21st Century Education: So Where Are We Now?

I’m a teacher in Surrey, British Columbia, and I wanted to take stock of where we are with regards to 21st century education.  More often that not, I meet teachers and others who are struggling to get a sense of what is going on with new movements, discussions, and controversies in education, and I know it can be very hard to keep up–especially with the incredible demands of attending to students and classroom and school life. I wanted to write something to begin to give an overview of the discussion from what I’ve gathered.

It’s clear that in our province the government’s new “BC Education Plan” and the related issues dominate public discussion of education. This purported “plan of action” driving a “transformation” in B.C.’s education system[1] has been argued by some as an exciting, proactive response to our changing times.  Others argue the plan reflects a neo-liberalist-driven agenda cashing in on a broader global discourse—one that perseverates on marketing “new” pedagogies and technologies (a.k.a. products) branded as “21st Century Education”.

So what is this notion of a “21st Century Education”?  In response to this question I have heard futuristic musings that would appeal to any person’s inner child: envision soaring through school hallways on Marty McFly’s hoverboard[2] or zapping through homework with gadgets inspired by The Jetsons!  As well I have heard expressed by many well-informed individuals that they have a tough time grasping the rhetoric of education for the 21st century.

Although “21st Century Education” and it’s cousin concept “Personalized Learning” have a been much heralded, there is concern that definitions have been obscured on purpose by politicians, bureaucrats and entrepreneurs in effort to maneuver this apparent “movement” towards their own most desirable ends, such as to gain votes or profits (Sims, 2010; Kuehn, 2011).  These 21st century practices touted already by some as “best practices” might at this stage be more akin and reducible to Kenneth Leithwood’s descriptions of bandwagons, slogans, and locally-valued ways of behaving (2008, pp. 72-73).

Still, even without consensus and clarity on the terms, power-players in education are making future-altering decisions regarding various legislation, curriculum design overhauls, budgetary priorities, and corporate partnerships. Because of this—despite the considerable immediate demands in our classrooms, schools, communities and homes—I believe it is our vital responsibility as educational leaders to stay alert in this era of electronic media and social-media proliferation and to tune into the polyphony of voices emerging through this foggy discussion of educating for the 21st century.

On the world stage we have already heard from the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Rupert Murdoch, George Lukas and others.[3]  In B.C. we have heard about education in the 21st century from the government, the BC Teachers Federation, journalists and others.[4]  At the local ground level, several thousand commentators identifying as public and private school administrators and teachers, students and parents have shared their own visions in the “BC Education Plan” forums and in personal blogs and websites, and the dialogue is voiced in many other forms in school staffrooms and classrooms, at school board meetings, in coffee shops and around kitchen tables.

So what conversations are you having with your colleagues, students, family and friends?  Where do we need to focus more attention in this conversations around 21st century education and personalized learning?

10 thoughts on “21st Century Education: So Where Are We Now?

  1. Personally, I want to see an implementation plan for 21st Century Learning. I am so eager to use technology in my classroom but have very limited access to computers. Out of 27 students in my math class, only 3 students had smartphones with internet access. I really need a class set of ipads and wifi and am wondering where the money to implement 21st Century Learning is coming from.

    As a high school teacher, I am pressed for time with all the curriculum that needs to be covered and don’t know where to find the time to move to a 21st Century Learning style of education. The “curriculum” needs to change so there is more flexibility. Also, if the goal is to personalize learning then why do students write *standardized tests*? You either personalize or you don’t.

    Social Media sites used in 21st Century Learning expose children to marketing and consumerism that is taylored for them. This marketing influences their school projects and their identity.

    21st Century Learning isn’t anything new anyway. I’ve been teaching the skills listed, in my classroom since I started my teaching career many years ago.

  2. Thank you for your comments, Anon.–I get the feeling your voice represents a lot of teachers in BC. The gov’t does need to focus on bringing truly fresh, new ideas to make this plan work for all students.

  3. I am an elected board of education member in the State of Maryland. Interesting to read a little bout the British Columbia education system. Thanks for the post!

  4. It’s heartening to see educators take the time to reflect on the underpinnings of education/curricular policies.

    I’m a MA student at UBC, studying in the Centre for Cross Faculty Inquiry in Education. I’m wrapping up my thesis now, and preparing to defend. Broadly, it’s a critical policy analysis of BC’s Premier’s Technology Council’s construction of teachers’ work vis-á-vis 21CL.

    So far I’ve only published one essay on 21CL: British Columbia’s neoliberal folly: Dissecting the 21st century agenda => http://bctf.ca/publications/NewsmagArticle.aspx?id=21900

    That essay is basically a distillation of this larger critique => http://bit.ly/eVGFxS

    I’ve also got a comparative review of the two main outlets for 21CL in Canada (21st Century Learning Initiative + C21 Canada), but I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do with that one yet … Let me know if you’d like to screen a draft.

    Otherwise, my thesis is almost done, and that may be a worthwhile means of advancing your studies re. 21CL. Or not. :)

    • Tobey, this is fantastic and I would absolutely love to read what you’ve been working on…sounds very interesting and relevant!

      Hey, your name sounds familiar…were you in Dr. Waithman’s EDST 532 course last term?

      In any case, congrats on your thesis work and I wish you a wonderful defence! I’m going to check out your BCTF article now.

      Thank you for sharing your research–I’ll pass it on! :)
      Take care!
      -Tiffany.

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