I was somewhat disturbed to read the two recent articles on 21st Century Skills in education (Briar Lipson and Steve Morris). First because they positioned themselves as ‘polarised’ opposites in a boxing ring, yet both are educators. Secondly, both suggest that somehow there is a new formula to teaching in the 21st century.

Fundamentally Briar Lipson and Steve Morris are asking the same question asked by all good teachers all the time: what curriculum and pedagogy is needed to best engage and prepare all our New Zealand students for the 21st century? Words that set educators against each other such as “traditionalist” and “hogwash” are sad to read, unhelpful at best, and at worst, dangerous polarisations. It is this sort of battle that is causing many older ‘great teachers’ to leave the profession.

Good teaching has always been good teaching and whilst we negotiate the changes in education needed to deliver a curriculum and prepare students for a modern 21st century world we must not, as educators, get suckered by the language being used, especially by the new glut of educational businesses claiming to provide a magic answer. The issue is in the semantics:

‘For words like nature half reveal

And half conceal’

Morris and Lipson are both right and both wrong: right because today we do need to ensure that we do teach the ‘ability to think critically, to persevere, to solve problems and relate to others’ (Lipson) and that ‘great teachers improve student learning by providing a relevant and engaging curriculum…by supporting the personal growth of each individual student’ (Morris). Where they are both wrong is in the suggestion that this is ‘new’ and a shift in ‘paradigm’.

Dewey’s research on the child in the early twentieth century alongside stories from every successful individual in the same century points to the fact that great teaching has always been there and has always encompassed the skills raised in both articles as well as inspiring a passion for knowledge. Good teachers have always taught with the child at the centre and raised achievement for all students of all abilities and backgrounds.

The workforce has always needed people who can think, who can self-manage and work in teams; not all businesses have open-plan offices and not all thinking is done on a laptop – see Google’s ‘think time’. Most importantly not every student is going to work in a 21st century business; as teachers we didn’t. A question to ask is to what extent is business/economy driving education and why are educators buying into this? I would suggest this is not that different to the 19th century paradigm we all decry. Soft skills are important but you can’t think if you don’t know anything – good teachers know that.

What is most dangerous at present is the overwhelming smorgasboard of terminology: a principal, educationalist or teacher reading about classroom space in 2018 will come across a buffet selection of MLE (Modern Learning Environment), ILS (Independent Learning Space), MLS (Modern Learning Space), 21st Century Classrooms, and 21st Century Learning with its implication that something new is needed. Reading Ministry of Education documents, NZCER articles, teacher blogs and researching the terminology in the popular media and academic books and documents, as part of my doctorate study, have indicated that this phrase ‘21st century’ is at the centre of educational discourse, be it 21st Century ‘skills’, ‘learning’, ‘education’ or ‘students’. Common terminologies used in connection with this phrase are as follows: globalization, multiculturalism (both of these in tension with the often-used word ‘competitive’), collaborative, technological, entrepreneurial, future-focussed, and a comparison with a version of a homogenous past model that is viewed as ‘industrial’. This sense of the ‘new’ is central to all this. Yet how often do we unpack these terms. Labels are seductive; for example, ‘globalisation’ – a term used by the elite and powerful in business and creating an illusion of unity and progress – I wonder to what extent our Māori or Aboriginal or African students see themselves as part of a global power structure and what this looks like for them?

Much of this terminology is proliferated by educational businesses who have replaced the more robust advisory PLD provided by specialists. As Dr Alma Harris stated in her ACEL conference address in Sydney 2015, the best change in a school happens within a school by those who know the students and their community and connects this with the modern world. In all this polarised big-picture opinion talk the nuances of community, cultures, decile, poverty are all absent – things that great teachers deal with everyday whilst also developing skills and knowledge and the potential of each student.

In her Education Central opinion article ‘Education solutions aplenty but what is the cause of the problem?’ Linda Bendikson calls for inquiry into what works well in education and what does not. I would suggest that one cause of the problem is that too many of us are gazing blindly at the Emperor in his new linguistic clothes while students disengage with education. More of us ‘great teachers’ need to stand together to challenge the linguistic aura created, evaluate what we do well by talking to students rather than businesses and continue working with our communities rather than polarise ourselves and fight over semantics.

Catherine Kelsey is currently completing her doctorate in curriculum and pedagogy at the University of Auckland looking at the language that surrounds education at present. She is currently the Specialist Classroom Teacher and Assistant Head of English at Napier Girls’ High School but soon to become Assistant Principal with responsibility for Curriculum and Pedagogy at Hastings’ Girls’ High School.

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  1. Awesome article! Well done. Ken Robinson touched on this at his plenary in Melbourne. He asks why we let business and industry dictate what we do in schools. The STEAM buisness is no different.


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