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What does it take to be a citizen who thrives in the 21st Century?

John Thornberry and Adam Jefford discuss the value of creative-led investigation and the development of 21st century skills across the whole curriculum.

In 2011-12 the population of Pimpama a suburb in the northern part of the Gold Coast jumped 12.6% to 3700 making it the fastest growing area in Queensland according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. We considered this  growth and change  in building Pimpama State Secondary College  and wanted to reconceptualise the traditional concepts of why schools exist.

When the school opened in January 2013 we had considered how we could be a learning community that prepares students for life after school in an ever-changing global economy.  We asked, “ be a school that builds students up with the skills and knowledge so they can thrive in the 21st Century?”  This resulted in our school mission:
Developing learners who can identify opportunity and manage risk, who can innovate and create; who can shape and define their future.

Early inspiration for our College’s philosophy came from Sir Ken Robinson’s well-known TED talk, How Schools Kills Creativity. From the outset, we knew that creativity and innovation needed to be the pillars of our curriculum:  equal in importance to literacy and numeracy. We identified the skills that we felt our students would need to thrive in the 21st Century:

  • can self-manage
  • are confident to take risks
  • feel comfortable to fail and learn from failure
  • are curious
  • are good communicators and collaborators.

We enable the development of these skills through the college-wide delivery of Design Thinking.  To support this approach our College successfully applied for Artist in Residence funding through Arts Queensland. The residency provided us a curriculum space to help students identify and respond to local issues through design thinking with a broad brief of designing sustainable, vibrant and creative communities.

The project was intended to act as a catalyst for change with increased ownership of the local history, environment and future community.  To critically respond to the short- and long-term social and environmental implications of land development, ownership and urban sprawl, the students worked with artist and designer Tristian Schultz.

The experience helped students to begin to understand the relational impacts of the ‘world made’ by design and to become crucial ‘world makers’ through design thinking, capable of defining and confronting the complexities of the 21st century.

We also formed partnerships inside and outside our school and local community to strengthen our capacity and capabilities in design thinking.  The Asia Pacific Design Library (APDL), State Library of Queensland has supported development and ideation of our curriculum and the delivery of our signature design programs and experiences.

The Cube, Queensland University of Technology has supported the College to incorporate video game design and systems thinking into our teaching. Through this partnership, Year 9 Play-Makers are able to access QUT academics and industry experts in the fields of game design, robotics and mobile technology throughout the year and participate in specialised workshops at The Cube.
Anecdotal feedback from the project so far suggests that students are:

  • setting their own targets via a project schedule and reviewing progress
  • actively exploring a wide range of creative forms to demonstrate learning
  • embedding high-level ICTs in creative output
  • considering the integration of multiple disciplines (discussing and exploring the scientific, environmental, design, engineering, medical, social implications and applications of Design Solutions).
  • seeing clear links between business models and entrepreneurial activity

As we reflect on our successes and failures (fail fast to succeed sooner!) of the last two years, we wanted to share our latest project: Hack-schooling.  We are prototyping student-driven, negotiated curriculum projects where students explore their passion and identify how they can learn in a way that interests them. Our hope is that by building in time to pursue projects that the students are passionate about, they will naturally pursue self-directed learning, team-work and collaboration.


Pimpama State Secondary School Principal John Thornberry recently celebrated his 25th year in Queensland Government Schools. He has worked all over Queensland as a teacher, Head of Department and school leader.


Adam Jefford is the Head of Creative Industries at Pimpama State Secondary College. In 2012, he was awarded the fourth Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt Design Education Fellowship, which saw Adam working with the award winning Education team at the Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt Design Museum in New York.