Essay On 21st Century Schools Act

Preparing 21st Century learners: The case for school-community collaborations

Michele Lonsdale and Michelle Anderson 
Australian Council for Educational Research 

Highly effective schools have high levels of parent and community engagement.[i ] ‘Community’ here includes parents, business and philanthropic organisations, and various services and not-for-profit groups. How ‘engagement’ is defined and what it looks like in practice will vary from school to school. But, as the growing body of research makes quite clear, support from those beyond the school gates is an essential part of preparing learners for the twenty-first century. 

Schools are expected to prepare students for a complex and rapidly changing world. In addition to teaching subject content, schools are expected to develop young people who are information and media literate; critical thinkers and problem solvers; communicators and team players. They are expected to teach environmental awareness and civic responsibility and various other transferable and lifelong skills. Schools are seen to have an important role in enhancing wellbeing so that students can realise their full potential, cope with the stresses of life and participate fully in their community. Increasingly schools are expected to educate young people to behave responsibly in relation to drugs and alcohol, cyber safety, road safety and their sexual health. Schools cannot be expected to do this alone. 

In the 1950s and ’60s there was little interaction between schools and the wider community. Parents might attend parent teacher nights or visit their child’s school during Education Week but schools in this era were more likely to have ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted’ signs on their perimeter than welcome mats for community groups. What went on in schools was not seen to be the business of the community. 

In the past few decades, a different kind of relationship between school and community has emerged. Rather than being set apart from the rest of the community, the school is now often seen to be its hub. The community, in turn, is seen as an important source of resources and expertise for the school. For many rural and remote schools in Australia, the notion of schools and communities coming together has a longer history. Research shows that schools in these locations have often been both physically and symbolically a central place and focus for the community.[ii]

It is reported that in England 300 000 companies in 2008 engaged with education through the National Education Business Partnership Network.[iii] Both overseas and in Australia policy conditions are encouraging new social connections between schools and communities.[iv] For example, at a national level, the federal government has signalled its commitment to fostering greater business engagement in education with the establishment of the Business-School Connections Roundtable. In late 2010, the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development launched the Business Working with Education Foundation, which is intended to foster business and school partnerships. Perth-based philanthropy umbrella group, Giving West, was established in 2010 to increase philanthropic investment in, among other areas, education by the state’s wealthy.

School-community engagement can take many different forms, ranging from informal arrangements that might only involve a one-off activity, service or gift to more complex  partnerships with formal governance arrangements and programs that are developed and implemented over several years. 

Research undertaken by ACER as part of the NAB Schools First program shows that community partners have conducted training sessions across a wide range of topics, provided relevant work experience for students, offered industry experience for teachers, helped teach specific skills and knowledge related to the curriculum, organised field trips and camp activities, showed students potential career and study pathways, worked with students to improve the physical environment of the school, provided social contacts within the community and given students greater awareness of the services available for young people.[v]

In broad terms, school-community engagement can bring social, intellectual, financial, psychological and performance benefits. Social benefits may include new, stronger or more diversified networks of support. Intellectual benefits relate to the development of improved or new knowledge and skills. Financial benefits can be in the form of funding activities associated with the relationship or a by-product of the relationship. Psychological benefits are associated in the literature with improved wellbeing, morale and feelings of making a difference. Performance benefits are associated with improved capacity and capabilities in organisations and individuals. 

The nature of the benefits, and those who benefit, will depend on the original purpose in setting up the school-community relationship. For example, staff in schools, business, philanthropic foundations and trusts, and community organisations gain from being exposed to professional learning and training opportunities. Teachers and principals can strengthen and in some cases develop new knowledge and skills in project management, human resources, budgeting and marketing. Businesses can meet their corporate responsibility goals, be exposed to the innovative thinking of young people, and potentially have access to a more highly skilled future workforce in the local area. New possibilities for work and economic ventures can emerge. 

Partnerships can lead to better interagency collaboration, greater understanding of the issues affecting young people in their communities, and greater connection between community partners and other families and groups. Communities can also benefit from the tangible products that are associated with some partnership programs, such as community gardens or environmental programs, and from young people who feel more connected to their communities through their participation in such programs. In turn, this can lead to enhanced community confidence. For example, some schools in the NAB Schools First program report fewer street offences and substance abuse issues than previously as a result of partnering with local community groups.[vi]

Governments, too, benefit from schools connecting more strongly with business and community groups. These kinds of relationships can help grow local economies and potentially reduce the costs of service provision through less duplication of services and shared responsibility. 

Regardless of the nature or longevity of the engagement, the primary motivation for school-community collaborations should be about improving outcomes for students. 

ACER’s research shows four main outcomes that schools are hoping to achieve when entering into partnerships: increased student engagement, improved academic outcomes, enhanced social wellbeing and/or broader vocational options and skills.[vii] Within these categories more specific outcomes may be identified, such as improving reading as an academic outcome. 

Engagement-related benefits include having an enriched curriculum as a result of interaction with external partners; enhanced professional learning opportunities for teachers; improved student attendance; reduced anti-social behaviour; improved quality of student work; improved work ethic at school; greater cultural awareness and empathy (for example, better appreciation of the needs of the elderly and greater respect for past generations); and more positive student-teacher relationships. 

It can be more difficult to show a direct causal connection between academic outcomes and school-community collaborations. Some schools in the 2009 NAB Schools First p reported a new culture of academic excellence. Others reported a deeper understanding of particular subjects (such as improved musical, carpentry or photography skills) or improved literacy, numeracy, communication or ICT skills. Others reported enhanced critical and analytical skills, improved understanding of nutrition and the benefits of exercise and greater awareness of ecology. Some schools were also able to show a better integration of theory and practice in subjects as a result of partnering with business and community groups. 

Wellbeing-related benefits are reported to include improved relationships with peers and family; increased confidence and self-esteem; higher aspirations for the future; taking the initiative through improved goal setting and time management, teamwork and conflict resolution; leadership skills; greater ability to learn independently; healthier lifestyle habits; a more positive outlook on life and increased awareness of the work of community groups. 

Among the vocational outcomes identified for students were more realistic perceptions of post-school options; a better understanding of education pathways; better access to training and paid work; improved school-based expertise; a recognised qualification; knowledge of Occupational Health and Safety issues; employability skills; and leadership skills. 

Despite the clear benefits that can come from schools engaging with their communities, these kinds of collaborations are not easy to build or sustain. Not all school-community partnerships run smoothly. Finding potential partners and resources, knowing who might have the professional expertise to advise and guide program development, gathering information about an area of identified need, knowing how to monitor and evaluate the impact of a collaboration all take time and require different kinds of knowledge and skills. 

For example, in partnership with The Ian Potter Foundation and the Origin Foundation, ACER is researching the impact of philanthropy in education through the project Leading Learning in Education and Philanthropy (LLEAP). Among the findings in year one was the importance of laying sound foundations for effective school-community engagement.[viii] From the fieldwork analyses, ten factors for highly effective engagement were identified. These included evidence of role clarity, reciprocity, alignment of objectives and values, and the education-philanthropy relationship having a focus on impact. 

Ethical considerations can inhibit partnering. Some schools, for example, are wary about engaging with business. There is scepticism that businesses might enter into collaborations for no other reason than to promote commercial products and services. This is why there needs to be clarity around the type of relationship a school is entering into. Sponsorship, for example, is not a gift. It is reasonable to expect that a relationship with a school configured around sponsorship will have commercial returns on investment at its core: brand building, expanded networks, selling of products or services. The Commonwealth Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations is currently preparing a publication on school-business principles that will assist schools and businesses in making decisions based on their respective institutional values. 

There is also a degree of scepticism in some quarters that, by encouraging school-community collaborations, governments are somehow being ‘let off the hook’ in terms of the investment they could otherwise be making in public schools. While this tension needs to be identified and acknowledged, it is not an argument against entering into these kinds of collaborations. Research shows clearly that both schools and communities can benefit from working together to improve outcomes for students. 

Knowledge about school-community collaborations is a developing area of research and practice in schools. But a consistent finding from the research in Australia and overseas is that strong school-community engagement can bring a range of benefits. These are not only to students but to teachers, schools as a whole, partners and the wider community. For these benefits to occur, school-community partners need to have a shared vision, work in genuinely collaborative ways, and monitor the progress and effectiveness of their partnership activities. Sharing the results of this good practice means others can recognise the important role that community groups can play in supporting education and schools. Preparing twenty-first century learners depends on everyone in the community seeing this as their business. 



[i ] Masters, GN. (2004). What makes a good school? ACER eNews, (offline).

[ii] Anderson, M. et al. (2010). A Collective Act: Leading a small school. Australian Council for Educational Research, ACER Press. Melbourne.

[iii] Mertkan. S. (2011). Leadership support through public-private ‘partnerships’: Views of school leaders. Educational Management Administration & Leadership. 39(2), 156-171.

[vi] Business School-Connections Roundtable. (2011). Realising potential: Businesses helping schools to develop Australia’s future, Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations: Canberra.

[v] Lonsdale, M. (2009). ‘School-community partnerships in Australian schools’, ACER,

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[vii] Anderson, M and Curtin, E. (2011). LLEAP: Leading Learning in Education and Philanthropy, 2011 survey report, ACER,

© Australian Council for Educational Research 2011
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Camberwell, VIC 3124

Preparing 21st Century Learners: The Case for School-Community Collaborations (PDF)

Saying that it has always been this way, doesn’t count as a legitimate justification to why it should stay that way. Teacher and administrators all over the world are doing amazing things, but some of the things we are still doing, despite all the new solutions, research and ideas out there is, to put it mildly, incredible.

I’m not saying we should just make the current system better… we should change it into something else.

I have compiled a list of 14 things that are obsolete in 21st century schools and it is my hope that this will inspire lively discussions about the future of education.

1. Computer Rooms

The idea of taking a whole class to a computer room with outdated equipment, once a week to practice their typewriting skills and sending them back to the classroom 40 minutes later, is obsolete.

Computers or technology shouldn’t just be a specific subject, that’s not sufficient anymore but rather it should be an integral part of all the subjects and built into the curriculum.

2. Isolated classrooms

Classrooms can be isolated in two ways. One where parents, teachers or guests are not welcome because the door and drapes are always shut… which has the words “Don’t come in here” written all over it. The other way is being isolated to all the knowledge outside the 4 walls. For example from the internet, videos, blogs, websites and visits from authors or scientists through Skype, to name a few.

Tony Wagner, the author of the Global Achievement Gap says: “Isolation is the enemy of improvement”. The classroom should be open, teachers should be able to walk in and learn from each other, parents should visit often, f.x. with so called Extra Open Schooldays (where all parents are encouraged to visit classrooms anytime during the day). Isolated classrooms are therefore obsolete.

3. Schools that don’t have WiFi

Schools that don’t have a robust WiFi network for staff and students are not only missing a big change for teaching and learning but robbing the students of access to knowledge and also limiting their chances to learn about the internet and using technology in a safe way.

21st century schools make it possible for students and staff to learn anywhere, anytime and schools that don’t allow that are obsolete.

4. Banning phones and tablets

Taking phones and tablets from students instead of using them to enhance learning is obsolete. We should celebrate the technology students bring and use them as learning tools.

Phones are no longer just devices to text and make phone calls… when they were, then banning them was OK. Today there is more processing power in the average cellular telephone than NASA had access to when they sent a man to the moon in 1969. Yet most students only know how to use these devices for social media and playing games.

Today you can edit a movie, make a radio show, take pictures, make posters, websites, blog, tweet as a character from a book, have class conversations over TodaysMeet and Google most answers on a test with the device in your pocket. We should show our students the learning possibilities & turn these distractions into learning opportunities that will reach far outside the classroom.

5. Tech director with an administrator access

Having one person responsible for the computer system, working from a windowless office in the school basement, surrounded by old computers, updates the programs and tells the staff what tech tools they can and cannot use… is obsolete.

Today we need technology co-ordinators that know what teachers and students need to be successful and solves problems instead of creating barriers. Someone who helps people to help themselves by giving them responsibility and finds better and cheaper ways to do things.

6. Teachers that don’t share what they do

Teachers who work silently, don’t tweet, blog and discuss ideas with people around the world are obsolete. Teachers are no longer working locally but globally and it’s our job to share what we do and see what others are doing. If a teacher is no longer learning then he shouldn’t be teaching other people.

We should all be tweeting, blogging and sharing what works and doesn’t work, get and give advice to and from co-workers around the world. We should constantly be improving our craft because professional development isn’t a 3 hour workshop once a month but a lifelong process.

“We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” -John Dewey

7. Schools that don’t have Facebook or Twitter

Schools that think putting a news article on the school website every other week and publish a monthly newsletter is enough to keep parents informed are obsolete.

The school should have a Facebook page, share news and information with parents, have a Twitter account and their own hashtag, run their own online TV channel where students film, edit and publish things about school events.

If you don’t tell your story, someone else will.

8. Unhealthy cafeteria food

School cafeterias that look and operate almost like fast food restaurants where staff and students get a cheap, fast and unhealthy meals are obsolete.

A few schools in Iceland and Sweden have turned almost completely to organic foods and given thought into the long term benefit of healthy food rather than the short term savings of the unhealthy. For example at Stora Hammar school in Sweden 90% of the food served is organic.

Children should put the food on their own plate, clean up after themselves and even do the dishes. Not because it saves the school money on workforce but because it is a part of growing up and learning about responsibility. What 21st century schools should be doing as well is growing their own fruits and vegetables where students water them and learn about nature. Setting up a farm to feed students would be optimal, but if that is not an option (for example in big city schools) then they can at last set up a windowfarm in some of the school windows.

The goal with providing students a healthy meal is not only to give them enough nutrition to last the school day but to make healthy food a normal part of their daily life and get them to think about nutrition which is something that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.

9. Starting school at 8 o’clock for teenagers

Research has shown over and over again that teenagers do better and feel better in schools that start later. Often parents or administrators needs get in the way of that change. Research (f.x. from the The Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics and University of Minnesota – video) show that delaying school start as little as 50 minutes and making it longer by 30 minutes instead has a positive effect both on learning and activities after school. Schools that don’t do this are obsolete.

Starting later is easy and teachers could use the extra time in the morning to prepare class… it’s a win-win situation.

10. Buying poster-, website- and pamphlet design for the school

When your school needs a poster, pamphlet or a new website they shouldn’t buy the service from somewhere else (although that can sometimes be the case) and have students do it instead. In the best schools of the future, they will be the ones doing it as a real project that has meaning and as a collaborative project in language and art….using technology.

11. Traditional libraries

Libraries that only contain books and chess tables are obsolete.

A 21st century library should be at the heart of the school and a place where both students and staff can come in to relax, read, get advice, access powerful devices, edit videos, music, print in 3D and learn how to code to name a few. This 21st century learning space should give people an equal chance to use these devices and access information. Otherwise these libraries will turn into museums where people go to look at all the things we used to use.

12. All students get the same

Putting kids in the same class because they are born in the same year is obsolete. School systems were originally set up to meet the needs of industrialism. Back then we needed people to work in factories, conformity was good and nobody was meant to excel or be different in that environment. That doesn’t fit our needs today, let alone the future but many schools are still set up like the factories they were meant to serve a 100 years ago.

We should increase choice, give children support to flourish in what interests them and not only give them extra attention in the things they’re bad at. In most schools, if you are good in art but bad in german you get german lessons to get to par with the other students instead of excelling at art… All even, all the same!

Education should be individualised, students should work in groups regardless of age and their education should be built around their needs.

13. One-Professional development-workshop-fits-all

A school that just sends the entire staff to a workshop once a month where everyone get the same are obsolete. Professional development is usually top down instead of the ground up where everyone get what they want and need. This is because giving everyone (including students) what they need and want takes time & money.

With things like Twitter, Pinterest, articles online, books, videos, co-operation & conversations employees can personalize their professional development. (Read about my article on Personalized Professional Development here)

14. Standardized tests to measure the quality of education

Looking at standardized tests to evaluate whether or not children are educated or not is the dumbest thing we can do and gives us a shallow view of learning. The outcomes, although moderately important, measure only a small part of what we want our kids to learn and by focusing on these exams we are narrowing the curriculum. Alfie Kohn even pointed out a statistically significant correlation between high grades on standardized tests and a shallow approach to learning.

The world today and the needs of the society are completely different to what they used to be. We are not only training people to work locally but globally. With standardized test, like PISA, we are narrowing the curriculum, and all the OECD countries are teaching the same thing. Because of that we all produce the same kind of workers, outdated workers, to work in factories. People who can comply, behave and be like everybody else.

In the global world today it is easy to outsource jobs to someone who is willing to do the same job, just as fast for less money. Therefore we need creative people that can do something else and think differently.

Andrea Schleicher (2010) said: “Schools have to prepare students for jobs that have not yet been created, technologies that have not yet been invented and problems that we don’t know will arise.”

Standardized education might have been the answer once but saying that it’s obsolete is putting it mildly and is only a way to try to repair the broken system. Results of those tests are, according to Daniel Pink (A Whole New Mind, 2005) in direct contradiction to the skills we need today. Those skills are for example design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning.

We should be solving real problems, asking questions that matter instead of remembering and repeating facts. Adults’ accomplishments are linked far more strongly to their creativity than IQ (source) and we should be celebrating diverse knowledge and interest instead of trying to standardise knowledge and skills.

I wonder if schools would finally change their direction if we designed a new standardize test that wouldn’t measure numeracy, science and literacy but empathy, creative thinking and communication skills… Maybe that is all we need.

Final thoughts

All the education systems on the planet are being reformed, but I don’t think reform is what we need. We need a revolution and change the education system into something else. It isn’t an easy task, but as S.E. Phillips once said:

Anything worth having, is worth fighting for.

Doing something new and getting poor results on the old test shouldn’t surprise anyone. What is the point of doing something new and different if we get the same results on standardized tests… then we might as well just do factory schooling, conform and comply.

If I had asked the people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” – Henry Ford

That is exactly what we are doing today. We are asking our students to remember more, write better and repeat faster then before… just like we wanted the faster horse, when really we should be asking for the car. Sure the car wasn’t better than the horse in the beginning and our education system won’t be perfect either. It will never be perfect, it should be constantly evolving and we should strive to make it better every day.

I don’t know what a perfect education system looks like, and don’t think it even exist. But I believe that if we talk, try something different, fail forward, investigate and share what we do, not only locally but globally, we can get a lot closer.

If you want to see change in education, you should start in your own classroom.

“Education can be encouraged from the top-down but can only be improved from the ground up”

– Sir Ken Robinson

Ingvi Hrannar Ómarsson

Icelandic elementary teacher, Tech Co-Ordinator & Entrepreneur… passionate about the future of education.


Follow @IngviOmarsson



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