These days there are many documents and reports circulating about 21st century learning and outcomes. They talk about the need for students to have critical-thinking and analytical skills, problem-solving abilities, and strengths in communication and teamwork. This has always been the ambition of most schools, most teachers and most governments. Who doesn’t want their students to be good communicators? Would any school suggest that problem-solving is unimportant? Collaboration has always been celebrated as essential to learning.
But are these just convenient descriptors without any real content, or are they essential and new aspects of the learning process? Context is crucial here. Can schools built on a mid-twentieth century industrial model of education promote critical thinking in the 21st century? Can 20 to 40 students sitting in a classroom develop the insights needed to meet and challenge not only their own points of view, but also those of others?
In 1828, the Yale Report raised the alarm about the ability (or inability) of universities to meet changing needs: “From different quarters, we have heard the suggestion that our colleges must be new-modeled; that they are not adapted to the spirit and wants of the age; that they will soon be deserted unless they are better accommodated to the business character of the nation.”
Sound familiar? Have our schools ever been able to meet the needs of the age? I doubt it. More often than not education and learning are sources of dispute, mediators in the culture wars or progenitors of conflict. These are not bad characteristics, it is that learning, for better or worse, is not just about information, schools or responding to what teachers suggest or talk about. The social space of schools is much like social media, places of conversation where the unintended outcome is often far more important than any of the artifice used to frame conversations in a specific way.
The hubris of educational institutions is that they believe they are central to the lives of their students and are the hubs around which learning takes place. For the most part, learning is neither resolutely clear as to intent (you may want to learn, but everything from the emotional state that you are in to the classmates and teachers you have muddy the waters) nor is it linear. The lack of linearity drives policymakers crazy. They have forgotten, of course, that play is central to learning and deficiencies in the understanding of information and knowledge cannot so easily be cajoled into positive outcomes. In fact, the drive to constrain the inherently chaotic nature of learning leads to examinations and modes of evaluation that measure not what has been learned, but how effectively students can play the outcomes games required of them.
One of the recurring themes in discussions about learning and education is that our post-secondary institutions are always, to varying degrees, on the verge of decline or even death. “The American Liberal Arts College died today after a prolonged illness. It was 226 years old.” (Washington, D.C., 2 July 1862) Today, there is much discussion about the decline of the humanities in the US and Canada. At the same time, culturally digital economies actually need what students in the humanities produce. These tensions have been around for a very long time.
Today, in our rush to promote the utility of education, we have reduced learning to a series of “courses” defined in larger measure by a structure that privileges speed over gradualism. Intuitively, learners know that new knowledge cannot be ‘acquired’ through the simple consumption of information. Intuitively, teachers know that tending to the emotional intelligence and needs of their students is perhaps more important than promoting rote learning. Nevertheless, schools try to squeeze learning into narrow disciplinary boundaries. So much of the structure of schools works against change including the fact that hiring of new teachers is still defined by discipline.
When economies go into crisis, policymakers look to schools to solve the immediate challenges of unemployment and thereby raise expectations that schools will simply ‘produce’ the workers needed to solve the economic challenges. This is also why the for-profit sector in education has become so large; they play into the fears learners have that they will not be employed unless they have specific skills needed for specific jobs. Policymakers amplify this even further by linking funding for public institutions to labour-market data that is often years behind the economy itself.
In a globalized environment, it is increasingly difficult to predict economic direction and to manage complexity. Schools should be the places where we fearlessly encourage complex thinking and doing, creating and collaborating.
Our educational institutions are not dying, although some will disappear. The rhetoric around their value has become embedded in the fabric of Western democracies. The challenge precisely is to understand how that value can be transformed to reflect and enhance the ability of learners to generate, shape and contribute to knowledge-based societies.