"People will create the jobs of the future, not simply train for them, and technology is already central. It will undoubtedly play a greater role in the years ahead."
- Attributed to Jonathan Grudin, Principal researcher at Microsoft
There are many tensions or conflicts in education. As an early career teacher, I spent much of my pre-service training hearing about the desperate need for to focus on teaching our students twenty-first century skills. In addition to this, we have been hearing, for some years now, the narrative that it is no longer the case that you join a firm as a graduate and retire from the same firm with your gold watch (this has borne out in my own experience, with ClickView being my seventh employer).
What I find worrying, however, is the way that these supposed twenty-first century skills are talked about, as if they are newly discovered skills. There always appears to be the intimation that these are new skills, such as in this article by Professor Barry McGraw, this news.com.au article, or this article from The Australian. Though I did come across this sentence in a report from the Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority:
"The skills derived through senior education and needed in the 21st century are unique, and differ from those skills needed in the past."
- 21st Century Skills for senior education. An analysis of educational trends (QCAA, 2015, p.2). Retrieved from https://www.qcaa.qld.edu.au/downloads/publications/paper_snr_21c_skills.pdf on 5 January 2018
I believe that anyone with a modicum of sense recognises that these skills are not new, as pointed out by Charles Fadel in this interview, and so I wonder why there is suddenly such a focus on these so-called twenty-first century skills. This focus appears to be driven by the needs that we are hearing from industry through such reports as The New Work Mindset (Foundation for Young Australians, 2017). This desire for twenty-first century skills has also been echoed in numerous news articles such as this article from The Australian, and this article from the Conversation; and there is a plethora of images outlining these new skills.
Is it an issue that we are taking paying such attention to industry about what needs to be taught in our education systems? The answer to that will depend on your belief about the purpose of schooling and education, something that I touched on in this article after attending Education Nation, though I did not at that time outline my own answer to that question.
I was told, during my pre-serve training, that education is not a factory line; where parents input blank slates and the education system produces trained workers (read this article for a great explanation of the problems with the utilitarian model of education). The production model of education, however, is the framework within which how education systems are ranked, using economic terms alongside testing scores from both domestic and international standardised testing regimes (NAPLAN, ATAR Scores, PIRLS, TIMMS, PISA etc.), but that they should not be what drives our pedagogy.
This is in direct contrast to the 2008 Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians (hereafter; Melbourne Declaration) whose preamble states:
"Schools play a vital role in promoting the intellectual, physical, social, emotional, moral, spiritual and aesthetic development and well-being of young Australians, and in ensuring the nation’s ongoing economic prosperity and social cohesion."
The language used in the Melbourne Declaration, when compared to the daily rhetoric about education and schooling, indicates that the individual fulfilment component of the Melbourne Declaration is lip-service only. This article by Thomas William Nielsen makes an interesting point that, for me, highlights the lip-service. Thomas writes
"The first thing to note is that spending power has at least doubled in western countries since the end of World War II, but depression and suicide rates have increased.
Our youth are more troubled than ever before and the rhetoric around domestic and international test result is that our education system is falling behind and performing (are teachers really performers? That's a different conversation, stay on target!) worse than in the past. Thomas William Nielsen, later on in the above article commented that education was based on the US and UK model, a model which has already failed, that is centred on this utilitarian view of education which is self-destructive in the long run. Why then do we continue down this pathway? My Grandparents taught me that if you fail the first time, to try again, but that trying the same thing over and over expecting different results indicates madness.
We need to take this on board and try something different.
You may argue that the infusion of these twenty-first century skills into the curriculum is trying something new, however, incorporating these skills has arguably been a part of every teachers pedagogy, whether implicit or explicit, since the early days of civilisation. Learning how to make fire, paint, build houses, hunt animals, make clothes, build roads, cars, and skyscrapers; and to develop number and writing systems required problem solving, communication, creativity, and critical thinking.
There is also the small issue that cognitive science appears to indicate that teaching these rather generic skills is not effective, as we have evolved to have them hard-wired but that effective use of these skills requires domain-specific knowledge and skills. As Greg Ashman puts it in this article,
"You can learn to solve problems in algebra but very little if anything transfers to solving problems in interior design. The thing that does transfer is a strategy known as ‘means-end analysis’ which we all have hard-wired into us through evolution and that therefore does not need extended, school-based training."
Despite all the rhetoric around twenty-first century skills, Dr. Michael Nagel notes in this article that little has changed and that the Digital Education Revolution was '...focused on tools and infrastructure" and that you could "...argue that this strategy is more refurbishment than revolution."
Why the persistence, then, in forcing the twenty-first century skills into the curriculum as an explicit component? Why the derision for pedagogical strategies which use explicit instruction to provide students with the domain-specific skills and knowledge required to effectively utilise these twenty-first century skills?
Thank you for reading and share your thoughts in the comments.