For a better understanding, we should first focus on what we are trying to achieve when we educate Australia’s youth. 

The 2008 Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians mandates that all students will become successful learners, confident and creative individuals and active and informed citizens. 

Lead by then Education Minister Julia Gillard, the Declaration also stated that students would be engaged with Asia, increase digital literacy and develop as learners with the "capacity to think creatively, innovate, solve problems and engage with new disciplines".

As we approach 10 years from this important Declaration we should consider:

  • Did we get what we wished for?
  • Do these objectives harm Australia in international testing, and does that matter?
  • Is it time to revisit these goals?

Since the Declaration, Australia has fallen behind in international rankings for literacy, science and mathematics. 

At its worst, data from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) has students in Australia falling an entire 12 months behind in mathematics. 

This is staggering, in less than a generation students have fallen a year below their peers from a decade prior. 

The Declaration describes successful learners as not only having "essential skills in literacy and numeracy" but also skills in creativity, innovation and resourcefulness. 

Our successful learners need to communicate ideas, have a sense of self-worth, understand their health, learn to develop personal values, be active citizens, develop skills to work independently, and if that wasn’t enough, collaborate well with others.  

When you add the 12 key learning areas from the Australian Curriculum you begin to understand Australian Catholic University’s Dr Kevin Donnelly's mantra that we suffer from an overcrowded curriculum.

The Declaration gave education in Australia important direction, and I am not writing here to so say it was wrong, but I would like to ask at what cost? 

The Declaration reflected our desire for leaners that are creative, innovative and critical thinkers, but is this ever going to be reflected in NAPLAN or PISA testing? 

Professor Yong Zhao’s book World Class Learners asks this question and explores the relationship between a nation’s results in international testing versus their entrepreneurial output. 

Traditional high performers in international testing, Singapore, Korea and Japan, lag behind nations such as Australia, United States and New Zealand in creativity tests that measure idea generation in terms of quantity and originality. 

These Asian powerhouses of standardised testing have tightly administrated, centralised curriculums that have a narrow focus on test scores. 

Our curriculum isn’t on the same page, with broad goals and a focus on developing the learner as an informed citizen.  

Zhao articulates this difference beautifully when correlating a nation’s PISA Maths score against their Perceived Entrepreneurial Capability. 

A nation that ranks well in this standardised test will have fewer individuals with the confidence to start a new business, innovate a new technology or reach the holy grail of a start-up going public. 

When one considers Australia’s delight when our very own tech giant pioneer Atlassian had  their hugely successful listing on Wall Street in 2015, I again ask the question did we get what we wished for?

The Declaration is overdue for review and regardless of whether people agree the Gonski 2.0 review, officially known as The Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools, it will be delivered at years’ end. 

With a term of reference that includes how to improve student achievement "as measured by national and international assessments", one may conclude there will be a change in focus from the Declaration. 

Elena Douglas, chief executive of Knowledge Society and creator of Studio Curious, prioritises where student improvement will be found. The biggest controllable factors which can drive improvement are:

  • teachers understanding their ability to change outcomes,
  • whole school and whole system approachs, which can double improvement above any other factor and
  • keeping students at the center of all learning approaches.

These are clear, visible, research-supported mechanisms that should drive the next decade of educational reform.   

This isn’t the departure from the creative, critical thinking and digitally prepared learners we asked for in Declaration. 

Douglas doesn’t shy away from the need to prepare learners for the changing dynamics of our economy. 

Learners need to be prepared for a world that requires problem-solving for a diverse range of issues we cannot even imagine. 

We need to prepare students for a world of change from digital disruption. 

Traditional employment cannot be relied upon when you consider the impact that automation will have in industries such as mining and agriculture. 

As self-driving technology creeps into the economy we cannot rely on jobs that simply require a driver’s license. 

Yes, learners who are creative and critical thinkers have never been more important, but as Douglas explains, these skills need to be built upon strong foundations and executed through explicit agendas for school improvement. 

Entrepreneurial confidence is only half the battle, we need the skills to facilitate that confidence into action. 

The 2008 Declaration reference to international standings was limited mostly to hubris with statements such as "Australia ranked among the top 10 countries across all three education domains assessed" and the now painful to read "over the next decade Australia should aspire to improve outcomes for all young Australians to become second to none amongst the world’s best school systems". 

I trust Gonski 2.0 to be less self-congratulatory with a focus on pragmatic solutions. 

However, we need to trust our instincts in creating a generation of creative, confident and critical thinkers.  

A focus on building foundations through school wide and system-based approaches will not limit teachers to rote learning, producing a classroom of robotic-thinking children. 

Rather, it provides a framework for success. 

Australia has nothing to fear from the school systems seen in our high achieving Asian neighbours. 

We are uniquely ourselves and this will always be reflected though our schools. 

Perhaps where the 2008 Declaration failed was stating too much of what we wanted and never asking 'how?' and 'at what cost?'. 

Gonski 2.0 needs to provide pragmatic, system-based approaches with an explicit agenda for school improvement. 

Above all it needs to be lasting and effective, because ten years is a lifetime for a student.