Old Wine in New Bottles?

James and I recently presented at a conference where 21st century education guru Tony Wagner was one of the keynote speakers. Wagner talks about the need to transform education for the 21st century and highlights seven survival skills schools should be teaching to prepare students for the 21st century:

  • Critical thinking and problems solving
  • Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
  • Agility and adaptability
  • Initiative and entrepreneurship
  • Effective and oral communication
  • Accessing and analyzing information
  • Curiosity and imagination

These are obviously important skills but notice on Wagner’s website that they are “as defined by business leaders.” While I think Wagner’s prescriptions for schools and educators go a long way toward potentially transforming schools, my problem is that much of the rhetoric about 21st century education, 21st century skills, and 21st century classrooms has narrow instrumental purposes to support economic productivity, growth, and competitiveness, business interests, and further corporate and market intrusion into schooling, teaching, and learning. Much of it comes wrapped in the latest forms of technologies attractively packaged (and heavily marketed) for schools, promising a techno-panacea for classrooms and engaged learning. As Justin Reich has noted, many new educational innovations touted as promoting 21st century education “are taking some very old, and in some cases some very tired, ideas in education and putting them in shiny new form factors.”

It makes me wonder in what ways this call is similar to (and different from) calls in the early 1900’s for schools to develop human capital for the new industrial order (to educate an industrious, obedient, and stratified workforce) in the US and elsewhere and the developmental skills formation model in recently developed countries (like Singapore) that emphasizes human capital development for economic growth, with strong state control of educational practice and high stakes standards and assessment. Of course, there’s a large body of scholarly work that has highlighted the persistent conservative, reproductive, instrumental, and ideologically-laden nature of schooling in both its Fordist (industrial) and Post-Fordist (the more recent post-industrial, neo-liberal)  phases. Is there any reason to be surprised that much of the rhetoric for 21st century education comes from the business community hoping to improve the labor force, spur economic productivity, cultivate consumption habits, and increase profit?

Unfortunately, these calls do not go far enough in outlining the kinds of education we need for the 21st century. We don’t need collaboration, adaptability, initiative and entrepreneurship, slick communication skills, and problem solving that further perpetuate systems of economic exploitation (of the natural environment or human labor), dominance and destruction (patriarchal, corporate, militaristic, etc.), mind-numbing entertainment, hucksterism, and misinformation (through various forms of media), or the logic of the market and consumerism that threaten all other values. Some of the best and brightest (i.e., our most entrepreneurial, creative, agile, skilled, etc.) participate in and perpetuate the logics and systems that have created or caused what Martin (2007) calls the mega-problems of the 21st century: global warming, excessive population growth, water shortages, destruction of life in the oceans, mass famine, the spread of deserts, pandemics, extreme poverty, growth of shanty cities, unstoppable global migrations, state and non-state actors with extreme weapons, violent religious extremism, runaway computer intelligence, and cataclysmic war. As James Gee suggests in his recent book, we are an incredibly stupid smart species with tremendous capacity for using our intelligence in ways that are dumb, destructive, and dangerous.

The problem is that these calls continue to be based on assumptions about schooling that are part of the modernist project to intervene, rationalize, standardize, measure, and tame, control, and shape people all in the name of supposed progress and perpetual improvement. Experts, designed interventions, bureaucratic surveillance and regulation, and accountability measures all do their part to ensure proper outcomes are being met. Instead, these measures also tend to promote apathy, withdrawal, lack of spontaneity and, according to James Scott (1998), “diminish the skills, agility, initiative, and morale of their intended beneficiaries.” And much of this seems to come from an education model based on the assumptions and practices of business and political elites.

Sir Ken Robinson’s popular video on changing education paradigms gets at this. The current system of education was designed, conceived, and structured in the intellectual climate of the Enlightenment and the economic context of the Industrial Revolution, both of which emphasized and privileged rationalization (classifying, categorizing, sorting, etc.), standardized mass production, hyper-competition and consumption, the ideal of economic growth and material progress, hierarchical organization, and the supervision, monitoring and regulation of populations (whether in the factory, the prison, the asylum, or school). Robinson argues that the particular assumptions and practices that developed during this period are outmoded for the 21st century. He believes that while this industrial/factory model of education has benefited some, it has caused chaos in many people’s lives. It has led to stupefaction, conformity, standardized curriculum and testing, and a stunted view of teaching and learning. And it is not preparing many people for the 21st century, let alone giving them any stake in determining the kinds of societies or futures they wish to inhabit.

So, what is to be done? This will be the next posting.

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One Response to Old Wine in New Bottles?

  1. Pingback: What is to be done? | criticalread

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