The myth of 21st-Century Education: Preparing for the age of the machine

I argued previously that a carefully crafted myth about 21st-century education - that the experts know what the learners will need and it will be radically different and defined by market forces - is being propagated (see The myth of 21st-Century Education). As educators, it is important to reject the deterministic overtures of this popular myth and to look at all the different possibilities that exist and could be equally plausible.

At the core of the '21st-century education' myth-making is an assumption about our relationship with technology. We are told that we are at a point of departure in history, which will be much like the past. New technologies - those that can replace humans in intellectually challenging work - would alter how work is done and this would mean a new, 'fourth' for someone keeping the count, the industrial revolution. The social relationships would change as it did last time around - humans would be replaced, most intellectually challenging work would be created, a new breed of supersmart people will rule the world and the rest of us have to coexist with technology. Many, most, of today's jobs, would be obsolete - but there will be a bright future for some of our kids sitting in airconditioned rooms programming the machines. Rest of us will just be the facilitators for smart machines, doing jobs which are too mundane or uneconomical for machines to do - washing the self-driving cars, cleaning the self-mowing lawns and educating the genetically engineered babies.

Indeed, all this is possible and that's not my point. The technologies are several years away to replace humans, going by the current marvel at $16,000 which can fold clothes and put them in categories but can't handle socks. They represent only a poor alternative to humanity's most important jobs - nursing, teaching, mothering - and if anything, seem to challenge the professions which we could do away with anyway, like some of the lawyers, bankers and celebrity reporters (while the investigative ones may thrive). But that is not the point I wish to make.

My point, instead, is that this is just one of many possible futures. And, WE make that choice. This narrative how technology would progress - and therefore, what we should be doing - is a self-serving one, which employs the rhetoric of revolution in the service of the status quo. The unspoken assumption is that the controllers of capital would dictate how technologies would develop, which naturally will mean that the emphasis of technological development would be on replacing human beings. However, this view incorrectly assumes that in that scenario, everything else will remain constant. Technological unemployment wouldn't create populist resentment. We can infinitely create demand by creating debt. There will be no significant climatic change limiting the maximization of agricultural yield. And, the accumulation of wealth and power, facilitated by a corrupt political and financial elite, would continue unchecked.

However, the development of technology is a function of social and political priorities. We think the next revolutionary stage of progress is self-driving cars because it fits the need of the urban elite and the investors. But put a different hat on and bicycles with wonder-tyres may look like the solution, or even smaller communities replacing major cities! Each of those scenarios represents a different way of organising ourselves and educating our children. 

By presenting the technological future as a given and exhorting the educators to reorganise their practice to make that future happen, the keepers of capital and privilege expect to make the predictions about the future self-fulfilling. But the educator's job should not be to carry out their work in the service of a given agenda but to let their wards to see the possibilities and be a creative agent in building the future. Therefore, it is an educator's responsibility to reject the technological determinism of all those visions of '21st-century education' and rather to aim to educate for mastery of post-technological future. 

It is post-technological as technologies, as they are defined today, are separated from us, invented somewhere else, employed in someone else's benefit and interacting with us only in order to satisfy our consumption or realise our labour. However, technological development in many fields make it evidently possible to make technology an extension of ourselves, constant companions not invented elsewhere but moulded by ourselves. In that form, the objective of technology may not be defined by someone else, and to be at someone else's service, but could be defined at our will - either as individual micro-inventors or participants in democratic collectives. 

If we imagine such a future is possible, the imperatives of 21st-century education change dramatically. It is not just about the laundry list of skills that our students need to live as consumers of and subsidiary producers of technology (making the apps aimed to make trivial jobs, trivial) but agenda-makers, designers and leaders of technological progress. They don't anymore prepare to build shopping apps for self-driving cars but debate whether their communities should have intelligent ambulances and how to fund investments in them. They don't technological environments fo given but look for means to drive the discussion and shape the development. Instead of accepting their presumed fate of being crushed by technology, they engage in a new kind of education that makes them players, not spectators, in technology play.

If the educators' job is to create possibilities, this is what we should be doing. Question the received wisdom, even if it's coming out of fancy conferences, and have faith in our learners. If the world has to be changed, it is they, and us, have to change it.



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