In my last post on 21st Century Skills, I made the rather polemical and irreverent claim that thoughtfulness “flies in the face of 21st Century Skills.” Needless to say, critiquing a framework in this way when it is often connected with “critical thinking skills” by both friend and foe, this statement requires a little explanation.
Much of the rhetoric around adopting the 21st Century Skills in education, very similar to the rhetoric around adopting the use of technology in education, is predicated on a do-or-die or do-or-become-irrelevant idea. The world will leave you behind if you are not doing things with technology or teaching (or developing curriculum) the 21st Century Skills way. Kids are using technology. Business is using technology. The world is uncertain, so we must use technology and teach our children 21st Century Skills to make sure we are are on top. Because if we don’t, somebody else will be better prepared, more creative, more productive.
The following video, prepared in response to anthropologist Michael Wesch’s A Vision of Students Today, illustrates how easily global economic competition can become conflated with education, teaching, and learning:
At around the two minute mark, one boy holds a placard which reads “By the year 2016 the largest English speaking country” followed by a girl holding a placard which reads “will be China!” In my humble opinion, the rhetoric of fear can be dangerous–we are forced to act to maintain our place in the economic world without really thinking about what the ramifications are. The antidote to this fear–as well as to the drop-out problem–offered in the video is the use of technology and the application of 21st Century Skills. This instinct, to keep up and compete with technology in order to stay on top, seems entirely “natural”… until we stop and think about it, and really consider where the fear is coming from and what our options are.
Manuel Castells, in his sweeping The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture trilogy on the emerging networked world, insists that we must take information and communication technologies seriously. He’s right, we must. But taking technologies seriously means careful thinking and deliberation, not necessarily just going with the flow. A thoughtful position is difficult to maintain, as Castells deftly points out that the global network of information and capital will bypass and cut out any individual, organization, or region which does not add value to the network. We don’t want to be left behind, but at the same time it is within our reach to curb the self-reinforcing logic of the network. Bill Wasik, author of And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture, ends his book with echoes of Hannah Arendt’s reference to Cato:
We cannot unplug the machine, nor would we want to; but we must rewire it to serve us, rather than the other way around. And for that, we must learn how to partially unplug ourselves.