School Improvement and Governance Network


Challenges and opportunities for students - seven key issues

When adults do think of students, they think of them as the potential beneficiaries of change …. They rarely think of students as participants in a process of change and organisational life. Michael Fullan

Students face a complex world, rich with media and technology, with demands on their time and attention, and high expectations of their educational experience. There has also never been a greater urgency in ensuring that students acquire the knowledge and skills to tackle social, economic and environmental challenges as well as to seize new opportunities to build stronger communities and better societies.

As well, the shift from a pre-1960s period, when very few young people completed secondary school, to mass secondary education is obviously a huge demographic change. 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. Education has been undergoing a long period of adjustment to this fundamental shift, with even deeper changes on the horizon.

What, then, does it mean to be a student in the 21st century? How are young people changing as well as how are they prompting change in schools, universities and colleges? What are some of the implications for schools? The following seven issues and challenges are briefly examined.

1. Impact of new technologies

As students routinely use information and communication technologies as a means of individual and collective expression, experience, inquiry, understanding and interpretation, technology has become the Trojan horse of pedagogical change (Tomes). Students are acquiring new learning preferences (Hitchner). Although they can be both strengths and weaknesses (new technology is double-edged), these learning preferences include:

  • Expecting to be able to find what they want online whenever they want it (or instant 24/7 learning)
  • Pursuing non-linear, hyper-linked, sometimes discontinuous paths to explore ideas, concepts and information
  • Favouring jumping around or taking a serendipitous route to achieve something rather than a more linear, methodical approach to problem-solving
  • Preferring problems and learning that really blend the abstract and the concrete/specific, the academic and theoretical and the practical, applied and ‘real world’
  • Seeking, sieving and synthesising multiple sources of knowledge and information rather than locating and absorbing information from a single source or textbook.

This has the effect of developing broad spectrum specialists - learners and workers who are not narrow specialists. Rather, they have the technological tools to 'drill down' deeply into themes, topics or problems and to do so in an extremely broad, lateral way. 

Key challenges

Two challenges follow. The first is to understand more about how students are changing (and also are becoming change agents) through their use of ICT - how they think, learn, find, play, make judgments, interact with others and become engaged in the life of their families, schools, communities and societies. The second is, given that young people are inundated by enormous amounts of data that they must access, manage, integrate, and evaluate, how educators can best support students to separate substance and signals from noise and deeper learning, and knowledge from superficial fact-gathering.

2. New learning pathways

“A long time ago, a distinction was made between working with one's hands and working with one's head. New technology absolutely demolishes the distinction, and creates new pathways for learning for those who think well with their hands" (Professor Seymour Papert and Dr. David Cavallo).

Students may freely mix and match subjects - favouring their own personal blend of both deep academic knowledge and practical and applied learning - in ways that are challenging the old vocational, occupational, practical/applied and academic study pathways.

Many more students are also creating their own pathways into and out of education and work. Some may begin with university and then attend a TAFE college, and vice versa. Likewise, periods of work and learning are spread increasingly throughout life rather than being concentrated in discrete and separated periods.

Schools' work toward developing unified learning pathways improve the quality of learning for all students and increase access to ‘academic’ learning for students who may be initially more ‘concrete’ than ‘conceptual’ in their learning - especially when educators skillfully exploit these kinds of links.

It follows that a whole-of-education policy approach to students’ life and learning pathways can assist many more students to successfully plan, navigate and develop their own unified education, training and work pathways, thus not necessarily accepting what is favoured by any one institution. Such an approach considers senior school, VET and higher education as part of a coherent framework.

Key questions

The question thus arises: how best to support all students to develop their own unified learning pathways? Likewise, what does innovative practice in schools tell us about how best to more systematically link academic and vocational learning, abstract theory and ‘real world’ application, depth of academic knowledge and practical, applied and hands-on skills?

It is important to share the good practices of the many teachers who are adept at consistently bringing in practical and applied learning examples to explain and elucidate abstract concepts. Such teachers do not teach only at the theoretical level, but are always moving backwards and forwards between deep theory and concepts, on the one side, and practical application and real world problem solving, on the other.

3. Life, learning and work

Many young people place an ever-greater emphasis on a mix of learning, work, lifestyle choices, personal growth and relationships with others beyond a narrow focus on a ‘career’ in which they may climb through the ranks within one organisation or occupation. This is obviously not to say that work is unimportant. Rather, young people are adjusting to a world that has the following features:

  • Uncertainty about the links between education and work
  • Part-time employment (while at school)
  • Disappointment with the quality of work or the career prospects (many jobs do not require the knowledge and skills of this very well-educated generation).

Young people respond to this by placing a high priority on the knowledge, skills and capacities they need to learn, develop and survive in this environment. As noted in the Australian Youth Research Centre’s Life-Patterns study, these include:

  • A high level of personal autonomy
  • The capacity to be flexible (because flexibility is more important than predictability to ensure security)
  • Mobility across jobs and occupations (a career for life is largely a thing of the past)
  • A priority on health, wellbeing and maintaining - where possible - a balance across life spheres.

Life and learning plans

This continuing shift to a mix of learning, work, personal development and wellbeing may eventually mean that all schools will have personalised life and learning plans with outcomes measures that:

  • Provide information about life skills outcomes as much as about learning outcomes
  • Profile many indicators of success, not all of which obviously are textbook-based.

The problem is that it is beyond the capacity and resources of schools and teachers to do justice to this complex mix of learning, work, personal development and wellbeing. Yet opportunities for success in its many forms build confidence and enable students to manage less interesting and more demanding work as well as more attractive and engaging tasks.

Key challenge

A key challenge will be how best to incorporate life skills and broader indicators of success into school education more deeply (and further support and resource schools for this work). In this respect, new models of personalised life and learning plans as creatively developed by schools are of tremendous interest.

4. Collaborative individualism

Learning more and more relies on collaborative practices. Likewise, more and more research develops collaboratively in novel ways. A New York Times article in 2008 even suggests that a future Nobel Prize winner might not be an oncology researcher at a distinguished university but a blogging community where multiple authors, some with no official form of expertise, discover a cure for a form of cancer through their collaborative process of combining, probing and developing insights online together.

Students are agents of collaboration in educational institutions, many of which once privileged private, solitary learning and in which, historically, the most successful students were often those that studied in a relatively unsupervised, independent fashion.

Young people search for empowerment and interdependence. Some call this contradicatory mix 'collaborative individualism’. Accustomed to using a range of technologies that rely for their power on social interactions, many students strive for freedom from old-style groups, organisations, hierarchies and institutions. Pursuing personal empowerment and the power of people working and learning together, there is a propensity to optimise both.

With this peculiar mix of individualism and collaboration, the need for broader, deeper peer support - for students to fundamentally share the responsibility for learning and provide mutual help -  has never been greater. Schools have long used collaborative learning strategies, such as study circles and peer tutors, to address this need. But new practices are required to take peer support to a new level.  

Collective intelligence

Related to this is the rise of collective intelligence. Wikipidia is an obvious example, with thousands of people creating an on-line collection of knowledge. Many schools develop wikis in subject areas. This is just the beginning. With new technologies it is possible to harness the intelligence of large numbers of people, including students in a school. Students pool their capacity for intelligence through teamwork, wikis, blogs, specialisation and working across old divides such as the academic-practical/applied learning divide.

All of which challenge the myth that if many students fail or do not perform so well it is because they do not have the personal intelligence to succeed. Students do not readily accept such myths that serve to constrain the development of collective intelligence. Collaborative learning - as a means to collective intelligence - has been practiced in schools for decades. There is much professional expertise and experience in developing strategies for collaborative learning, but its actual practice in learning can be inconsistent.

Practical strategies

Enabling factors for collaborative learning, peer support and collective intelligence include:

  • A broadly-agreeed model of good practice in collaborative learning, peer support and collective intelligence
  • Supporting schools to routinely use collective intelligence technologies and tools such as forums, blogs, wikis, podcasts and the like in all curriculum areas
  • Challenging student deficit 'explanations' for variability in student achievement
  • Questioning 'high achievers' programs in schools that may imply that: (a) intelligence is a fixed personal capacity that can be assessed in a test for grade six students and (b) only the few rather than the many are capable of high achievement
  • Challenging the segregation of students through streaming, which undermines peer support and mutual learning between high-performing and other students.

5. Cultural and social inclusion

Cultural and social inclusion is discussed in the relevant section on this website. Briefly discussed here is the important question of how students themselves promote inclusion.

So much of the research literature and policy around social exclusion/inclusion assumes that inclusion is something that is done for young people. Students’ own agency is thus erased. Further research is needed to determine more fully not only the extent of exclusion for young people and its many forms but also how young people promote inclusion through proactively:

  • Developing new kinds of learning and life pathways that challenge social class and other constraints on students' educational options, learning outcomes and life chances
  • Connecting inclusively with others, e.g., in a culturally and socially diverse school community, students acquire deep knowledge and skills in local and global citizenship
  • Participating in dialogue and decision-making, thus further empowering all students including those yet to be involved in school and community conversations and leadership.

6. Rethinking leadership

This generation of students is at the genesis of major shifts, yet there is so much untapped leadership capacity among students. Nonetheless, in many schools in contrast to an old prefect model of leadership, many students of all backgrounds are involved in leadership. For example, this includes:

  • Within the classroom as technology or team leaders
  • As peer tutors, mentors, supporters and mediators
  • As sustainability or community garden leaders
  • As community workers and problem-solvers (e.g., student action teams involve groups of students who work on issues of community interest, undertake research and develop solutions)
  • As members of the SRC/JSC and school policy-making teams
  • As editors and contributors to student publications and wikis
  • As sports or performing arts coaches.

But 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. They may not see a link between their lives and the life of old political parties and governments yet to point to a better world beyond market failures and financial crises. As Professor David Orr puts it:

We live in an age of unprecedented transition, but as yet without transformative leaders.

Despite this, schools explore new models of student leadership and governance. Longer-term, these developments can include:

  • Formal study and training - through leadership courses that include skills in local and global citizenship, public speaking and communication, planning, project management, team building, mentoring, peer support and student ‘buddy’ work
  • A rich array of school and community experiences in leadership (e.g., student action teams, classroom student team leaders, sporting coaches, peer support leaders, peer mediators, students as school technology leaders, etc.).

A Centre for Student Leadership?

For this to happen, a Centre for Student Leadership may be needed. Such a centre could organise:

  • A clearinghouse for leadership programs and resources, including educational materials designed to embed leadership learning and skills in the classroom, curriculum and school life
  • Interactive workshops and weekend retreats designed to bring student leaders together to develop their knowledge and skills - and supported students to work with leaders in the arts, sport, education, community, government and business
  • Events that showcased the work of schools, teachers and students and formally recognised exemplary involvement in leadership by individual students and teams of students.

7. Empowered decision-making

Young people desire to be part of decision-making that encourages and welcomes their efforts. Some schools have developed this in new, creative ways. But schools know that they can quickly lose the enthusiasm, commitment and engagement of students - if they fail to involve them in empowered decision-making that enables students to make a difference.

This generation of young people and students is facing a myriad of issues - global warming, economic crisis, poverty, health issues, the need to reinvent education, a global population explosion and other social and environmental challenges. These issues drive the need for students to:

  • Be able to communicate with each other and with adults in powerful ways, using multiliteracies
  • Create change personally, socially, economically and politically on local, national and global levels.

Student Action Teams

For well over a decade, some schools in Victoria have been developing student action teams. These involve a group of students identifying and tackling a school or community issue. They research the issue, make plans and proposals about it and take action on it. As Roger Holdsworth points out:

For many young people, ‘deferred outcomes’ of learning (in terms of distant goals of employment, citizenship, or acknowledged community roles) are not sufficient to sustain their motivation and commitment to learning.

As young people are held in education and, potentially, in relatively passive roles for longer periods of time, it is important that there are initiatives within schools that create real roles of community value for young people.

Such initiatives would, as part of the curriculum, engage students in purposeful, authentic activities which are valued by the students, which have broader community value and which meet or exceed mandated curriculum goals.

Student Representative Councils

There is also the potential for all SRCs to be a genuine voice for students in all schools and to provide real participation in decision-making over all of the key issues which affect students. But there are obstacles that SRCs can face - from a lack of skills and knowledge and resources to the challenge of enabling all students to really participate in decision-making processes.

This requires the development of structures, processes and a culture within all schools which support and nurture student participation in democratic decision-making. Support and resources are available from the Victorian Student Representative Council (VicSRC), a network of student representative councils in secondary schools.


There are many wonderful initiatives in schools. However, yet to be developed and adequately resourced is a comprehensive, whole-of-government and whole-of-community approach to student learning and development. As we have seen, such a policy and strategy may embrace the following kinds of key elements:

  1. Impact of new technologies
  2. New learning pathways
  3. Life, learning and work
  4. Collaborative individualism
  5. Cultural and social inclusion
  6. Rethinking leadership
  7. Empowered decision making.