We Are The System We Have Been Waiting For

We Are The System We Have Been Waiting For

The old saying, ‘you can’t see the forest for the trees’, refers to when we get so caught up in small details that we fail to see the big picture. However, when forest ecologist Dr Suzanne Simard coined the term Wood Wide Web, she invited us to look, not just at the forest or the trees, but to delve underground. Beneath the forest, there is a subterranean social network, nearly 500 million years old, of roots, fungi and bacteria communicating with each other. The conversations between these seemingly disconnected organisms help the forest survive and thrive, to become what we can see today.


Learning Creates Australia has been deep in the vast forest of learning, scrambling up and down a variety of education system trees, large and small. With the easing of restrictions, we have begun spending valuable time on the ground, in community, engaging with the education sector’s equivalent of the Wood Wide Web.

Learning Creates Australia is a first-of-its kind initiative, launched in April 2020 in collaboration with The Foundation for Young Australians (FYA); the Paul Ramsay Foundation; The University of Melbourne Assessment Research Centre and The Impact Assembly, PwC Australia. Every young Australian – regardless of where they live or what school they attend – should be participating in a learning system that supports them to thrive in work and life. We are now nearly 1,000 strong individuals, collectives and organisations working together to make this a reality, by creating innovative, practical solutions to deeply entrenched, systemic educational challenges.

Our first 18 months of work has been undertaken entirely during COVID 19, against a backdrop of 22 national reports on current issues with pathways and transitions in education and learning in Australia, and a global education environment where the OECD reports that disruptions in learning have left many students even further behind.

Our first project, The Learners Journey, is running through a National Social Lab. The project is exploring ways of recognising the often invisible and informal learning that takes place alongside the visible and formal. There is wide agreement that narrowly defined measures of educational attainment understate and even misrepresent the learning young people have attained. We need to create ways for students and educators to articulate, demonstrate and assess what young people know and can do in a holistic way; develop a learning recognition system which takes full account of both formal and informal learning outcomes. Only in this way, will young people be fully acknowledged for their learning attainments and thus able to comprehensively represent their knowledge and skills to the world at large. 

The Social Lab methodology brings diverse people together: young people with different lived experiences; First Nations communities; parents; educators; school communities; research and policy professionals; recruiters and selectors and, employers. Involving all who create the education system and stand to benefit from it is key to tackling the complex challenges our education system is facing.

In Tasmania last week our Industry Social Lab Team worked with a large number of stakeholders within and outside the formal system convened by Burnie Works and Beacon Foundation. We were struck by the strong appetite of all stakeholders to find new ways to better support students to navigate primary and secondary school and beyond. Our Tassie Lab revealed that many of the skills and traits we are not recognising are the very things that industry need and want to see more of.

Dr Simard and others have described the intricate, elegant and pragmatic connections between mycorrhizal fungi, plants and trees. This communication network is built on a foundation of mutually beneficial relationships.

The distribution of nutrients between our school communities is complex. Some places are nutrient-dense, and others are nutrient-deficient. We see evidence of this in our inequitable education system. Moreover, our information exchanges are profoundly inadequate. By having a learning recognition system that reflects school-based learning outcomes, we fail to recognise learning that is happening at home, in the community, on-country, on a farm, through social excursions, on the sports field, in a workshop or online and in so many other contexts. Putting a comprehensive learning recognition system in place will benefit students and the Australian community, and strengthen the education sector’s immune system by demonstrating just how knowledgeable and skilled its graduates actually are.

The Learner’s Journey Social Lab is engaging students, schools communities, tertiary providers, industry to design and test prototypes for recognising both formal and informal learning. Concurrently, our First Nations Team is leading a team exploring self-determination in education and learning. 

The prototyping work is driven by the desire to improve learning outcomes and pathways for 15-19 year olds in response to a core challenge question: How might we develop new and trusted ways to recognise learning that enables every young person to thrive in learning, work and the community?

The work is necessarily rigorous:

  • Evidence-based, robust in its design and drawn from new ways of thinking
  • Inclusive of those who have the most to gain because they experience barriers across our current systems
  • Fit-for-purpose for all Australians as they adapt to living, learning and working in a range of settings throughout their life

Of the multiple learnings we have gained from our work so far, four stand out:

  • Many young people who seem to be doing well on paper, using our current system of recognition, are not actually thriving for a wide range of reasons
  • Many young people who have experienced disadvantage nevertheless find a way to thrive and it is vital to identify and sustain that which has enabled them to do so
  • Those that are thriving must be supported to keep going, by ensuring that new approaches don’t dismantle the things that are working well
  • Equity and agency are not just themes, they thread through our process and thinking. Young people are central as key drivers and owners of the work and the experience of First Nations people and communities are centred in a First Nations self-determined leadership model built on trust. 

Across Australia, we argue about, uphold, blame and challenge the education system. We view the education system like we look at a forest, as something over there, separate from us. In doing so, we overlook that we are the system. We supply the nutrients that fuel and support the learning system; we comprise the subterranean social network that exchanges information, in formal and informal ways. First Nations ways of knowing and learning have a 60,000 year head-start on the rest of us. As my co-chair Hayley McQuire has said: “Our stories are located in Country and in the ground”. Whether the education system and its students are thriving, or missing out, or failing to thrive, is our responsibility. We are the only ones who, acting both individually and collectively, can change it for the better.

The thousands of people who have and will participate in Learning Creates Australia are playing their part in a Learning Wide Web that recognises the great strengths and achievements of our education system while concurrently taking on the challenge to continuously improve it, until every young Australian is participating in a learning system that supports them to flourish in the Australian forest.

Significant progress is being made. The future is ours to shape.

Jan Owen AM
is Co-Chair and 
Co-Convenor of Learning Creates Australia