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Book excerpt: Teaching for Tomorrow | Michael McQueen (International Speaker) - 21 January 2019

Book excerpt: Teaching for Tomorrow | Michael McQueen (International Speaker)

Michael McQueen understands what it takes to thrive in a rapidly evolving world. As a leading specialist in demographic shifts, change management and future trends, Michael features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and has written six bestselling books. In 2015, Michael was named Australia’s Keynote Speaker of the Year and was inducted into the Speakers Halls of Fame.

Michael has shared a chapter of his new book Teaching for Tomorrow: A blueprint for future-proofing our schools, students and educational system.


Section 3 prologue - A New Paradigm for Pedagogy            


One of the most unusual and memorable places I have ever visited was a small town in rural Pennsylvania named Intercourse.

What was most remarkable about Intercourse was not the town’s name, or that neighbouring communities had equally risqué names such as Mount Joy and Blue Ball, but that this town was the epicentre of one of the most fascinating groups in North America – the Amish.

While visiting Intercourse as part of a book promotion tour ’a few years ago, my family and I jumped at the opportunity to do a tour of local farms, visiting the Amish families that operated them.

Our first stop on the tour was a dairy farm run by Fannie, Levi and their five children. This dairy farm was unlike anything I had ever seen. Entirely devoid of machinery and electricity, their operation amazed us with how efficient and peaceful the old ways of milking cattle could be. As my wife and I got chatting to Fannie and Levi, it was clear that they were as intrigued by our Australian accents as we were by their way of life. When it was time for our tour bus to go, Fannie rushed a quick invitation for us to come back for dinner with their family that evening so we could speak some more. We were honoured at the invitation and immediately accepted.

Later that evening as we sat around the dinner table, I could have pinched myself. The whole experience was extraordinary. It was fascinating to hear about how the Amish community works, why they live and dress the way they do, and some of the challenges they were facing in holding back the insidious creep of modernity. They shared that many of the young boys had started secretly purchasing smartphones in recent years and this was causing enormous friction in the community.

When the tables turned and they asked about Australia and our way of life, the family’s oldest daughter immediately sparked up when I described my work and research in educational trends. ‘Ruth here is the school teacher in our community,’ Fannie informed me.

Ruth, it turned out, was only 16 years of age and had graduated from the Amish school just the previous year. ‘But I stayed on for two years longer than the boys,’ she boasted. Evidently, Amish boys don’t place a high value on formal education.

As we were talking about the way Amish schools operated, Ruth invited me to visit the school the next day. My pulse quickened at the notion – it would have been a truly fascinating experience. Unfortunately prior commitments prevented me from taking Ruth up on her offer, but I wish I had been able to. Visiting Ruth’s single-classroom school would have been something akin to stepping into a time machine and travelling back to the mid 1700s and seeing the very origins of modern Western education in action.

Looking back to look forward

As we turn our attention to the future of education in the chapters ahead, it is valuable to start by looking to the past. Developing a clear understanding of the philosophies and practices that have led to today’s status quo in education is critical if we are to grasp the paradigm shifts that will be necessary in the years to come.

Up until the late 1700s, teaching as we now know it was not a profession. Schools consisted of one-room buildings with composite age groups. This broad spectrum of learners meant that students were both learners and teachers. Part of the time students ‘taught’ those in the grade below, and part of the time they learned from those above. The teacher had learners at so many different levels they couldn’t instruct the whole group. Instead, they had to be the orchestrator of small learning communities – kids learning from each other. As such, learning was social and not didactic. (1) 

That said, schools in this format were not actually the primary form of learning. The overwhelming majority of students were from farming backgrounds – 90 per cent of families worked in agriculture. As a result, much of the heavy lifting in teaching was done by parents, through practical modelling and apprenticeship while working on the family farm (2). As educational historian Lawrence Cremin points out, ‘The pedagogy of household education was one of apprenticeship, that is a relentless round of imitation, explanation, and trial and error.’ (3)

There were exceptions to the rule, of course. Wealthy families did send their students to grammar schools to be educated, for instance, but formal education resembling anything like what we know today was reserved for the upper echelon of society up until the early 1800s.

It was at this point that things began to change. In the early nineteenth century, educational reformers like Horace Mann led a movement towards universal teaching that shifted the responsibility of education from parents to the state. (4)

Movements such as the one led by Mann coincided with seismic social change that saw the move toward universal education gather momentum. Two specific societal shifts played the most important role – the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution. 

As Lawrence Cremin points out, the key principles of the Enlightenment were among the most important social and political drivers of universal public education: ‘It was increasingly argued that if there was to be a universal exercise of the rights of suffrage and citizenship, all of society would have to be educated to the task.’ (5)

Despite this, it was an economic motivation as much as a social mandate that ushered in the age of public education.

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, it was clear that an increasingly mechanised society needed a reliable system for producing a standardised, efficient and reliable labour force. This vision would require an educational system that could be scaled in a way that the organic apprenticeship model of old could not. The apprenticeship approach to instruction was all about modelling, observation, coaching and practice. The adult would show how something was done and then watch while the learner attempted the task, providing less support as the learner gained experience. This was quite simply not a viable model for mass schooling. What was necessary was a model of instruction that allowed the ratio of student to teacher to be much, much higher. (6)

As such, education came to centre on carefully trained teachers who could transmit expertise and information to large groups of students through lecture, recitation, drill and practice (7). The goal was to teach students the skills and mindset required to perform routine tasks without error or creative deviation. This approach to education made perfect sense when the task was to prepare young adults for an economy dominated by large hierarchical organisations with employees performing to rigid job descriptions. (8)

Throughout the middle of the nineteenth century, this new educational model and philosophy began to gain traction. Then in 1892, a gathering of the American National Educational Association appointed a group that would later become known as the Committee of Ten to formalise this new standardised learning approach. For the sake of consistency, the committee recommended that all students be taught the same curriculum. They declared that schooling would take place over 12 years – eight years for the grades we now call elementary/primary and middle school, and four for high school. Their view was that schools should operate much like the machines and factories that dominated the new industrialised economy. These schools were to have 180 days of instruction based on the agrarian calendar and a six-hour day with eight subjects. (9)

The recommendation of the Committee of Ten saw an end to the one-room schoolhouses of old and a move toward the standardised schooling model we know today. While the committee may have been focused on education in North America, their recommendations influenced and informed similar changes around the industrialised world at the time.

Fast forward 10 years and the next step in the process of formulating modern education was taken by an educator in the U.S. state of Indiana named William Wirt. According to Wirt, the most efficient way to run a school was by using what he termed a ‘platoon’ model. This involved a daily schedule of rotating classes, which would ensure all classrooms were in constant use – when bell rang, students would shift to next class. (10)

Then and now – how little has changed

As you read these specifications for school education, it’s hard to escape the realisation that very little has changed in recent centuries in the way we organise and orchestrate learning. USA Today columnist Steve Strauss suggests: ‘We have an education system that was created when we needed to turn rural kids into urban employees capable of working in assembly line, mass-market factories. As a result, we ended up with a school system focused on rote memorization and measurable, predictable results. (11)

In a similar vein, Sir Ken Robinson observes: ‘Schools are still pretty much organized on factory lines; ringing bells, separate facilities, specialized into separate subjects. We still educate children by batches; we put them through the system based on their date of manufacture.’ (12)

While some educators would contend that Robinson’s observation is a little harsh, the reality is that we have struggled to move away from the educational paradigms that dominated the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The reason being, quite simply, they worked so well. It was these very models of education that enabled real GDP to increase tenfold over the course of the twentieth century and saw the emergence of a stable and robust middle class. (13)

Despite the successes that nineteenth- and twentieth-century education can boast, there is little doubt that the models that were fit for purpose just a few decades ago are hopelessly inadequate as we look to the future.

Reflecting on this in their book Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology, Allan Collins and Richard Halverson suggest that ‘As the [modern] system became more rigid and consistent, it ceased to evolve as the society around it continued to evolve. In recent years it has become more and more out of synch with the demands of a continually evolving society.’ (14)

And it’s not just our systems that need to adapt at a macro level. Everyone, from policy makers and government bureaucrats to classroom teachers, needs to embrace educational transformation. Dylan William of the University of London’s Institute of Education draws a potent analogy from the medical profession. He points out that if you encountered a doctor who started practicing in 1980 and hadn’t maintained their training or significantly evolved their techniques since, you’d be understandably nervous. The very same principle applies for educators.

The case for change

While it almost feels redundant to make the case for change in education, it’s worth highlighting the degree to which the current status quo is simply not working.

Consider the fact that:

  • Approximately one in every four students who enters high school will drop out before graduating.
  • Only one in four high school students graduate ready for further education in all four core subject areas – English, mathematics, science and social studies.
  • Thirty-seven per cent of students who enter tertiary education require remedial courses. (15)
  • Eighty-two per cent of middle school students describe their school experiences as ‘boring and irrelevant’. (16)
  • Half of all employers feel potential hires lack essential traits for workforce success such as creativity, planning, and relationship skills. (17)

Looking at the modern curriculum being taught in our schools, it is still rooted in the medieval ‘trivium’ consisting of logic, grammar and rhetoric, and ‘quadrivium’ (which was made up of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy). While we have added history, geography and sciences to the curriculum mix over the last few centuries, the bottom line is that the core of what we are teaching our students hasn’t changed in more than a century (18). Will this curriculum prepare our students for the era of change they will enter? I suspect you know the answer to this question as well as I do.

In one of the more scathing assessments of the status quo in education, the authors of a seminal report titled A Nation at Risk assert: ‘If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose [the current state of education], we might well have viewed it as an act of war.’ (19)

While this may seem a little harsh, there is no escaping the fact that educational change is well overdue.

One of the great benefits of my role is being able to glean insights from best practice in various corners of the globe. As I travel around working with school leaders and policy makers, I get a keen sense of what’s working and what’s not in improving student outcomes and equipping today’s learners for the future.

In the next four chapters, my goal is to condense these insights into four paradigm shifts the most visionary educators are currently making. More than simply tweaks to classroom practice or curriculum design, these four paradigm shifts represent a fundamental re-think of pedagogy in order to future-proof our students, schools and educational systems.


Learn more about Michael here.

1. Collins, A. & Halverson, H. 2009, Rethinking Education In The Age Of Technology, Teachers College Press, New York, p. ix.  2.Ibid., p. 49.  3.Ibid., p. 50.  4.Ibid.  5.Ibid., p. 53.  6.Ibid., p. 97. 7.Ibid., p. 4.  8.Dintersmith, T. 2018, What School Could Be, Princeton University Press, Oxfordshire, p. 10.  9.Jacobs, H. 2010, Curriculum 21, ACSD, Alexandria, pp. 9, 10.  10.Collins, A. & Halverson, H. 2009, Rethinking Education In The Age Of Technology, Teachers College Press, New York, p. 58.  11.Bellanca, J. 2015, Deeper Learning – Beyond 21st Century Skills, Solution Tree Press, Bloomington, p. 90.  12.Madden, C. 2017, Hello Gen Z, Hello Clarity, Sydney, p. 184.  13.Dintersmith, T. 2018, What School Could Be, Princeton University Press, Oxfordshire, p. 4. 14.Collins, A. & Halverson, H. 2009, Rethinking Education In The Age Of Technology, Teachers College Press, New York, p. 56.  15.Bellanca, J. 2015, Deeper Learning – Beyond 21st Century Skills, Solution Tree Press, Bloomington, pp. 628, 629.  16. Collins, A. & Halverson, H. 2009, Rethinking Education In The Age Of Technology, Teachers College Press, New York, p. 131.  17.Woods, R. 2018, ‘Automation Is Coming: How To Prepare Our Students In Respectful Ways’, Respectful Ways, 27 March.  18.Collins, A. & Halverson, H. 2009, Rethinking Education In The Age Of Technology, Teachers College Press, New York, p. 133.  19.Dintersmith, T. 2018, What School Could Be, Princeton University Press, Oxfordshire, p. 14.

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