in Education

The myth underpinning ’21st Century Skills’ [Future of Education]

Rainbow over Tokyo at sunset

There’s nothing wrong with discussing concepts such as 21st Century Skills, ‘core competencies for the information age,’ or digital literacies. Well, at least I hope not – I’m 50,000 words into writing a 60,000 thesis on the latter! What is problematic is when such terms become what Richard Rorty terms ‘dead metaphors’: words that used to be understood as a shorthand for a whole barrage of beliefs, opinions and debates, but now only have ap place in rhetoric. Keri Facer explains the problem with that kind of rhetoric:

This myth goes as follows: Rapid technological change in the 21st century will lead to increased competition between individuals and nations; education’s role is to equip individuals and nations for that competition by developing ‘twenty-first century skills’ that will allow them to adapt and reconfigure themselves for this new market. But education and educators are ill-equipped to make those changes, as they have failed to adapt successfully to technological developments over the last 100 years. Educational change, therefore, needs to be directed from outside. This is the myth that pervades much of the thinking about education and its relationship to socio-technical futures. It can be described as a myth not because it is wholly fictional – indeed, there are elements of this story for which there is some evidence and empirical support – but because it comes to act as an unquestioned cultural resource, to function as a dominating narrative that allows educators, policy-makers, parents and designers, without too much reflection, to make decisions and take action in the present. It has underpinned the educational ‘modernization’ agenda across the world for the last two decades. (Keri Facer, Learning Futures)

The fundamental issue is that, whether politicians, teachers, parents or pressure groups, each group of stakeholders in education think that they should be setting the educational agenda. Ironically, the common shared experience of having experienced schooling counts against progress being made, I would suggest.

I’m all for flexibility in the labour market – in my 8 years in it I’m in my 6th job and 5th house – but we need to educate and equip young people to understand that the flexibility should be on their terms.

Image CC BY tallkev

PS If you’re interested in this, check out the #purposedfutured campaign!

  • Anonymous

    Interesting post, Doug. Commonly included in the ’21st century skills’ pantheon are things like critical thinking, collaboration, problem-solving, digital literacies, and so on. Aren’t those exactly the sorts of things that empower our students to take on the world ‘on their terms,’ as you say? If educators, policymakers, parents, and others are setting the educational agenda so that it includes those things, I guess I’m pretty okay with that. Sure beats what we’ve been doing…

    • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

      Hi Scott, thanks for commenting. :-)

      I suppose we have to look at how people are using the term ’21st century skills’ (the normative version) rather than how we would *like* them to use it (the ideal version). I’m not so keen on the normative version but am quite happy to use the ideal version!

    • Jkoerschen

      Critical thinking, problem-solving and the other 21st Century skills are not skills.They are behaviors connected to specific domains. Critical thinking cannot be taught as a stand-alone skill. Just because a baseball manager can make critical decisions during a baseball game, doesn’t mean he could do the same in a hostile takeover. Further, in what century were these “skills” not important?

  • http://twitter.com/sensor63 Simon Ensor

    Myths, man, money messages and media.

    Technological changes apparently unconnected to education have resulted in the education systems we have today. Construction, manipulation and communication of information whether for personal academic communal cultural.or commercial objectivess have been changed drammatically by recent developments.
    The divisions between education politics commerce religion
    are mythical. To suggest that new media does not change man is mythical. We must address the question of our mussion as educators and be transparent about our part in the power structure (Freire). Finally I would recommend reading this article :

    Revolution and the Library – from printing press to computer, how introduction of new media have influenced academic libraries | Library Trends | Find Articles at BNET – http://tinyurl.com/6c4bf2k

  • http://twitter.com/sensor63 Simon Ensor

    Myths, man, money messages and media.

    Technological changes apparently unconnected to education have resulted in the education systems we have today. Construction, manipulation and communication of information whether for personal academic communal cultural.or commercial objectivess have been changed drammatically by recent developments.
    The divisions between education politics commerce religion
    are mythical. To suggest that new media does not change man is mythical. We must address the question of our mussion as educators and be transparent about our part in the power structure (Freire). Finally I would recommend reading this article :

    Revolution and the Library – from printing press to computer, how introduction of new media have influenced academic libraries | Library Trends | Find Articles at BNET – http://tinyurl.com/6c4bf2k

    • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

      Thanks Simon, an interesting analysis. I agree about the ‘everything is connected’ line of your comment. What I have difficulty reconciling, however, is the very different discourses and ontologies that underpin the worlds of education, politics, commerce and religion.

      Shall read the article you suggested. :-)
      —–
      Doug Belshaw
      http://about.me/dajbelshaw

      This email is:
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      • Simon Ensor

        Well it is not comfortable….
        ‘Education ieither functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the next generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and  creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” Paolo Freire

        Surf to freedom!…

        • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

          Well yes, but there’s a whole spectrum of positions inbetween the two ends if that dichotomy.

          • Simon Ensor

            I am not sure about the spectrum of positions – open or closd. if the window is open just a chink – it is still open.

          • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

            OK, but I don’t think a ‘them and us’ attitude is very helpful in moving things forward. :-/

    • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

      Thanks Simon, an interesting analysis. I agree about the ‘everything is connected’ line of your comment. What I have difficulty reconciling, however, is the very different discourses and ontologies that underpin the worlds of education, politics, commerce and religion.

      Shall read the article you suggested. :-)
      —–
      Doug Belshaw
      http://about.me/dajbelshaw

      This email is:
      [ ] Bloggable
      [x] Ask first
      [ ] Private

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