The Best Features of Australian Education
A solid education is the equivalent of a super-power. In his “Accelerating Innovation with Leadership” blog post – Bill Gates wrote that one of four objectives political leaders should prioritise is – ‘Give every student and teacher new tools so all students get a world-class education.’
Learning opens humans’ eyes to possibilities and options.
Credentials can change people’s entire quality of life, giving them earning potential and changing where they live and with whom they associate. Educational achievements can inspire personal confidence and positive self-concept.
Schools can provide a safe-haven for those struggling in their other environments. Teachers can be the most powerful role models, inspiring their students to change and strive for more.
It is easy to be critical about education when one is teaching or learning in a system that is achieving numerous quality outcomes.
It is natural and commendable to strive for continuous improvement and focus on what HAS NOT, rather than what HAS been achieved.
This article therefore focuses on the BEST features of Australian education.
The intent of this article is not to claim that Australia has reached a panacea of education or that all of the country’s schools and universities maintain the same high quality standards.
This article lists and describes 15 commendable features of education that can be found in Australian schools and universities and that should be celebrated and shared.
This article is written to answer the question – if an educator was to look for inspiration from Australian education, what features should they be encouraged to emulate.
These features apply to all levels of education, from primary and secondary to post-secondary including postgraduate studies.
Readers will notice that many of these features are technology-enhanced and that is indeed the overall advantage, or in other words – super-strength, of Australian education – students, teachers, schools and institutions have access to useful technologies and have made wise choices regarding how and when to apply these technologies for learning.
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1. Australian education is student-focused.
2. Australian education develops students’ minds and bodies.
3. Australian students are taught to think and how to learn.
4. Australian teachers promote active learning.
5. Australian teachers build strong and caring relationships with their students.
6. Australian education is personalised and equitable.
7. Australian education provides pastoral care to those in need.
8. Australian education is varied giving students access to numerous disciplines.
9. Australian students have access to portals and Learning Management Systems.
10. Australian students do most of their study on their own computers.
11. Australian students have access to useful software and applications.
12. Australian assessment is well-designed and promotes quality feedback.
13. Australian students are given rubrics to guide their work.
14. Australian education focuses on graduate outcomes.
15. Australian graduates have skills for careers and further study.
Teaching does not matter if students do not learn. Metaphorically, imagine if a star-teacher from another planet came to teach in his alien language. It does not matter how accomplished that teacher is, if the students that are being taught cannot understand. Learning will not happen.
Conversely, Australian teachers seek to understand whether their students are learning and if they are not, these teachers change their methods. In Australia, teaching is defined as all of the actions that the teacher undertakes that help students learn.
Therefore teaching means lecturing and presenting content to the students. Teaching also means giving feedback on assessment, tutoring students who need extra help and meeting with families to understand the students’ context and what might be inhibiting learning.
Being student-focused also means that Australian teachers focus on the whole student experience. They are interested, not only in interactions with students inside the classroom, but also students’ friendships and peer-support. Australian educators seek to help students to become well-rounded, balancing study, sport, music, leadership pursuit and other extra-curricular activities.
Minds & Bodies
Australia’s climate is conducive to spending time outdoors. Many parts of Australia have little variation between seasons with lots of days of sunshine throughout the year. Teachers are known to take their students outside, which increases opportunities for incidental learning. In addition, the Australian culture embraces competition, rivalry and adventuresome, outdoor pursuits.
As a result, schools and universities tend to have a strong emphasis on sport, supporting all levels of participation from club-level to elite. There is also a reasonably high tolerance for physical risk and a less litigious environment compared to some other countries. Because schools have less worry about being sued, they are able to offer more rugged physical activity including adventure camps and more challenging playground equipment.
Research has shown that physical activity and overall fitness stimulates mental performance. Australian students thrive in an environment where they are encouraged to develop both their minds and bodies. Fitness breaks rest their minds and can boost their academic performance.
How to Think & Learn
In 1910, John Dewey, an educational theorist and thought-leader, wrote a paraphrased version of the proposition that – ‘it is not the purpose of education to teach every piece of information, but to train habits of mind and teach students how to differentiate between tested and untested beliefs.’
This is even more relevant in the modern age where we have the internet. Students can now Google anything and receive countless Wikipedia and Youtube facts, descriptions, demonstrations and explanations. The teacher does not need to be the keeper (or conveyor) of information or the sage-on-the-stage. The teacher’s role is the guide-on-the-side.
Australian teachers tend not to dole-out long lists of facts and figures, asking students to memorise and repeat. Instead, Australian teachers use approaches such as case studies and problem-based learning to teach students how to apply and assimilate knowledge. Learning how to think and how to learn, through their teachers’ guidance, allows students to achieve increasing independence for higher-level studies and how to think-on-their-feet in their eventual careers.
Australian students do a lot more in their classrooms than listening and taking notes. When teachers lesson-plan, they write-down not only what they will do in the teaching exchange, but also what their students will do.
Australian students build, create, test, construct, dissect, sort, organise, experiment, debate, discuss, diagram and illustrate. They actively engage with their learning so that the school-based experience has the variety and change of real-life.
Caring Relationships between Teachers and Students
Whereas some cultures have a strong and established power imbalance between teachers and students, this is not the case in Australian education. In fact, it can be rather unnerving for international students who have moved from other countries and cultures.
Australian students are expected to question, form, state, support and defend their own opinions. The teacher does not want a silent classroom. Assignments and tests receive low marks when students repeat the teacher-delivered facts and perceptions without making-it-their own thereby expressing their own supported perspectives.
Teachers want to get to know their students and want students to visit them during their office hours. Students do not embarrass themselves by asking questions. Teachers are much less happy when students pretend that they understand and do not ask for help.
Personalised and Equitable
There are some groups of students who tend to have more problems and challenges than others. In Australia, examples of students who may require extra supports are those with disabling conditions, those from regional and remote areas, particularly if their parents did not attend university, those who were raised in low socio-economic conditions, and females who are in traditionally male disciplines such as engineering.
These students are not excluded from school or university. They are invited, encouraged and welcomed. Extra supports are put into place to ensure they feel like they belong and that their needs are met. Data analytics are applied to provide early alerts to contact students at risk of failing, dropping-out or becoming stressed-out.
For example, if students do not access the online learning materials that other students in their class are regularly using and do not interact online with others in the education spaces, then someone contacts them to find out why and what can be done to help.
Pastoral care means that schools and institutions create an environment of care and nurturing. They provide the supports that students need to thrive academically, socially, physically and spiritually. Schools and universities have counselors, nurses and sometimes doctors, tutors, career advisors and many other types of professionals.
They provide elite sports centers to help students to make arrangements with their teachers when their training schedules and competitions take them off-campus for extended periods. There are prayer rooms and student lounges. All of these services and supports are genuinely provided and there is no negative stigma applied to the students who access these resources.
The world is not compartmentalised into tidy separate boxes of science, maths, language, arts, business, law and other such disciplines. Neither should education.
In order to thrive in careers and lead change, people need to be able to draw-upon and interconnect thinking and processes from across and between disciplines.
It is vitally important not to stream students into disciplines and careers too early, and even when they have made a career decision, they need to turn the lenses on understanding from multiple perspectives and frameworks.
One of the champions of multi-disciplinary education in higher education is called the Melbourne model. Students complete a generalist and varied undergraduate degree before specialising through their postgraduate studies.
Almost every school and postsecondary institution in Australia organises education online through a Learning Management System (LMS), such as Blackboard or Moodle.
Students and teachers have one-stop-shop access to assessment instructions, learning materials, schedules and interactive tools. Through the LMS, students submit their assignments and teachers provide feedback.
Students can test their subject mastery through completing formative online tests and they can access tutorials and demonstrations for extra help. They can track their grades and progress. They can post comments and ask questions of their teacher and peers.
Online education systems to compliment the face-to-face teaching approach have become so successful that they are nearly invisible technologies in Australia.
Over the past decade, Australian education has increasingly moved away from paper towards digital and networked systems. The main item in a student’s backpack is now a laptop computer or tablet.
Textbooks are increasingly online and interactive. Assignments are written on their computers and submitted online, after which, teachers reply with online feedback and enter grades into digital grade-books.
Rather than asking students to open their text-books, teachers give them a URL. Many classrooms have Smart-boards rather than Blackboards or even Whiteboards. Smart-boards are internet connected and can display the work from individual students’ laptops.
Software & Apps
Alongside supporting student one-to-one hardware (laptop computers or tablets), Australian educators ensure that students have the software and apps they need to maximise digital capacity.
Most Australian laptops that are used for education are loaded with the latest versions of the full Microsoft and Adobe suites. That way, students are learning the tools that they will likely be using in their future workplaces for desktop publishing, digital video editing and spread-sheeting.
One of the more popular education apps that is common to find on tablets and smart-phones is Evernote, which allows students to take notes, capture photos, share perspectives and access on any device because the content is stored in the cloud.
Assessment & Feedback
One of the leading contemporary Australian educational theorists, David Boud, is famous for saying, ‘Students can survive bad teaching, but they cannot survive bad assessment.’ Assessment is not just for confirming achievement in subject matter.
Assessment is a key learning tool. Assessment and feedback go hand-in-hand, as Australian teachers give students lots of specific feedback throughout their studies so that students can apply it to continually reinforce and build their learning.
When students look back on their education, one of the significant features they often recall is significant assessment that helped them learn.
It is important to map-out the purpose and rationale for each piece of assessment. Australian educators provide a wide variety of assessment to accomplish diverse learning objectives.
While multiple choice exams test memorisation, and essays reinforce academic skills, reports prepare students for workplace skills. Increasingly, students are creating assessment that is posted online and can have real impact.
For example, rather than submitting an essay that only the teacher will read, on a teacher-assigned topic, students will choose a topic that they are passionate about and create a published online blog.
When Australian students are creating an assessment piece, they usually have an online rubric open alongside. Rubrics are usually designed as tables. The columns of the table have the range of grades from High Distinction (A+) to Pass (D).
The rows have the different elements of the assessment, such as Research, Critical Thinking and Grammar. Within each of the boxes details are provided.
Students who are striving for top grades can read specific advice about what they will need to do for that level of achievement. Secondary school teachers often read a draft of an assignment before a final submission.
They attach the rubric to the front of the draft, and on that rubric the teacher has highlighted the boxes where the assignment currently rests. If students want to improve their final grade on the assignment, they know which elements in which to put more work.
To be employable is to have the knowledge, skills, attributes, reflective capacities and identity one needs to secure and maintain careers and contribute to the knowledge economy.
Being employable also means that graduates will be able to ebb and flow with career-market changes brought on by digital evolution. In Australia, graduate employability features in the strategic plans of most universities. Supports and strategies for graduate employability are not left only to campus-based career centers.
Employability supports go beyond teaching students resume writing and interview skills. Employability is embedded throughout the curriculum and assessment. Educators talk to students about what they are studying and how this relates to their future employability.
There is increasing world-wide concern that students are graduating from secondary and post-secondary education without the skills they need to thrive in their communities and workplaces.
Specific, technical skills, such as learning to operate particular types of machinery or software, shifts, changes and becomes obsolete. This does not mean that students should not be taught these skills, because this experience teaches them how to learn. They will have learned the processes and frameworks for the next iteration of technical skills.
Students also need to learn and develop super-skills. The main desirable super-skills are communication (spoken and written), demonstration of motivation and self-initiative, and leadership. Students need many interactive educational experiences in which to develop and practice these skills.
What Students Need
In summary, what students need, and what they are usually provided through Australian education thanks to our dedicated teachers and well-designed systems, are:
Teachers, schools and universities who care about students’ learning and their overall happiness and development.
Opportunities to learn, play, socialise, get fresh-air and appreciate the joy of the world around them.
Guidance in how to think and how to channel their brain-power for learning, achievement and success.
Variety and engaging learning opportunities that invite students to DO, experiment, create and discover.
Role models, inspiration and assurance of being cared for and cared about.
Education that is adaptable to unique student needs and that supports the development of each and every learner.
Extra supports and guidance, if and when, each student needs them.
Mind-expanding curriculum allowing students to learn about pure and social sciences, math, language, culture, health, humanities and the arts.
Efficient and user-friendly systems so that they can stay organised, and have ready access to information and interactive tools.
Infrastructure to allow students to bring-their-own-devices, have support and training to use these devices as well as access to current software and reliable wifi.
Assessment that helps them learn, and immediate and specific feedback so that their learning is shaped, guided and reinforced.
Clear guidelines for their assessment so that students have the opportunity to meet teachers’ expectations.
Employability support and strategies so that students graduate with the suitable technical and super-skills that they need in communication, problem solving and managing change to evolve with new digital workplaces and careers.