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BCTF Advantage

Teacher Newsmagazine   Volume 23, Number 2, October 2010  

The ministry’s 21st century obsession 

By Emily O’Neill  

Since the throne speech in February promised significant changes to the BC education system, education news in BC has been peppered with hints to the potential direction for education reform in the province. There have been mentions from the Ministry of Education of “a 21st century learning agenda,” “personalized learning,” “hands-on programs” in secondary schools, and a shift in the role of the teacher from director to “facilitator.” As the year has progressed, we have been able to draw from various sources, to flesh out the picture.

On September 17, Rod Allen, superintendent of student achievement for the Ministry of Education, gave a presentation to the BCTF Executive Committee about these new directions. Allen outlined the ministry’s vision for the future of education in BC—personalized learning and greater choice for students, increased student engagement, moving beyond teaching factoids to students who come to class “with Google in their pockets,” to teaching a greater understanding of how things relate, and “teacher-facilitated” rather than “teacher-instructed” learning. Allen acknowledged that these models already exist in some parts of the province; the question is simply how to propagate these ideas.

One slide in Allen’s presentation laid out a number of “21st Century Foundational Skills.” In addition to reading, writing, and numeracy, which the ministry still considers as important as ever, these skills include what some have been calling the Seven Cs:

  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Creativity and innovation
  • Collaboration, teamwork, and leadership
  • Cross-cultural understanding
  • Communications, computing and ICT literacy
  • Career and learning self-reliance
  • Caring for personal health and planet earth.

While much of the provincial discussion around these ideas has been very short on details, 21st century learning initiatives from other provinces and other parts of the world have been referenced by the ministry, and it is worth taking a look at some of these in an attempt to understand what might be coming down the pike in British Columbia.

Back in June, Vancouver Sun reporter and blogger Janet Steffenhagen pointed out a connection between the UK-based 21st Century Learning Initiative and the BC Ministry of Education. She reported in a blog post that John Abbott, president of the 21st Century Learning Initiative, met with Ministry of Education representatives at St. Anne’s Academy in Victoria in March. The initiative’s summary of the event states that the meetings were intended “to show how the ideas developed with the initiative relate directly to the plans that British Columbia might be making for its future education policy.” Abbott’s presentation, which can be downloaded from the initiative’s website, drew heavily on his 2010 book, Overschooled but Undereducated. 

In both the book and the presentation, Abbott argues for a new view of adolescence. “In countless instances over the generations,” he writes in his book, “it has been adolescent muscle linked with a determination to break any limitations that others may put in their way that have pushed forward the boundaries of civilization.” If teenagers cause trouble, he argues, it is only because they have lost their purpose in a modern world that insists on sequestering them in schools and stripping them of the opportunity to use their energy to learn by doing.

Other major concerns outlined in Abbott’s Overschooled but Undereducated are the weakening of civil society, the rise of specialization in both school and work at the cost of the ability to see the big picture, and the negative ramifications of our switch to a service economy, in which “satisfaction in a job well done has been replaced by the motivation to earn more money.” He also takes aim at the accountability culture, asking if, “In their efforts to improve their examination results, have schools been forced into so over-teaching their pupils (so as to get the grades...to get the jobs...to get the good salary) that the pupils rarely learn how to work things out for themselves?”

In order to harness the energy and potential of the adolescent brain, Abbott and the initiative are pushing for some major education reforms. In April of this year, the initiative put together a document specifically for British Columbia, called Schools in the Future: What has to change and why, which also draws heavily on the themes in Overschooled but Undereducated. Elements of change required are summarized at the end of the paper, and include:

  • Individualized learning paths versus preprogrammed paths from which students choose their course of study.
  • A much greater emphasis on experimental and situational learning, especially as students get older.
  • The evolution of the teacher from the role of instructor when children are young, to a much more complex and professional role of learning facilitator as children get older.
  • Rich assessment and reporting based on competencies rather than courses or disciplines, and that uses language and artifacts rather than scores to show achievement.
  • A sliding scale of student dependency on teacher and school-as-place that decreases with age, so allowing growth in student choice and responsibility.

The influences of John Abbott and the 21st Century Learning Initiative on Margaret MacDiarmid and the Ministry of Education—with their calls for increased student engagement through personalized, hands-on learning, guided rather than dictated, by teachers—are clearly evident.

In addition to John Abbott, the province seems to be following the lead of Alberta and New Brunswick; in a back-to-school teleconference with reporters on August 31, 2010, Margaret MacDiarmid pointed to both as models for education in British Columbia. Both provinces are looking to remake their education systems in order to prepare their students to compete and thrive in 21st century society.

In June, the government of Alberta published a discussion paper titled, “Inspiring Action on Education,” which came out of the government’s Inspiring Education initiative, and which lays out a vision for the transformation of the education system in Alberta. The crux of the matter seems to lie in the following statement:

“Governments, business leaders, researchers and communities in Alberta, Canada, and around the world, investigating the requirements of 21st century learners, have identified the need for competencies to be more central in the education of young people if they are to be active participants in an increasingly knowledge-based and globalized society.”

New Brunswick is moving down the same road. Their Department of Education’s “NB3-21C: Creating a 21st Century Learning Model of Public Education,” is the foundational document for that province’s 21st century learning initiatives. Like Alberta, the government of New Brunswick makes a direct connection between global societal change “in the age of knowledge and innovation” and the importance of learning as the “major socio-economic driver of the 21st century.” In order to keep pace and compete in “emerging knowledge- and innovation-based economic sectors,” the province must overhaul its educational system.

Both documents list competencies which, in addition to literacy and numeracy, are all components of a 21st century education. The seven Alberta competencies and five New Brunswick competencies are essentially the same as the BC Ministry of Education’s Seven Cs. Both provinces also emphasize personalized learning, student-centred education, and teachers as facilitators.

Interestingly, much of the language surrounding these 21st century learning plans is not new to BC. Most recently, the Ministry of Education’s Year 2000 Program, which emerged from the recommendations of the Sullivan Royal Commission on Education in the late 1980s, called for major education reforms in British Columbia. Parts of the 1990 ministry paper, “Year 2000: A Framework for Learning,” sound as though they could have been written today. According to the ministry in 1990, major social and economic changes in BC were placing new demands and expectations on schools:

“These changes include an explosion in knowledge, coupled with powerful new communication and information processing technologies. The structure of the economy is shifting from being primarily resource-based to becoming a mixed economy with increasing emphasis on the information and service sectors. Society itself is changing and becoming much more diverse.”

The new competencies required for BC students are elucidated in another paragraph from the Year 2000 paper, which sounds remarkably like the 21st century learning language that is floating around today:

“In view of the new social and economic realities, all students, regardless of their immediate plans following school, will need to develop a flexibility and versatility undreamed of by previous generations. Increasingly, they will need to be able to employ critical and creative thinking skills to solve problems and make decisions, to be technologically literate as well as literate in the traditional sense, and to be good communicators. Equally, they will need to have well developed interpersonal skills and be able to work co-operatively with others. Finally, they will need to be lifelong learners.”

The only surviving component of the Year 2000 plan is the Primary Program, which covers students in BC from Kindergarten to Grade 3. The Intermediate and Graduate Programs were ultimately scrapped, but the principles behind the entire Year 2000 Program appear to linger in the proposals of the Ministry of Education. The ministry’s major reform effort was unsuccessful 20 years ago; whether or not a different outcome awaits the 21st century learning plans remains to be seen.

While the idealism of the ministry’s 21st century learning proposals is certainly admirable, it is still unclear how all of these laudable goals will be achieved in today’s economic and political climate. There is a disconnect between the vision that the ministry is putting forward and what is actually happening on the ground—where pervasive underfunding, fewer electives, larger classes, a lack of teacher autonomy, the constrictions of the accountability agenda, and the realities of child poverty all would seem to conspire to hamstring the ministry’s proposals. Unless fundamental, systemic changes are made, do the ministry’s reform plans stand a chance? You can expect to hear a great deal more about this in the coming months as the ministry fills in the details.

For more information, see the BCTF Information Services Research & Reports blog at bctf.ca/blogs/research.aspx. 

Emily O’Neill, BCTF Information Services Department.  

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