Why “21st Century Learning” is No More Than Status Quo

The proponents of 21st Century Learning (aka digital learning, aka competency-based education, aka personalized learning) claim that those of us who stand up for public education are little more than fossils clinging to the status quo. Further, through slick bait-and-switch advertising techniques the proponents of “innovation” disguise the facts that they are profiteering and privatizing education; using clever language to cast anyone NOT on board with their agenda, as being stuck in the past. Worse yet, we (anyone opposed to their 21st C framework) apparently want to trap kids in existing “divides” of race, culture, economics and geography, divides which they, the benevolent technologies of 21st century policy makers, will remediate.

Yeah. Sure.

So here’s something to consider. 21st century reformers are NOT new. They are NOT cutting-edge. They are nothing they propose to be. In a world dominated by digital services and programs, and in a time in which Silicon Valley is home to the new robber barons, how can selling our education system out to their corporate interests really be “cutting edge”? It’s what we have always done.

Let me explain:

Public schools (since their inception in the United States) have been a mirror reflection of the historical moment in which they are created. Really, we could argue this has ALWAYS been true of education going back to the Greeks and Plato, and the Monastic influences of literacy during the control of Europe by the Pope.

But let’s fast-forward a little bit. During the 1800’s when the United States was still largely made of agrarian communities, our schools reflected the agrarian lifestyle (think Little House on the Prairie). This is why we created summers off; so that (“back in the day”) children could work the family farms during the months when crops were ready to be harvested.

Then, during the early 1900’s we evolved from an agrarian society to an industrial society. The industrial paradigm pervaded not only the modes of economic production but also reflected the manner in which we developed social systems including hospitals, prisons and yes…schools. It was the era of mass production and institutionalization. The effects of the industrial model of schooling are still felt today (ringing bells, lining kids up, standardized testing).

And now, the 21st Century reformers want to claim that THEY are the solution to our industrialized woes.  I am sure that the proponents of factory model school had as much to say to the agrarian model as well.

So really there’s nothing new to see here, folks, move along.

It’s merely one era mimicking the behavior of the one that preceded it. And the one before that. What’s new? Nothing. It’s a scientific and economic framework for a “new” world imprinting itself upon the existing social systems, most notably of course: education. Digital shopping, digital economy, digital….everything, is merely a new version of industrial-everything. So naturally the digital paradigm imprints itself upon the models of schooling which claim this time to REALLY will be solution to all our world’s problems. Except that…it won’t.

Why? Because this process is merely Groundhog Day. The same narrative. The same arguments. The same patterns. The same methods of using schools to merely REFLECT societal shifts…not to CHANGE them. Oh sure, they claim to be change agents: through disruptive innovation. But it’s not innovative or disruptive to merely usher in digital learning in a digital age any more than it was “radical” to usher in factory models of schools in an age of factories. Such models of schooling (all that have preceded us and including the current paradigm) are framed NOT to serve the children but the rulers of the economic empire of their times. This time around its 1) global 2) private (free market), 3) corporate 4) CEO’s.

What WOULD be disruptive?

Disentangling schools and education from profiteering. That would certainly disrupt the cash flow to corporate interests.

What would be radical?

Putting CHILDREN’S needs first. Why? Because that is not something we have ever tried in this country, on a large scale and in earnest. Sure we’ve been doing it for centuries for the children of the elite. But children in public schools have always been fodder for larger social and economic designs crafted by others for others. Despite the promises made by the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s and Brown v Board, we have never truly provided equitable funding to all children and desegregated schools.

Let’s try designing schools to benefit the developmental and social and emotional needs of the children they serve. This would mean using real research that shows what works for children: culturally relevant curriculum, small class size, positive relationships WITH TEACHERS (not computers), wrap around services, ameliorating the effects of poverty, and arts/music/library (as a few examples). Now THAT would be something NEW we have never tried.

Dismantling public schools and eliminating teachers in favor of “digital services” is merely exemplifying what some of us call the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Given who is crafting our current education policies one can only conclude that that is precisely what they want: the same old, same old. The rich get richer, the poor stay poor, de facto segregation carries on its legacy…and the corporations laugh all the way to the bank.

Let’s break the cycle: WE DEMAND MORE FOR OUR COMMUNITIES AND CHILDREN THAN THIS. Let’s be more than consumers of someone else’s narrative of school reform and become creators of our own images of the real changes we believe can be possible.
also read “Changing the Status of the Status”


Published by educationalchemy

Morna McDermott has been an educator for over twenty years in both k-12 and post secondary classrooms. She received her doctorate in education, with a dissertation focus on arts-based educational research, from The University of Virginia in 2001. Morna's teaching, scholarship, and activism center around the ways in which creativity, art, social justice, and democracy can transform education and empower communities. She is currently a Professor of Education at Towson University.

7 thoughts on “Why “21st Century Learning” is No More Than Status Quo

  1. “School Reform and the Attack on Public Education” – the text of a speech by Dave Stratman delivered to the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents Summer Institute in July, 1997. Still must reading for parents and teachers today! Go to: http://www.newdemocracyworld.org/old/edspeech.htm Here’s what we can do today to remove the rich from power, have real, not fake, democracy with no rich and no poor: http://www.pdrboston.org/#!blank-4/yefdp

  2. The reason public (or common schools) had summers off was because even though they were YEAR ROUND (with approx 12 weeks on 1 week off) those who could, fled the cities for the country side when the weather was the hottest. so after a while of that, they changed the school calendar. It has nothing to do with farming (you don’t harvest in the summer).

  3. This is a solid and much-needed critique of the ‘innovation’ fetish. These two posts offer additional perspectives (and satire — see the 2nd one):

    This one describes that 21st Century Skills aren’t new: http://creativechange.net/blog/2016/01/08/collaboration-communication-creativity-timeless-21st-century-skills-that-will-shape-the-22nd-century/

    How to Make A Million $ in K12 Education: https://medium.com/@santone/how-to-make-a-million-in-k-12-education-658ed7c37409#.ri17kuhrz

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