School Improvement and Governance Network

Big Ideas

Global triple revolution - a discussion paper

Students' life and learning opportunities and how schools improve learning outcomes for all students - and how young people negotiate new work-life-learning balances and manage their lives and 'careers' in contexts where many old signposts are irrelevant - can be viewed from the broad perspective of the global 'triple revolution' (GTR), a mix of aspirations, trends, changes and challenges that comprises the:

  1. Education, schools, university and VET revolution
  2. Economic, energy and environmental revolution
  3. Health, development and human rights revolution.

Increasingly influenced by these changes and challenges, school and student initiatives include:


One era is coming to an end and another is beginning - a process no less world changing than previous transitions to settled agriculture and industrial society. As a part of this world-wide transformation (the 'global triple revolution' or GTR), there are three linked sets of major changes and challenges:

  1. The development of an education, schools, university and VET revolution, comprising mass participation in secondary and tertiary education, deep changes in teaching, learning, knowledge and technology, and the blurring of old sectoral divides in education and training
  2. The emergence of what may be termed an economic, energy and environmental revolution, which prompts thinking, working, living and learning in radically new ways
  3. The imperative of a health, development and human rights revolution, the three domains of which are so closely and synergistically related that they are almost synonyms.

Each challenges the assumption that we have no choices, as if we are predestined to continue with business as usual. Each will take time, energy and resources to develop - and require networks and alliances on an unprecedented scale and bold leadership to nudge policy agendas beyond managerial short-termism and piecemeal tinkering. With each revolution evolving at the international, national, community and personal levels, community partnerships can be revitalised through this work.

Curriculum areas

It will be increasingly important to understand the reciprocal interaction between the three revolutions, and how these linkages can be analysed and applied in practice, as powerful new ways to significantly improve education, health and other outcomes. In this regard, among the school curriculum areas providing profound insights into the emergence of these revolutions and their interplay are:

  • Economics
  • Environmental science
  • Global politics
  • Health and human development
  • History: revolutions
  • Industry and enterprise
  • Outdoor and environmental studies.

1. Education, schools, university and VET revolution

In times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists. Eric Hoffer

The education, schools, university and VET revolution embraces changes and challenges in teaching and learning, curricula and technology; educational leadership, governance and management; and partnerships and performance. As outlined in the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, among the fundamental challenges facing all nations are two educational goals:

  1. Equity and excellence in education and schooling
  2. Opportunities for all young people to become successful learners, confident and creative individuals and active and informed citizens.

A key feature of this revolution is the emergence of mass participation in tertiary education, which is having a profound and far-reaching impact on all aspects of education, and the blurring of the old sectoral divide between vocational education and training (VET) and higher education. The majority of students complete Year 12 and, further, many of these students are developing their own personalised learning pathways that are their own mixes of academic and applied/practical learning.

The education revolution requires a comprehensive lifelong learning policy that considers school, VET and higher education policy as part of a coherent framework in order to support students' personalised learning pathways. It also requires funds for stronger collaboration between schools, universities and TAFEs, including for staff to broker these partnerships. Through such initiatives, VET provides stepping stones to higher education, facilitating increased social inclusion and equity in education.

The education revolution is propelled by a profound demographic, social and cultural shift, with equally profound implications for pedagogy. For example, immediately after WW II, only 1 in 10 children in Victoria completed a school program that may have led to university or college; today, nearly 8 out of 10 do so. This shift to mass secondary and tertiary education means that high-quality (and lifelong) education is becoming an important right for all. Inequalities in patterns of participation remain, but groups of young people who once made mass exits from the education system at the minimum age are engaging increasingly in post-compulsory education. Just like the emergence during the 1950s of mass secondary education, the current shift to mass tertiary education is a revolutionary change.

The education revolution is a social revolution, not simply a matter of digital technology. But students’ learning and life opportunities are, as the evidence amply demonstrates, still strongly shaped by social background. For example, in Victoria, students from the most advantaged backgrounds are up to 16 times more likely to get into a medical course than those from other backgrounds. The most affluent Australian students are also on average three years of schooling ahead of the least affluent in reading literacy. This sharp polarisation between the life chances of different groups of young people frustrates students, undermines their aspirations and starves a nation of knowledge, skills and creativity.

A 21st century nation should have schools and an education system in which the disparities between the performance of students from families of different social backgrounds are reduced in the short-term and eliminated in the longer-term. Combining excellence and equity continues to be the fundamental challenge facing education policy-makers and all school community stakeholders. As we all know, education has the power to transform lives, but, at the same time, it can be one of the most effective means of reproducing inequalities. What, then, should be done? 

Part of the solution is a new system of school funding which not only ensures that funding is equitably distributed among schools but also gives weighting to the educational value schools add to student achievement beyond that which could be predicted given the social class backgrounds and prior attainments of students. Funding can facilitate further systemic change in education and schooling. Systemic change involves change in one 'part' requiring changes in other 'parts' in order for change to be effective and to improve learning outcomes for students. This means joining up initiatives:

  • Within a school community (such as a strategy that links curriculum development, changes in assessment, professional learning, and the use of new technologies)
  • Among the parts of education (such as a cluster of primary and secondary schools working together to develop a P-12 schooling model or several schools building a learning community involving a TAFE college, university or kindergarten or partnerships between higher education and VET)
  • Between a school (or cluster of schools) and the wider community, including parents, health agencies, workplaces, businesses, community organisations and groups such as sporting clubs.

Further reading

  • See four key areas of school improvement and systemic change on our website
  • Personalised learning report
  • Great Schools Checklist
  • Creating a self-improving school system, David H Hargreaves
  • Young people negotiating risk and opportunity: post-school transitions 2005-2008, Johanna Wyn and others
  • Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology, Allan Collins and Richard Halverson,
  • Rethinking Skills in Vocational Education and Training: From Competencies to Capabilities, Leesa Wheelahan and Gavin Moodie
  • Blurring the Boundaries in Education: towards a more seamless system of post-compulsory education, John Henry and Shirley Grundy
  • Shaken not stirred? The development of one tertiary education sector in Australia, Leesa Wheelahan and others
  • Education, Work and Economic Renewal, John Buchanan and others
  • Equipping Every Learner for the 21st Century, Cisco
  • Transforming Education, Transforming Lives: A Path Toward Next Generation Learning, Cisco

2. Economic, energy and environmental revolution

The key to sustainability lies in enhancing the resilience of social-ecological systems, not in optimising isolated components of the system. Brian Walker and David Salt

Governments are grappling with trends in the economy, energy, and the environment - the three Es - that are proving to be unsustainable. Among these trends are exponentially rising levels of debt, with implications for the adequacy of funding for 21st century models of education and schooling. Combining economics, science, and technology with major social and international concerns, the E3 challenge is obviously one of the most important and complex facing governments, business and communities.

The accelerating pace of technological, social and economic change propels the transformation of education and training from elite systems to mass systems. Students are thus acquiring new kinds of knowledge and skills to tackle social, economic and environmental challenges as well as to seize new opportunities to build stronger communities and better societies. With changes in the economy and changes in the old division of labour and old narrow specialisation continuing to undermine the rationale for sharp distinctions between vocational and higher education, as Wheelahan points out:

The range of students in tertiary education is now much wider. Their levels of preparation for study
differ, as does their expertise in achieving learning outcomes. Their learning styles and their cultural frames of reference differ. The outcomes they seek are equally diverse. Student-centred and inclusive approaches to recruiting students and structuring learning must now underpin tertiary education if their learning needs are to be met. The implications of this analysis are that students should be able to craft learning pathways drawing on offerings from both sectors that reflect their learning needs, and personal and vocational aspirations.

This generation of students - developing their own pathways - is at the genesis of major shifts, yet there is so much untapped leadership capacity among young people. A lack of visionary leadership in many countries in the face of opportunities to solve social, economic and environmental problems can fuel fatalism, disillusion and the flight from politics by young people. But with new kinds of knowledge and skills underpinned by new pathways, young people will increasingly contribute to the development of:

  • Economically innovative communities. Australia is yet to take up the challenge of transition to a knowledge-based economy, given the relatively low levels of public investment in R&D and education
  • Ecologically sustainable communities. Protecting natural environments and preventing cities and towns from sprawling without consideration for resource efficiency is one such imperative
  • Learning communities. Australia has been slow to embrace lifelong learning as a major policy goal, though there are many initiatives involving schools, local government, businesses and others.

New E3 policy frameworks can help build this collaboration around solutions beyond economic crises and fiscal constraints on social spending areas such as education. E3 frameworks can also assist school communities to look at how they can shape the future in partnership with local government and local businesses. One such framework for building a low-carbon economy, from the Pew Environment Group, comprises five categories: (1) clean energy; (2) energy efficiency; (3) environmentally friendly production; (4) conservation and pollution mitigation; and (5) training and support.

The accelerated transition to a cleaner economy requires bold leadership and strategies that bring to the fore the pivotal role of schools, colleges and universities. The education of a new generation of people with the knowledge and skills to drive low carbon and clean economy practices will be critical in a country's transition toward sustainability. This will require greater investment in smart education and training strategies around the high-tech and clean economy jobs of the future and stronger support for the work of schools and other educational institutions in developing environmental education.

Sustainability integrates educational, environmental, social and economic issues. It prompts thinking, working, living and learning in new ways. The old way is to try to understand and act on these kinds of issues separately in silos. The 'environment' is also viewed broadly, including the natural, built and social environments. Issues such as clean water, soil and air, biodiversity, global warming, urban sprawl, public transport, green buildings, etc. obviously cut across the natural, built and social. Our health and well-being depend on the health of natural systems - clean air, clean water, healthy soils and forests and biodiversity - as well as social systems such as strong public education systems.

Education for environmental sustainability involves both deep knowledge and understanding about, and personal and collective action for, creating sustainable schools, communities and societies. Based on the experiences of educators and community members, two key questions need to be explored:

  1. How education has a pivotal role to play in preparing and empowering people to create a sustainable future
  2. How education for sustainability is, in turn, at the leading edge of educational change and improvement, with the potential to transform learning experiences and outcomes.

This two-way benefit from learning how to solve environmental and other problems means that educational renewal and steps toward a sustainable future co-develop and reinforce each other.

Further reading

  • See our discussion of environmental sustainability
  • Education, globalisation and the knowledge economy, Phillip Brown and others
  • The Clean Energy Economy, the Pew Charitable Trusts
  • E3: Economy, energy and the environment
  • E3ME: An Energy–Environment–Economy Model for Europe
  • Creative communities: People inventing sustainable ways of living, Anna Meroni (ed)
  • Manifesto on global economic transitions
  • The energy revolution
  • The Long Transition: Educating for optimism and hope in troubled times
  • Peer-to-peer alternatives
  • Federal AEU Environmental Policy
  • The Crash Course: The Unsustainable Future Of Our Economy, Energy, And Environment, Chris Martenson

3. Health, development and human rights revolution

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home - so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood s/he lives in; the school or college s/he attends; the factory, farm, or office where s/he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination”. Eleanor Roosevelt

The third revolution is the health, development and human rights revolution. The interactions between health, development and human rights are becoming increasingly clear. Schools bring to the fore the reciprocal interaction between health, development and human rights, and show how these linkages can have a significant impact on the social, emotional and physical well being of young people. The school setting thus not only provides a powerful opportunity for health professionals, teachers, students, parents and community leaders to work together to promote health, but the best examples of these strategies have a holistic approach to health, development and human rights built into their work.

What will beome crucial is community dialogue about the reciprocal interaction between public health, human development and human rights together wih practical tools that community stakeholders can use to incorporate a health, development and human rights framework into their work. To improve an array of community outcomes including in health and education, Tarantola and others propose a Health, Development and Human Rights Impact Assessment approach for monitoring and evaluation to enhance accountability for progress, and for revealing shortcomings in current policies and programs.

Founded on centuries of people's aspirations and struggles including around the right to education, the human rights part of this revolution is a powerful revolution of rising expectations. Human rights include civil and political rights such as the right to vote, free speech, freedom of assembly, freedom from discrimination, freedom of worship and the right to a fair hearing. Human rights also include social, economic and cultural rights such as high-quality education and health care. Any one right (such as the right to education as well as rights within education such as the right to freedom from discrimination) is a mix of both social, economic and cultural rights and civil and political rights.

The right to education is not close to being realised anywhere, but there are always positive developments with human rights. In Australia, with the 2006 Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities, Victoria became the first Australian state to provide for formal protection of civil and political human rights. But this does not extend to social rights such as the right to education, although importantly section 41(d) affirms that one of the functions of the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner is "to provide education about human rights and this Charter".

While most countries have signed up to international conventions, the on-going challenge is to provide the national legislation, policy, resources and support to fully realise all human rights in practice. As the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Catherine Branson QC, has observed:

"My experiences as a judge left me persuaded ... that in Australia we have legislatures that are insufficiently rights-conscious and bureaucracies that are insufficiently rights-sensitive. I don’t mean to suggest that our government is on a mission to breach human rights principles. But I most certainly mean to suggest that, currently, human rights is hardly a flicker in the eye of most law-makers and decision-makers. That has to change".

Rights relating to discrimination, autonomy, information, education and participation are an integral part of the achievement of the highest attainable standard of health, just as the enjoyment of health is inseparable from that of other rights. Promoting and protecting health in school communities and respecting, protecting and fulfilling human rights are obviously linked in so many ways such as:

  • A lack of attention to human rights (e.g., the right to a safe learning environment) can have serious health consequences
  • Health policies and programs in educational settings can promote human rights as well as require awareness of human rights to be effective
  • Vulnerability to ill-health can be reduced by taking steps to respect, protect and fulfil human rights such as rights relating to discrimination and participatiion.

How educators, parents and students co-shape their own future, including through supporting and promoting the right to participation such as good governance practices, improves learning outcomes for students and contributes to both better health outcomes and better human rights.

Further reading

  • See our discussion of human rights - the '4 Rs'
  • Challenging orthodoxies: the road ahead for health and human rights, Paul Farmer
  • Health, Human Rights and Development, Daniel Tarantola et al
  • Health and Human Rights: Old Wine in New Bottles?
  • DEECD's list of resources to support human rights education
  • Health, development and human rights, Stephen Marks
  • The Human Rights Revolution, Dr Keith Suter
  • Health and Human Rights, Sofia Gruskin and Daniel Tarantola
  • Global Justice and Human Rights: Health and Human Rights in Practice, Daniel Tarantola
  • Human Rights in Education (New Zealand)
  • Adolescent Health and Development (AHD): a Resource Guide for World Bank Operations Staff
    and Government Counterparts
  • Optimizing the health and development of children
  • Life course health development: an integrated framework
  • Mental health and human rights
  • Briefing Paper: A Human Rights Act for Australia
  • Briefing Paper on Key Issues on the Right to Health in Australia


These three revolutions - inescapable changes and challenges that can defy conventional wisdom - continue to compel a fundamental rethink of how we live, learn, lead, organise and manage. All three revolutions and their interplay are featured on this website - from the perspectives of students and their learning outcomes and life opportunities, communities, community groups, and school communities and their governing councils and boards. However, yet to be clearly articulated are the practical strategies and research projects required to further the synergy between these three revolutions.

Is your school leading the way?

Key questions

Although it is obviously not possible to do everything at once and although there are many constraints on what can be achieved such as a lack of resources, the following questions as put to us by many principals, teachers, parents and students may be useful:

  1. Are school community members (school leaders, teachers, parents and students) really working together around educational change and improvement?
  2. Is your school developing a strong governing body that empowers staff and the community?
  3. Has your school organised a community dialogue about big ideas such as a personalised learning, 0-18 learning or schools as community hubs?
  4. Has your school developed its own shared values, vision and/or policy framework for 21st century teaching and learning?
  5. Do the strategic and implementation plans at your school focus as much on change as on important improvement targets?
  6. Does your school have at least one shared school-family-community goal in its strategic plan?
  7. Is your school a part of a broader partnership with a university or college or business and industry?
  8. Is your school developing a learning community with other schools such as a P-12 cluster of primary and secondary schools?
  9. Is your school capturing and monitoring the learning from its innovations in education?
  10. Is your school reorganising itself around key leadership positions and high-level teams?

Many schools may obviously answer ‘no’ more than ‘yes’ to these questions. But what matters, of course, is how a school is:

  • Building on the many things that it has already achieved
  • Focusing all efforts on the next stage of its development.

How are you personally providing leadership?

Whether you are a principal, teacher, parent, student or community member or working in an education department or university/college, you may want to (as teachers, parents, principals and students suggest) ask yourself and your friends and colleagues the following kinds of questions:

  • Are you really listening to students and young people who prompt us all to stretch our thinking and reshape our practice?
  • Do you really look for ideas and evidence that challenge your own assumptions and beliefs?
  • In discussions, do you ask challenging questions (as a genuine invitation for others to think about and respond to) rather than only seek to give 'good' answers?
  • Are you both an idealist and visionary and a street-smart pragmatist? How do you work around this old 'either-or'?
  • Do you meet regularly with a brains trust of friends and colleagues who are thinking afresh about the possibilities in life, work and learning?
  • Do you have a high tolerance for heretics? Heretics ask ‘why’ and ‘what if’. For example, in the case of education and schooling, what if ... schools weren’t organised in traditional ways? ... leadership was pooled across schools? ... a group of primary and secondary schools joined together? Are you a heretic?
  • Are you helping to build a movement for change (in education or any other area)?
  • Are you both extremely sceptical about new ideas and initiatives that may be no more than fads and open to new ideas and initiatives in education and schooling? As Carl Sagan put it:

"It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you're in deep trouble. If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.)

But every now and then, maybe once in a hundred cases, a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you are too much in the habit of being skeptical about everything, you are going to miss or resent it, and either way you will be standing in the way of understanding and progress. On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful as from the worthless ones. If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then, it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all" (1987).