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An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Reconnecting education

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership

This article is the third in a series on the work being done in the area of student engagement by AITSL's Learning Frontiers unit. The first article reported on research into the nature of student engagement and how to foster it, and introduced the unit. The second article showcased some examples of engaging learning environments in Australia and overseas. The current article connects back to the case for change, introduces some research-based principles to guide the redesign of learning, and describes the design hubs through which Australian schools are beginning to collaborate to trial highly engaging learning environments for students. The article is adapted from Learning Frontier's first publication, entitled Insights and Ideas.


Over one third of Australian students believe that the education system has failed to engage them or meet their learning needs, according to a large-scale survey in 2012. Such beliefs reflect the education system's struggle to keep up with social, economic and technological changes.

When 'Generation Z' learners leave education they are predicted to have 17 employers across five separate careers, working in jobs that don't even exist now. To prepare for such a fluid and uncertain future, students need opportunities to develop and apply key life skills such as leadership, communication, and teamwork. They also need qualities such as self-discipline, and the ability to interact with adults, to take feedback, and to deal with setbacks. These skills are not just useful for the workplace but help to build cohesive communities with active citizens playing a role in civic life.

Today's learners are the most technologically literate and socially empowered generation of children ever. They are highly intuitive and confident unaided users of digital technology who are too young to remember its arrival.

Schools have not kept abreast of these changes, with implications for student engagement.

In the survey noted above, students indicated a desire for increased agency over how they learn in the classroom and beyond, and more of a say about what they learn, through greater input into the curriculum and choice of subjects, and better teacher-student relationships.

This desire is echoed in the comments that Learning Frontiers has received from educators during workshops and discussions across different Australian states and territories in December 2013. Educators told Learning Frontiers that education was disconnected from students' reality, that school work is often boring, that there is too much focus on exams, and that as educators they themselves often felt disengaged.

Reconnecting education

Learning Frontiers' purpose is to play a part in reconnecting the education system, at all these levels. Its work is informed by feedback from students and educators, and other research – notably, The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice (CERI, 2010) and Redesigning Education: Shaping Learning Systems around the Globe (GELP 2013).

This research established four principles to inform the redesign of education.

Engaging learning is co-created

When learning is co-created many different people are involved in designing what, how, when and where learning takes place. Students, teachers, parents and partners from beyond the school contribute positively to the learning community – working and taking decisions together to improve students' learning environment and experiences. Through this process students become more engaged, knowledgeable and independent, and often more invested in their learning.

Engaged learning is personal

When learning is personal it is understood and appreciated by students. Students clearly understand how to learn, and are given regular, timely, individualised feedback from their peers and teachers. Because they understand the process of learning, they are confident and motivated to take responsibility for their own learning and to be involved in supporting the learning of others. Teachers give more choice and autonomy to students, and this in turn increases engagement. Technology is used to support increased autonomy because students can control how, where and when they work, and can easily share their learning with others.

Engaged learning is connected

When learning is connected it has direct meaning and value to students. Learning is designed with a clear and 'real-world' purpose, and a significant proportion of learning takes place outside of the school in the local or wider community. Students know they are learning for a purpose because they create ideas, products or services for others. The focus of learning often connects to students' interests, passions and needs, but also to global issues and contexts.

Engaging learning is integrated

When learning is integrated it is a seamless, logical and meaningful experience for learners, teachers and parents. Everyone involved in the learning process can better support it because they use and understand the same 'language of learning'. Integrated learning uses assessment to inform and respond to the learning experience. Assessment takes place when it is needed and useful, and takes a variety of forms. Students work with a wide range of other students of different ages and abilities, and undertake high quality projects that facilitate learning across subjects and offer choice as well as obligation. The learning of skills is integrated with knowledge acquisition.

These four principles informed planning for the Learning Frontiers' design hubs.

Design hubs

The design hubs are clusters of schools and other interested parties which collaboratively learn about and test professional practices intended to increase student engagement in learning.

Each design hub includes 'lab' and 'developer' schools. Lab schools work at the frontiers of practice. They are prepared to undertake serious reform of practice and structures, and are willing and able to work across all the design principles. Developer schools develop and trial a smaller number of substantial new practices, focusing on one or more design principles.

So far two design hubs have been formed: in Adelaide and Sydney. In Adelaide the lab schools are the Australian Science and Mathematics School and Birdwood High School. In Sydney the lab schools are Northern Beaches Christian School and Campbelltown Performing Arts High School. See Insights and Ideas for more information about the lab schools, and for a list of all developer schools.

The rationale for the design hubs

Why were design hubs chosen as the best way to address student disengagement? They combine a number of helpful features.

Collaboration and risk management

Teachers and school leaders often experience innovation as a high risk, low reward activity, undertaken in a high accountability environment with few incentives. The design hubs will provide explicit models and processes to give the staff of participating schools the skills and confidence to innovate in their practice. The design hubs will also help school and system leaders to ensure that schools become environments that are culturally and practically conducive to the development of new practices. Mostly this is about creating opportunities for collaboration and helping practitioners to accurately calculate and manage risk. (Moore 2005, Hannon 2007, OPM 2008)

Sharing the load

Schools working together can develop and test new practices generating a more robust evidence base about their impact and effects than schools working alone. Collaborating schools are also in a position to share around the activities and distribute responsibilities, which might otherwise prove too difficult for individual organisations. (Hargreaves 2003)

Trusting and productive partnerships

Social capital and trusting relationships develop in successful partnerships between schools and are essential for effective collaboration in innovation processes. There are complexities associated with schools working in partnership, but also considerable experience to draw upon to address these. (Lieberman 2006, Hargreaves 2010)

New opportunities and new players

Education, for so long defined and dominated by schools, is diversifying – fast. New players in the education scene include philanthropic organisations, social entrepreneurs, the creative and cultural sector and, perhaps most controversially, for-profit businesses. (GELP 2013, Baxter 2010, Christiansen 1997)

Getting involved in Learning Frontiers

Schools, individual teachers or principals, and other organisations can participate in Learning Frontiers by:

  • providing expert advice to schools working within design hubs
  • participating in research activities with your students
  • suggesting, trialling, evaluating and iterating new promising practices for engaged learning in your own school context
  • working with schools to share practices with the profession and the wider community outside of design hubs
  • convening a network of peers to discuss student engagement and consider how to apply practices emerging from Learning Frontiers to your own contexts.

Please register your interest if you would like to be kept up to date with project activities and participation opportunities.

If you are a student or a parent, you can participate in Learning Frontiers by:

  • sharing your story about engagement with the Learning Frontiers community
  • suggesting that your local teachers and schools connect with the initiative and apply to be part of a design hub
  • bringing together a group of parents, students and teachers for a conversation about student engagement and the role you might each play in deepening it
  • partnering with a teacher to develop or trial a new practice
  • contributing to the 'promising practices' website, coming soon.

Coming soon

Learning Frontiers is creating an online 'promising practices' website that will unite design hubs and the wider community around a shared goal of developing powerful practices to increase student engagement. Teachers, school leaders, students, parents and the community will be able to contribute to and participate in a rapid prototyping process that ensures practices are shaped, refined and enriched by diverse sources of knowledge and experience.

Future bi-monthly 'Learning bulletins' will examine the results of our student engagement survey, look at the individual explorations of schools within each hub and the ways schools are approaching innovation methodologies such as rapid prototyping and design thinking.


Baxter, D, Schoeman, M, Golfin, K & Michieli, P 2010, Public Sector Innovation, the Role of Commercial Partnerships, Cranfield School of Management and Steria Ltd

Christiansen, C 1997, The Innovator's Dilemma, Harvard Business School Press

Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) 2010, The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice, OECD

GELP 2013, 'Toward a Learning Ecosystem: New Players, New Partnerships', Redesigning Education: Shaping Learning Systems Around the Globe, Innovation Unit for the Global Education Leaders' Program, Booktrope Editions

Hannon, V 2007, Next Practice in Education: a Disciplined Approach to Innovation, Innovation Unit

Office of Public Management (OPM) 2008, Teachers as Innovative Professionals, General Teaching Council for England (GTC) and Innovation Unit

Hargreaves, DH 2003, Education Epidemic: Transforming Secondary Schools through Innovation Networks, Demos

Hargreaves, DH 2010, Creating a Self Improving School System, National College for Leadership of Schools and Children's Services

Lieberman, A 2006, Networks, National College for Leadership of Schools and Children's Services

Moore, MH 2005, 'Breakthrough Innovations and Continuous Improvement: Two Different Models of Innovative Processes in the Public Sector', Public Money and Management, Harvard University


Subject Headings

Student engagement
Educational planning