiers analytical report: preparing for the best and worst of times.

Education for a changing world. (2018).

Finkel, A. (2018, July). Raising Twenty-First century citizens. Keynote address presented at the Australian Science Teachers Association Annual Conference (CONASTA 67), University of Sydney.

How to cite – National Initiatives and Performance Directorate, NSW Department of Education. (2018). Uncertainty, a gift and a challenge: how best can we prepare our students for 2040? Scan, 37(8).

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