The case against 21st century schools

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A "21st Century Skills" movement seems to be emerging as the latest panacea in the peculiar world of public education. Since the appearance of Tony Wagner's The Global Achievement Gap (2008), the movement has been in full flight. From his perch at Harvard, Wagner wields enormous influence, particularly in the corporate world. The school system does not need "merely reform, according to Wagner, because it is "completely obsolete." We need a completely new system committed to teaching "21st century skills" preparing students for lives in this century.

Tony Wagner is in the advance guard and the movement has spawned disciples almost everywhere from Harvard to California to New Brunswick. There are now even "How To" books like Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel's 21st Learning Skills (2009). Surprising numbers of Canadian educators, cheered on by the Canadian Education Association, appear to be falling under its influence.

"The future," H.G. Wells once said, "is a race between education and catastrophe." In his future world, change was the only constant and our educational system is always in danger of falling behind or becoming irrelevant. That is a truly frightening prospect, but it seems to have generated a rather ominous world-wide 21st century education movement. It is driven by educational futurists, media personalities, and technology providers, all promoting so-called "21st Century Schools."

Today's students have grown up in a digital world. Futurists like Don Tapscott play a vital role in alerting us to the coming wave of technological innovation and encouraging educators to integrate IT and social media into the classroom. Indeed, Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams's new book, Macroeconomics: Rebooting Business and the World (2010) provides valuable lessons about how "mass collaboration" can enliven teaching as well as learning for students.

Yet worshipping at the altar of technology poses its own dangers. In the hands of education's 21st century zealots, educational change might even threaten the fundamental principles and foundations of our educational tradition. Most ironic of all, making way for the "knowledge-based economy" now seems to thrive on collective amnesia and a complete disregard for the wisdom bequeathed to us by past generations.

New Brunswick's "21st Century Education" initiative is the most grotesque example of this alarming trend. In late March 2010, the Department of Education officially endorsed the scary concept by posting a much talked-about YouTube video graphically illustrating "The Shift" and exploring its earth-shaking implications.

The animated NB Education 5 minute-long short is relentless in its pace, technologically obsessed, and openly hostile to educational tradition. Most of what is being taught in schools is dismissed as obsolete. "We must keep pace and stay relevant," the narrator declares, "to keep kids engaged."

New Brunswick is not alone in flirting with the educational futurists. Since 2007, British author Sir Ken Robinson has been dazzling educators with his YouTube Talks. He is the undisputed education rock star and his polished video lectures drive home two key messages: modern education is outmoded and schools kill creativity. He pops up everywhere, but most notably in films like We Are the People We've Been Waiting For and on TED Talks. 

Future schools thinking is widespread in Ontario and now seeping into Nova Scotia. A year ago, the Nova Scotia School Boards Association stated its own 21st Century Schools project. A series of closed door meetings were held with "system partners" to study resources reflecting a distinctly "progressivist" vision for the future.

Nova Scotia's education futurists relied upon imported resource materials. In addition to the New Brunswick video, participants discussed Sir Ken's videos and films, Scott McLeod's version of Shift Happens, the American film Race to Nowhere, the CBC Doc Zone show "Hyper Parents & Coddled Kids," and a New York Times Opinion piece trashing Advanced Placement courses and high-stakes testing.

Who is really driving the future schools agenda? All signs point to a rather fascinating Miramichi school superintendent, William Kierstead. This greying, bespectacled former elementary teacher has emerged as the province's leading Information Technology in Teaching (ITC) guru. To him, promoting the 21st Century learning agenda is crucial to integrating ICT into classrooms everywhere.

Kierstead is no dreamer. He is an ITC promoter who fashions himself to be on the cutting edge. Computers amaze him and Don Tapscott's Growing Up Digital (1997) is the source of most of his visionary ideas. Upon closer scrutiny, Kierstead is actually a disciple of American educational progressive John Dewey. In early December, he came out of the closet and posted a hymn of praise to the Dewey as "the father of 21st Century learning."

Dewey (1859-1952) is still recognized as the "Godfather" of North American progressive education. Student-centred learning, focusing on process not content, and resistance to student testing were his mantras. Like most progressives, he rejected teaching subject knowledge and believed that schools should "teach the student, not the subject."

On the surface, it would seem to be odd that Kierstead and the latter day Deweyites would have latched onto 21st century learning as the new ideology. Given the state of education, one might think that aspiring to higher achievement standards, good literature, student testing and accountability, and closing the education gap were the wave of the future. Some even hope that sound curriculum, good teaching and critical thought might make a comeback. 

Not so, according to the educational futurists. Globalists and IT promoters have a shiny new appeal. Yet such an uncritical acceptance of a technologically-driven school system can be mind numbing. Scratching below the surface, you also tend to find that the futurists are really "romantic progressivists" in disguise.

Beware of the 21st learning zealots. Frightened of a more globalized, competitive, fast-paced future, they want to retreat back into the womb of soft student-centred pedagogy, classroom info-tainment, and nurturing the self-esteem of students. The Internet and social media are the latest gizmos and innovations to be used to "stay relevant" and keep the kids happy in schools.

A few courageous voices have emerged to challenge the retooled "21st century skills" orthodoxy. American education critic Jay P. Greene was way out front on this file. Since 2008, he's been calling the movement "21st century nonsense." It's nonsense because it denies the past and threatens much that is good about our educational tradition. In the recent past, the "skills-mania" almost destroyed history and social studies in the 1980s, before it was vanquished. To say that critical thinking is a "21st century skill" is surely a joke unless you only inhabit the present and have lost any sense of historical memory. Independent school educators have proven, year after year, that teaching skills should never supplant the education of informed, well-grounded, critically aware young people.

What we really need is more of what Sir Ken calls "divergent thinking" and less worshipping of the chimera promised by those 21st century machines.

—Paul W. Bennett
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