You’re a 21st Century Learner Or…Well…You Suck

I keep hearing about “21st Century Learning,” which appears to be the latest, greatest buzzword in public education in Alberta. It describes a new way of educating kids, and a new way for teachers to learn how to educate kids. Technology, in this model, is front and center, and this is rationalized by the need to accommodate and reach kids who are “digital natives;” that is, they have grown up (so far) in a media and technology intensive world [1].

“21st Century Learning” makes for some pretty powerful rhetoric. It projects into the future of education with hope and imagination. It draws on all the novelty and possibility that emerging technologies present. It seems to speak to all the ways kids and educators themselves want to learn, or ought to. And, presumably, it leaves all that “old bad” education in the dust, in the past, where it belongs.

Here’s an example: “21st Century Schools” a company offering teacher professional development, describes the “old” classroom – seriously, it’s grey and boring – as “teacher-centered” with “fragmented curriculum [and] students working in isolation, memorizing facts.” Wow. That does suck, doesn’t it? In comparison, the full-colour “21st century classroom” is at a zoo – cool! – and is “real-life, relevant [and] project-based.” Traditional education is “text book driven and passive;” 21st century education is “research driven and active.”

Holy hell. You’d think no one had ever learned anything of consequence before the laptop was invented. Interesting: the thing about the 21st Century Learning discourse – we like the word “discourse” in academia by the way [2] – is the way in which it draws sharp lines between the “old” and the “new” in education. What this does is silence critique about the infusion of technology in education by equating it with old, boring, outdated ways of teaching. You’re a 21stCentury Teacher/Learner or, well… you suck.

20th Century Learners

Anytime someone takes something as complicated as educating forthcoming generations for a rapidly changing world and draws convenient distinctions between “good and “bad,” I’m wary. 21st century learning rhetoric needs scrutiny because, for all it’s going on about the importance of “critical thinking skills” it incorporates a really uncritical embrace of technology and a great willingness to believe that we used to be stupid at education, and now we’re not.

Real critical thinking always involves entertaining the possibility that you’re being stupid and you don’t realize it. So here are just a couple of reasons why all the fervour over 21st century learning deserves a little bit of “Hey… wait a minute…”

First, let’s remember that technology is schools is really expensive. It’s also changing at a pace that makes large scale implementation an unpredictable investment. Remember the zip drive? I don’t want to know what my university spent outfitting campus computers with these things about ten years ago, but I’m pretty sure they were gone the way of the dinosaur in less than five years, replaced by CDs and flash drives. You get the idea.

Technology is also unevenly implemented. Large schools with lots of money have awesome technology. Small, poor schools do not. And while there are pockets of innovation and many worthwhile projects targeting under-resourced schools, the gap between technology “haves” and “have nots” remains large, and again, expensive to close. Some have argued that this digital divide has increased social inequality [3].

A third facet of financing ICT in schools is a deficit in “this means not that” thinking. Resources are finite, so money that goes into technology is money that is not going into other profoundly important aspects of a well-rounded education: art-based learning, sports, community programming and supports in disadvantaged schools, and – this one’s radical – paying the teachers and staff who care for kids’ learning needs, and often many of their emotional and developmental needs as well. I won’t speculate here on the right balance between these priorities, but it’s a step forward just to escape from a single-minded focus on technology and remember that education requires many and varied resource and inputs.

Finally, all the money in the world could not overcome the fact that the philosophy of the 21stCentury Learner – personalized, inquiry-based, and focused on real world problems – is profoundly at odds with other deeply entrenched features of our school systems: excessively rigid curriculum, a cast-in-stone (apparently) 10 month school calendar, the division of learners into grades, and a standardized testing regime that measures what’s testable more than what’s important [4].

Poor, oppressed little Mexican kids with no iPads

Oh, and on a personal note, can I just mention that Google and Windows have made me an impatient multi-tasker with a robust case of attention deficit disorder? The Information Age ain’t all good [5].

…But It Ain’t All Bad

OK so you’d have to really, wilfully live in a cave to disregard the central assertion behind 21st Century Learning: ICT (communications) technology has fundamentally altered the world – some have suggested it rivals the printing press in its historical profundity. The way we educate kids and think about learning thus also needs to change. And there is merit to the “it’s there, we gotta deal with it” argument. It is also important to recognize that many of the changes associated with the “21st century learner” discourse are positive; they encourage interesting, rewarding learning, and recognize that kids learn in different ways. The curriculum associated with 21st century learning focuses on authentic, contemporary issues that kids can better engage with. Also, it is always important to envision new possibilities; it is exciting to work with new technologies in classrooms, and students do benefit from many of these. Remember, John Dewey was a “progressive” educator.

So there’s no reason to reject the “21st Century Learner” shtick per se. But when it becomes a buzzword (which it has), many educators and policy makers seem check their critical faculties at the door. Like the good folks at 21st Century Schools, they reduce far-reaching questions about the effects of technology on education to a two dimensional world of giddy futurism on the one hand, and grey, rigid backwards thinking on the other. Instead, critical thinking about the “ICT revolution” in education requires that we examine what technology can do in equal measure with thoughtful consideration of what it cannot do.

Notes and References

[1] These kids and young adults are also referred to as “the Millennials” in interesting work that examines inter-generational differences. Millennials or “Generation Y” are among other labelled generations (GenX –we’re bitter; Boomers – they’re rich; and the “Silent Generation” – they walked five miles to school uphill both ways in winter). Different attitudes and values in different generations has been of interest those in Human Resources, as companies can presently have up to four distinct generations working alongside one another. Gen Zs are the little net-savvy gaffers now in public schools. I don’t know what is supposed to come after Gen Z; we’re out of alphabet then.

[2] There are many different theories that contribute to what is loosely called “discourse analysis,” but the gist is that a “discourse” is a collection of ideas and the words used to express them. The Cold War, for example, wasn’t just a collection of historical events and facts; it was an expression of ideas, politics, myths, and ways of understanding the world. A “discourse analysis” might ask what the Cold War meant, say, to my generation or perhaps my parents’ generation. Or we could ask how the “discourse” of the Cold War shaped attitudes and understandings of Communism in Canada, or the space race in the United States.

[3] See Selwyn N. (2010) Schools and Schooling in the Digital Age. New York: Routledge. Also this 2010 Globe and Mail article discussing the challenges of bringing rural communities up to digital snuff, and Looker, D. & Thiessen, V. (2003) The Digital Divide in Canadian Schools: Factors Affecting Student Access to and Use of Information Technology.

[4] In a recent Alberta Teachers’ Association monograph, Murgatroyd and Couture (2010) point out that implementing technology without looking at the full scope of how education is changing (student diversity, integrated classrooms, and declining rural populations are among many other significant changes) puts the cart before the horse: First you should figure out what’s needed; then you can start talking about how to meet those needs. Technology is included in the equation, but it is not the sole driver of change. Also see Friesen, S. & Jardine, D. (no date). 21st Century Learning and Learners.

[5] See Nicholas Carr in Wired Magazine, “The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains.” I’m trying to overlook the irony of an ad to read Wired on your iPad alongside a feature article that tells us that reading on the Internet is problematic.



  1. Hey! What’s the deal with no comments. There is a lot in this piece and so little time in my day…so, given my general agreement, I’ll have to pick a point to quibble over. I had a look at 21st Century Schools’ web site. It reads a bit like one of those SNL mock-ads from back in the Phil Hartman days. In fact, I think I see a resemblance between Phil and the toddler with the computer. Actually, I’m not going to quibble. I’d rather draw some comparisons with something I’m more familiar with.

    I recently read quite a good book called Governing Educational Desire: Culture, Politics, and Schooling in China (Kipnis, 2011) which looks at the phenomenon of the desire for educational attainment in China. Of course Kipnis has to navigate past the Scylla of the “model asian student” and the Charybdis of…(struggling to complete the metaphor…)…complete debunking of a stereotype that he demonstrates to have some basis in fact. One of the ways in which he accomplishes this is by presenting a history of the ways in which governing authorities have, at various times, enhanced (related to the one child policy - partly deliberate, i.e., we need higher quality citizens; fewer children means more efficient parental investment); moderated or redirected (to reduce the harmful effects of excessive competition or encourage the development of others modes of education, e.g., vocational, seen to be vital to economic development), and manipulated (incitement to educational consumption as a fix for economic stagnation-Harvey’s (2005) concept of “temporal displacement” works here) educational desire.

    What first strikes me about the 21st Century Schools schtick is not so much the specifics of what it promotes as the degree to which it seems designed to incite (see manipulate above) us to intensify our efforts to educate, educate, educate. I won’t argue against the desirability of having a smart, critically thoughtful child. But 21st Century seems to me to be rather contradictory. We need children who are critical, creative thinkers, and we will intervene heavily and forcefully in order to make them so! Also, its call to this mode of education is highly didactic and fails (as of course it must) to critically consider why, precisely, this mission is so important.

    My second impression ties back to the China example and relates to the list of 21st Century Skills. The list of of skills/qualities is strikingly similar to that presented by the official policy/dominant discourse in China that goes under the label of suzhi jiaoyu (education for quality). This is very complex term to unpack. Suffice to say that a well-rounded child suitable to the developmental and social needs of the nation is the goal. There is a difference in primary concerns. For example, in China, there is a panic around the need to encourage creativity in schools.

    OK, I’m going to let this post tail off as I have other tasks to get on with. Thanks for bringing this up, Laura. I hope I’ve provided something by way of a comparative perspective. Its amazing to observe how these discourse flow globally.


    Harvey, D. (2005). The new imperialism. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Kipnis, A. B. (2011). Governing Educational Desire: Culture, Politics, and Schooling in China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    21st Century Schools.

    • Hey thanks for all the thoughts! It sounds that while there are cultural differences, the underlying idea of manipulating or governing “desire” for education still holds. I *love* your comment about having to “heavily intervene” to produce the desired qualities (creativity, critical thinking) because it kind of conflicts with (or juxtaposes with or something) another discourse of sorts (I’m unclear here I know) that these qualities ought to unfold or emerge naturally if we get the education system “just right.” Another consideration is the middle class “fear of falling.” Phillip Brown’s article “The Opportunity Trap” was really pivotal for me… got me thinking deeply about education as a positional good.

      • I’ve just come across this in some reading today. Rather than paraphrase, how about a direct quotation with appropriate references formatted according to multiple standards?

        “As Tobin et al. put it, “American children enjoy great freedom to express their opinions and feelings, but conversely, they are much less free than children in China or Japan to remain silent and hide their feelings. Speech in American preschools, then, is constrained differently, not less, than in China and Japan” (1989:153).” (Kipnis, 2001, p. 482)

        Kipnis, A. (2001). Articulating school countercultures. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 32(4), 472-492.

        Tobin, J., Wu, D. Y. H., & Davidson, D. H. (1989). Preschool in three cultures: Japan, China, and the United States. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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