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Category Archive for 'Education Policy'

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.

Times Out Of Joint

In his 1935 essay “The Teacher and His World,” John Dewey wrote,

The sum of the matter is that the times are out of joint, and that teachers cannot escape even if they would, some responsibility for a share in putting them right.

While John Dewey may have been writing in the earlier half of the 20th century–at a time when the US was in the slow and painful process of recovering from the Great Depression–he may as well have been writing about our times–with economic fear and anxieties, a rapidly changing workplace, and technologies which have helped to foster a global network facilitating the flow of information and capital–in the beginning of the 21st century. The idea of a set of 21st Century Skills, regularly discussed in the blogosphere and reported on in both the educational and mass news media, can be thought of as an attempt to address some of the fears, anxieties, and uncertainties surrounding this changing world through education.

This is especially true among the educational technology community, which has by and large embraced the idea of the 21st Century Skills in its various forms. As the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21), the leading organization advocating for this approach to education, is largely comprised of a partnership of technology and media companies and corporations (plus ASCD and NEA and a few others), much of the emphasis of the 21st Century Skills framework is based on using and engaging with media and technology for educational purposes in interesting, collaborative, and creative ways. Although the P21′s framework is not the only one (c.f., pp. 15-20 of Friesen and Jardine’s report, 21st Century Learning and Learners, for a fairly comprehensive overview of the various approaches to 21st century skills), it is by far the most referenced, has made the most headway in policy terms, and is generally what is referred to when “21st Century Skills” is invoked generically.

The Partnership’s 21st Century Skills

The P21′s take is fairly complete, and is represented in the nice rainbow graphic below of the “Student Outcomes,” which are “…the skills, knowledge and expertise students should master to succeed in work and life in the 21st century.” Of note is the emphasis on interdisciplinary literacies (although for some strange reason, “Environmental Literacies” have not been fully developed–could this be on purpose?), innovative and creative thinking and collaboration, business and financial acumen, and, for lack of a better term, project management skills. These are all crucial in order to succeed in what Richard Florida describes as the creative class, or what Robert Reich more soberly calls symbolic analytic professions.

Student outcomes of the 21st century as envisioned by P21

Student outcomes of the 21st century as envisioned by P21

Critiques of 21st Century Skills

Statler and WaldorfAs with many frameworks, P21′s 21 Century Skills have also been the target of criticism from the blogosphere. There are many ways to slice these critiques. Melanie McBride has an interesting critique and suggestions based on (socioeconomic) class distinctions and identity politics. Tom Hoffman critiques the idea of separating knowledge from skills, as well as favoring white-collar jobs. Hoffman, and others including Jamie MacKenzie, Alfie Kohn, and Core Knowledge, are concerned over the fact that business is setting the educational agenda.

I would agree on this last point, and it points to a disturbing cultural trend all around. Hannah Arendt foreshadowed this critique in her masterfully insightful book The Human Condition. Framing her argument in terms of the rise of society and the social realm (as opposed to the pluralistic and political ideal of the public realm) she writes: “…in a relatively short time the new social realm transformed all modern communities into societies of laborers and jobholders…” (p. 46). The 21st Century Skills focus more on competition and productivity rather than a focus on helping children become good, just and whole people. While many of the critical thinking skills described in the 21st Century Skills are important and worthwhile, there is still many missing, such as listening, caring, reflecting, and conserving.

By far, however, most of the criticisms emanate from the Core Knowledge Foundation (CK), headed by E.D. Hirsch and Diane Ravitch. The argument that they present has been picked up, repeated, and turned into a talking point. It is the standard critique of progressive education, that “skills” are elevated above “knowledge.”

Fair enough, and part of my own critique of P21′s 21st Century Skills also includes some aspects of this. Friesen and Jardine, who are Canadian and not at all attached to the Core Knowledge Foundation, critique what they call the emphasis on “generic skills” in 21st Century Skills. They instead call for a focus on “living disciplines of knowledge,” in which curriculum is cast as a “landscape” and teachers and students take on responsibilities for nurturing the knowledge with which they are engaging:

This idea of a landscape in which one learns to work and dwell, within which the relatedness and interdependence of those things which the field sustains are essential to their well being, in which one’s actions are those of obligation to and care for that well-being, in which others have come before us and work has already been done–these matters define how knowledge is in fact organized in the world.

“Setting-Right” The World

I find the take of Core Knowledge (CK), in contrast with Friesen and Jardine, to be a reductionist approach to knowledge and knowing: I am uncomfortable with the idea that “core knowledge” can be collected, anthologized, standardized, and tested without losing something. I also find that CK’s approach to lack any Socratic “critical examination of oneself and one’s traditions,” which Martha Nussbaum in her book Cultivating Humanity holds up as one of three capacities for cultivating a humanistic citizenship through education. In a sense, CK’s approach closes off the hermeneutic circle so that new meanings cannot be gleaned or constructed.

Winslow Homer's "Country School, 1871"CK’s approach can also tend to a romanticism of the past, such as Dr. Ravitch’s post on 19th Century Skills. While I appreciate Dr. Ravitch’s historical perspective–that many things we value and should bring to new generations about what it means to be human have been around for awhile–I find that she is, quoting Jason Jones of The Daily Show, “hearkening back to a simple, more fictional time.”

What is missing in CK’s approach is what Hannah Arendt, a sharp and thoughtful critic of progressive education, refers to as a “setting-right” of the world. By “the world,” Arendt is referring to the world of human understanding, learning, and works, which is, she rightly asserts, well worth the effort to adopt a sense of “…conservatism, in the sense of conservation.” She writes further in her essay “The Crisis in Education”:

Basically we are always educating for a world that is or is becoming out of joint, for this is the basic human situation…. To preserve the world against the mortality of its creators and inhabitants it must be constantly set right anew. The problem is simply to educate in such a way that a setting-right remains actually possible, even though it can, of course, never be assured. Our hope always hangs on the new which every generation brings; but precisely because we can base our hope only on this, we destroy everything if we so try to control the new that we, the old, can dictate how it will look. Exactly for the sake of what is new and revolutionary in every child, education must be conservative; it must preserve this newness and introduce it as a new thing into an old world… (pp. 192-193)

Larry Cuban points out that teachers in their own right are often “conservative,” in that they make incremental rather than fundamental changes in their actual day-to-day practices. In the case of P21′s 21st Century Skills, this may be the right thing to do. Some questions arise: Do teachers resist those fundamental changes because of the critiques listed above, or is it another example of what Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley refer to as “adaptive presentism,” a way for teachers to deal with the deluge of change and reform which bombards them from outside the classroom? Do teachers adopt P21′s 21st Century Skills because they think it is the best way to teach their students about the world, and to prepare them for their place in it?

Alfie Kohn has admitted that teachers often use “21st Century Skills” as a way to talk about ‘relatively sophisticated intellectual activity – the sort that includes critical thinking, creativity, and learning about ideas “in a context and for a purpose”….’ And one teacher has really made 21st Century Skills her own.

These questions and concerns highlight another theme which permeates much of Hannah Arendt’s work, which I have drawn heavily upon in this post, that of the need for thoughtfulness. She ends The Human Condition with a passage from Cato: Numquam se plus agere quam nihil cum ageret, numquam minus solum esse quam cum solus esset–”Never is he more active than when he does nothing, never is he less alone than when he is by himself.” This passage flies in the face of the 21st Century Skills, but her famous thesis around the banality of evil, that evil arises from thoughtlessness and “spreads like a fungus on the surface,” requires deep thinking and consideration. So to with the 21st Century Skills, and the pressing need for considering where they come from and for what ends.

I end with another passage from Dewey’s “The Teacher and His World,” and while Arendt and Dewey disagreed on much, on the necessity of thoughtfulness they seem to concur:

The question is whether they [teachers] are doing so blindly, evasively, or intelligently and courageously. If a teacher is conservative… at all events let him do it intelligently, after a study of the situation and a conscious choice made on the basis of intelligent study. The same thing holds for the liberal and the radical.

Tomaz Lasic has an interesting post on teachers banned from contacting their students over online social networking sites in Queensland, Australia. I sympathize with his argument that education is an inherently social activity and that online social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace are ways to encourage this social mode of learning. I agree that “banning” much of anything (without first putting in place some guidelines) is probably not the best way to explore what the potentialities of something are, for better or for worse.

He does note the “other side,” however, that keeping kids safe from “online predators and abusers” (most of whom are not teachers) is very important. I think that positioning one’s argument against such an extreme is usually counterproductive.

In my view, there are much more immediate and subtle effects of using social networking sites to communicate with students, blurring the boundaries between “teacher” and “friend” and out-of-school and in-school learning. Reading Axel Brun’s commentary on Trying to Remain Faceless on Facebook and Social Networks on Ning: A Sensible Alternative to Facebook (Dr. Brun hails, ironically, from Queensland) and Anton Steinpilz’s Thesis #3 in Paradise Tossed: Three Theses on the Impossibility of Future Progress are some takes on this idea. Not that I think that there shouldn’t be some overlap between “teacher” and “friend,” but it’s more complicated than Facebook makes it out to be.

But my argument can best be put by danah boyd, who warns us of a combination of technological utopianism and determinism which is so easy to slip into:

…[W]hen we introduce technology in an educational setting, we often mistakenly assume that students will embrace the technology in the same way that we do. This never works out and can cause unexpected strife. Take social network sites as an example. You use this for professional networking; teens use it to socialize with their peers. Putting Facebook or MySpace into the classroom can create a severe cognitive collision as teens try to work out the shift in contexts. Most problematically, when teens are forced to navigate Friending in an educational setting, painful dramas occur because who you’re polite to in school may be very different than who you socialize with at home. Using technology that ruptures social norms in the classroom can be socially and educationally harmful.

Her post, some thoughts on technophilia, is not long, and well worth the read for anyone who is concerned about education, technology, and students. If educators are insistent on using online social networks–and there are some good reasons to do so–I wonder if following Axel Burns’ advice is the way to go, setting up a Ning, or better yet, a Moodle on the school network (if such an option is available), dedicated to the class or a specific project, maintaining stricter boundaries between school work (and yes, it is, in so many ways, work) and friendships.