Exploring innovation and entrepreneurship with Australian education experts

Earlier this year, David Barnett (Managing Director, Pearson Australia) hosted a panel discussion with some of Australia’s top education thought leaders. Taj Pabari (Fiftysix founder and youth entrepreneur), Dr. Marcia Mardis (Associate Professor at Florida State University) and Sonia Sharp (Principal of Nous Group) all took to the stage to bring fresh insights into current state of Australian education, and what today’s students need to be tomorrow’s innovators and entrepreneurs.

For this edition of In Conversation, we join our panellists as they dive into the evolving role of tertiary institutions in driving the innovation economy, and the importance of instilling a genuine love of learning in students to foster curiosity and entrepreneurship.

Watch the full panel discussion (40:36)


To kick off the evening, our four panellists set the stage with their own views on the current state of education in a world of innovation.

David Barnett: Our challenges are very clear in the education sector. In schools we constantly see issues around students’ performance, relative to their peers globally. On the other end of the spectrum in higher education, we know we have a business model that is really broken. No matter how much money we invest to fix the problem, nothing seems to make a difference, and that’s a problem in itself.

If both of those issues are not fixed, somewhere in the future this will come to a crunch. That's what this discussion is about - trying to understand how we can encourage innovation in schools and universities.

Sonia Sharp: There are three key themes that I have noticed as young people take their place in this innovation revolution. The disruption of the education industry is well underway, and we are beginning to see changes in curriculum, and more collaborative and creative approaches to learning. Students are linking with employers, industries, and peers around the world to expand their horizons and engage in more entrepreneurial and creative ways of working going forward. Now, brave educators are also open to different ways of learning, such as student-led learning.

This takes me to my second point; which is that the nature of teaching is changing. Teachers of the innovation era are guides, mentors and collaborators, that exchange and engage with their students. They embrace the technological world and the digital era in which these students learn.

 EduTECH Panel Quote 2 

The third area is that of assessment, which is the area that is most exciting, yet the least explored. In classrooms in Australia and around the world, we are seeing teachers, schools, universities and employers break away from traditional ways of assessment.


I’m also interested in the impact of gamification on assessment. This is the concept of learning through playing games, to engage students in a fun and positive way.


Gamification allows them to understand that failure is not a terrible thing, but instead is an opportunity to try a different route. 

Dr Marcia Mardis: Higher education moves very slowly, and age old institutions can become barriers, whether it's intentional or not. I love that there are pockets of innovation, but it's the scaling of those pockets that is problematic.

We talk about entrepreneurship, but we never talk about intrapreneurship. In terms of curriculum, there are great opportunities that break down boundaries between the teacher and the learner, and between formal education and informal education.

EduTECH Panel Quote 3      

The big question is, when should these opportunities occur? When it comes to internships, what are the crucial moments where an internship will make an effective professional? Not all internships are created equal. Sometimes an internship is actually just an elaborate copying and shredding activity that goes on for three months. It’s essential to understand what needs to go on in these experiential learning activities, and how to make sure that they are integrated into the curriculum, and are of high quality.


The second point I’d like to discuss is assessment. I really like the idea of authentic assessment, which has actually been around for a long time. However, there have been issues of scale and value. I think that an organisation that is able to assign professional value to this is a really interesting idea to investigate.


The third point to discuss is the idea of gamification and the notion of a maker-space. I was a school librarian 20 years ago, and I can remember STEM and teaching kids to make things. These kids were preparing science fair projects where they would either succeed or fail. That was very real to them, and learning that occurred or did not occur from that process was really crucial.

Taj Pabari: My name is Taj Pabari and I'm a 16 year old entrepreneur from Brisbane. When I'm not in school, I'm the founder and the CEO of a company called Fiftysix.

I started Fiftysix when I was 13 years old. I loved Lego and building blocks, so I set out to create Lego for the 21st century. I want to discuss a few things about how to prepare our young people for the challenges they may face in this 21st century digital and innovation economy.

The first is the concept of creative problem solving. We know the importance of creative problem solving; there's STEAM skills, which we know as Enterprising Skills, Science, Tech, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics. Through something like a business camp, or a networking event, we could put young people into a business situation, and help them develop and harness those core skills.

The second point is digital literacy. According to the Foundation of Young Australian's New Basics Report, released two weeks ago, the importance of digital literacy in the workplace has increased by 212%. That to me is quite staggering and I can see my peers are not properly prepared for the challenges they will be facing for years to come.

If we can put technology in the hands of young people, this will create very bright futures for them. I'm not advocating every child should be a computer programmer or a computer scientist. What I'm advocating is that every single child should learn how to use technology and build technology. I think it's a skill we are all talking about, but not many students have been given the opportunity by educators.

Question and Answer discussion

Is enough being done to prepare students for a successful transition to higher education? What are we doing to ensure a holistic education beyond just moulding students for a job?

David: There has definitely been a shift in higher education towards vocational outcomes. With that shift, I think that we’ve lost the strong Liberal Arts background in university where students used to learn things about the world, history and where you come from and the idea of how to be yourself.

EduTECH Panel Quote 1

Sonia: Education has to be about fulfilment in life as well as learning and achievement. I meet teachers and young people who work together, who are passionate about the whole child and the whole person, which is crucial. When I came to Australia I was delighted to see the value of teamwork, collaboration, creativity, and a space that allows children and young people to explore. My advice is don't throw that away, but instead, build on it.

Education today and in the future is not going to be about what you know. It's going to be how you use the information that is available, skills that we bring, and how we approach creative problem solving, all of which creates a challenge for assessment. We are more concerned with how students approach difficult situations, how they handle failure, how they handle learning, how they push themselves, how creative they can be and how collaborative they can be.

Taj: A degree is just a certificate of time served. We are seeing more young people following creative or entrepreneurial pathways. I truly think that knowledge is cheap - you can train a chimpanzee with it. It’s what you do with that knowledge that counts. As the whole culture of education evolves and we transition towards this, we will have more creative thinkers who will take more risks when it comes to learning.

How do you see universities and tertiary institutions at the moment? How do you see them changing or should change?

Taj: I'm approached by many friends who are preparing to go to university, and they ask if it is a pathway for them. I do think university is important; however, it's not suited to everyone. So when my friends are picking commerce, business and accounting subjects, I just tell them don't go to university. For example, we're seeing very traditional institutions like PWC and KPMG cut the criteria of a university degree for accounting.

Marcia: This is really a big question about tertiary education and self reflection, because there is a job and then there is a career. At least in my industry, many employers don’t care if the employee has a college degree, but will take anyone, as long as they have the skills to get the job done. When it comes to decide on a manager, that is when they look for the degree.

Sonia: I have read some interesting things about future universities and how they will have to be more modular. Even as technology changes, the one size fits all degrees have got to shift and change as well. The university system has changed, but it still needs to keep changing at a faster rate.

What skills should students learn at university? How can they be taught these skills?

Taj: I really would like to see universities teaching real world business skills. For example, Singularity University puts real world business leaders in front of the classroom.

I think if you are going to learn business at university you need to learn from people who have expereince in successful businesses in the real world. More universities should aim to employ lecturers who have real world experience and can guide students through real world application, rather than just using theory.

EduTECH Panel Quote 4

Sonia: I strongly believe in the North American child rearing model for education, which is based on the notion of a dreamcatcher. A dreamcatcher has four points. The first point is about mastering competence. Every young person needs to be brilliant at something. Secondly, they need to learn independence so that they can do things on their own. Thirdly, young people also need the feeling of belonging, and to know that they are a part of something bigger than themselves. Lastly, generosity, where they learn that they need to be able to give back to others. The best models of education ensure that students are able to apply these four principles in their learning.


What do you think about connecting with others who may be different in terms of skills or needs, so that the  community actually has some diversity?

Taj: Entrepreneurship is a team sport that provides you with the opportunity to connect with people from all around the world. Teamwork and collaboration are at the forefront of entrepreneurship, and the power of social media makes that even easier, to the point where you don’t even need to be in the same place.

I also really think young people need to get on LinkedIn. The power of LinkedIn has given us the opportunity to connect with people in the U.S, U.K, India, Nepal and beyond. This allows us to work creatively across different backgrounds and cultures, whcih is important to young people. With this diversity, they can continue to leverage and become more technologically connected in the classroom.

Sonia: I think one of the exciting things about this world is that it doesn’t matter who you are, and in a socially connected world there is a greater tolerance of diversity than ever before.

Marcia: One of the things that resonated with me is the notion of diversity. I have found this generation to be more empathetic and inclusive without even trying- it's just natural. This is a time for those of us who are not part of that generation to reflect on what we really mean by diversity, and consider what it is that we are not seeing yet, but would like to see. 


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