The myth of 21st Century Education

Smart presentations don't mean valuable insights. So it is with the current fad of presenting the vision of an all-new 21st-century education - through presentations, conferences and infographics - style trumps substance all the way through.

For,  despite the claims of revolutionary changes in society and the workplace, the neat charts that lay down 21st-century skills next to the 20th-century one's show do not how different they would be, but rather how similar these are projected to be.

We are told that we have arrived at a fundamentally disruptive moment in history and we need new skills. So, we need, for example, communication and critical thinking, learning to learn and a host of other cool things. Indeed, many of those terms are very familiar to the educator: Many of those were around for more than two centuries, ever since the dreams of liberal education were spelt out.

When these slides were presented, I often wondered whether the point about critical thinking meant to mock you that you can't spot the difference? And, why does one think that communication skills were not needed in education, ever? If we were not thinking critically, what were we doing in education in the first place?

However, if you put your hand up and plead your inability to spot the difference, you would be asked to wait for the next slide. Then it will come - the keyword - 'Disruption': That the 20th century was the time of industrial revolution and machines; the 21st will be one of the information revolution (or something better, as information revolution too is so 20th century) and of more machines! The big claim will be made that the 20th century was all about 'hard skills' while the 21st century would demand softer ones.  And, in the end, it will come down to Moore's Law - or some other exponential curve - to make the point that change has changed, fast has become faster and everything may look the same but will be different.

So, in summary, you will be told that even if everything looks the same, it will really be different. Different, because it is there on the slide!

But if you have started thinking critically by now, you will know it's all fluff - humans have been thinking critically for thousands of years and indeed was learning to learn. There was no dearth of creative thinking - not in the twentieth century, nor before - except that those making the presentation are used to measure creativity by how much money it makes, which, admittedly, poets and artists in earlier ages did not make too much money.
So, one way of explaining the fuss about 'new education' is that the 'thought leaders' have just started thinking. Going by what they are saying, the 21st century would be a lot like the 20th century. Maybe a more efficient version of it, maybe more profitable, but more or less the same. We will have to live by the rules set by a handful of people who will control key technologies. They would create an intricate system of gadgets and nudges, which will invade all aspects of life and tell us what to do. We have to learn to learn these new ways, we have to think critically about how we can better game the system (but never what may be wrong with the system). We would need to be creative in adding our little tweaks in the system so that the platform owners to profit from it. We have to communicate with one another to sell ideas, make points and co-produce, but never to understand, empathise or cooperate. These skills of acquiescing would increase our chances to be on the winning side - or at least reduce our risks of being on the losing side - so that the crumbs can be thrown at us.

But we should know better than to take these predictions at their face value. We are only two decades in the 21st century and claiming that we seem to know what will be needed that far ahead in time gives away our game. We not only do not know what's coming, but we also don't even frame today's challenges well. Is our problem today self-driving cars or the trigger-happy people living in drugs and depression? Has our education system failed to produce sufficient maths whizzes that we need, or the trouble really is that they are all starting their hedge funds? Is it a problem that we don't have adequate means to communicate but that we don't want to communicate in a respectful way? Do we lack data tools to solve local problems or that the erosion of democracy means we don't anymore care? Do we need a new computer game or toning down the violence in the ones our kids play? Do we need smarter Facebook campaigns or electoral systems that work better? The 21st-century skills talk assumes a world lot like the one we are living in, and never about what it ought to be.

The point is education, however, is indeed to look at what ought to be. The talk of 21st-century education, as it is pedalled now, is a carefully crafted sales pitch, a plea from the keepers of the status quo that things must remain the same. They are right when they say change must change - in the sense that change must not change anything! They are right when they talk about disruption - but they mean that there is no need for disruption anymore as anything that was to happen, has happened. What they present as an educational doctrine is really a political one, as all educational doctrines are, but then they claim the precise opposite - that 21st century will make educational conversations apolitical. And, in this, lies the biggest of their myths.


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