Meerkats, Ostriches & The New Learning Ecosystem

Today marked the last day of my trip to Australia. As ever, it’s been a great visit, full of learning opportunities. It’s varied from delivering project-based learning training in schools, to talking to parents about their kids’ work prospects, to the Learning Frontiers programme with AITSL. This morning I was asked to talk to an education leaders circle, sponsored by Telstra and expertly facilitated by Tony MacKay. My job was to set  the context for transforming education, not incrementally improving it. This is the gist of what I said:

The quest for the silver bullet in education (as evidenced in this article which appeared in The Conversation, this week) is an unhelpful distraction. A much more pressing challenge for Australian education was posed by a striking report, published by the Foundation for Young Australians,  ‘Renewing Australia’s Promise: Will Young Australians be better off than their parents?’ (Hint: The answer’s almost certainly no) 30% of Young Australians are unemployed, or underemployed, with 44% of them in part-time work – a depressingly similar picture to that painted by a report published in the UK this week, showing that 30% of working under-25s in Britain are earning less than a living wage. It seems young people in both countries face a future of low incomes, university debts and little prospect of the later-life benefits enjoyed by their parents.

Ostrich head in sand

Given that recent research in the US, Australia and the UK is predicting that 50% of all jobs will be freelance in only six years time, my argument was that there’s a missing conversation when we talk about the purpose of education. Why aren’t we talking about how to prepare our kids for an entrepreneurial future, where rather than applying for jobs, they’ll have to make their own work?

Faced with these imperatives, arguing about which teaching methods might improve our PISA rankings is, frankly, irrelevant. Our kids will have to compete in a global marketplace for contracts (not jobs) where their literacy will not be the deciding factor  – rather it will be their ability to think entrepreneurially, critically, creatively, and communicate effectively that will make the difference between  a living and an existence.

So, we can be ostriches or meerkats. The ostriches put their heads in the sand and hope it will all blow over. The meerkats are rather more agile, looking out for opportunities, scanning the (global) horizon, recognising that cultural awareness is a vital skill to have, so make sure their students are globally competent.

This theme was picked up by Yong Zhao who followed me. He spoke of the homogenisation of learning systems, inspired by PISA hysteria, with the West trying to ape the East. Not only is this misleading – he described Chinese students as lacking in confidence and creativity, two vital skills for entrepreneurs – it’s also economically pointless. Jobs go where costs are lowest, so Australian students (like their counterparts in the US and UK) have to find a way to stand out from the pack.


14% of Google’s employees don’t have a college degree, so what makes you stand out from the pack is your portfolio, your network, and your attitude. One of the Telstra executive told me afterwards that he’s shocked at the poor attitude of some graduates in interviews. I argued that those students are going to be more entrepreneurial (and more likely to be hired) if they’ve emerged from what I call open learning environments. Open learning environments:

1. Extend learning relationships beyond the teacher-student dialogue. They invite business people, community representatives, parents, carers and mentors into the learning commons – communicating with a range of people helps build students communication skills;

2. See school as the basecamp for learning, not the sole destination. The best way to prepare students for the world beyond school is to put them in the world beyond school, working on real-life projects;

3. Privilege passion, participation, and purpose in their learning designs, doing work that matters, that has use to their communities and local businesses;

4. Connect learners – and teachers – globally, making full use of the incredible social technologies we now have at our disposal;

5. Engage parents in learning conversations, not 5-minute speed-dating exercises (more of this in the next post);

6. Reject command-and-control as the default mode of governance – the mind has to be consulted in its own growth.

The scale of global challenges facing our young people is daunting: decades of low growth; widening social inequality; political systems which attract little or no respect; over-population; impending climatic disaster…. the list goes on. With all of that waiting for them, and the irreversible shifts in the way we work, live and learn, how could we contemplate that business as usual is even possible? To do so is to be like the ostrich, when we need to be more like the meerkat.

The new ecosystem of learning will need a much wider range of participants. In subsequent posts, I’ll share my thoughts on the potential players, starting with the most important – parents.

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2 Responses to Meerkats, Ostriches & The New Learning Ecosystem

  1. Douglas Archibald says:

    Hi David – enjoyed your post. Do you have a link to the below research:

    “Given that recent research in the US, Australia and the UK is predicting that 50% of all jobs will be freelance in only six years time”


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