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Teacher Newsmagazine   Volume 23, Number 3, Nov./Dec. 2010  

21st century learning initiative in BC 

By Jinny Sims  

BC has one of the best public school systems in the world, and this has been acknowledged by the current and past ministers of education. In 2010, the Ministry of Education met with John Abbott, a British educator and one of the architects of 21st Century Learning in Britain. John Abbott, Valerie Hannon, and others have joined forces to promote 21st Century Learning in other jurisdictions. In the UK, this concept was an experiment that was carried out in a very low socio-economic area to help engage students in their learning, and was not seen as a panacea to overhaul the whole education system. What started as a progressive movement has since been influenced by the neo-liberal agenda for accountability that is based on measurable outputs, economic growth, privatization and commodification of public education/public services, and a focus on the individual and self-interest.

BC has joined Alberta, New Brunswick, and the US in adopting the 21st century learning mantra. The initiative was established in 1995 by “…a group of English and American businessmen and organizations to make sense of research on learning and learning processes that were fragmented in many different disciplines, and embedded in many universities, research institutions and businesses around the world.” (website quote). It is interesting to note that there is no mention of teachers, or the value of a public education system. So what is driving the latest version of reforms?

In BC, the ministry has identified 21st century skills as: reading, writing, numeracy, and 7 Cs: critical thinking and problem solving; creativity and innovation; collaboration, teamwork, and leadership; cross-cultural understanding; communication, computing, and ICT literacy; career and learning self-reliance; caring for personal health and planet earth. The focus in the presentations has been on personalized learning, use of technology and online learning, teachers as facilitators, and more choice for parents and students. No teacher could argue with these laudable goals, and would assert this is exactly what is happening in classrooms around the province. As practicing teachers, we also notice that a sense of community, citizenship, and civic responsibility are missing from the list.

When we look at what is happening in the US and other jurisdictions motivating 21st century learning, there is dissonance and contradictions between what is said, the actions of the policy makers, and those leading the charge for reform. This disconnect is very dramatic in the US, and is evident in Canadian jurisdictions as well. 21st century learning has captured the imagination, and at face value, can be very appealing for teachers, parents, and the public. On reflection, for teachers trying to meet the diverse needs of students in an under-resourced public education system, the disconnect can appear macabre.

There is an underlying assumption that current teaching practice in public schools is antiquated, with Victorian-era images of teachers teaching students sitting in rows stuck in a historic time frame. Nothing is further from the truth. Change is constant, and public education is about teaching our students to learn from the past, live in the present, and prepare for the future. As teachers, we are keenly aware that we live in times of rapid change, and that we must prepare our students to live in a technological, complex, and fast-changing world. There is amazing teaching and learning happening in classrooms around the province. Teaching that is based on sound pedagogy, uses a variety of tools, including new technologies and social media to actively engage students in their learning.

Big business and corporations seem to be the main drivers behind current reforms. There is a concerted attempt to commercialize and corporatize public schools. Through deliberate underfunding of public schools, policymakers have created space for business as consumers and salesmen. Corporate giants, like Bill Gates, are quite willing to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to support charter schools in order to ensure a marketplace for consumers of goods and services provided by companies that will earn billions. Others are turning to schools to provide students with specific job skills, so they do not have to invest money in training workforces. Both groups are driven by economic self-interest, and the concept of life-long learning, with students engaged in the process of learning, is lost. In the US, many charter schools are run by corporations and foundations using public funds and buildings to make a profit.

In the context of deliberate policies to underfund, destabilize, and privatize public schools, privateers use the standardized-testing agenda to undermine public confidence in public education. The focus on narrowly-defined measurable data narrows both teaching and learning. It forces teaching of content, rather than engaging students in the process of meaningful learning experiences. The imposition of standardized tests, like the FSAs, Grades 10–12 provincial exams, district- and school-wide writes, runs contrary to meeting the needs of individual students and exploring personalized learning paths. However, the testing industry, worth billions, is the driver. Both personalized learning and the testing agenda are being pushed by the same reformers.

Over the last decade, underfunding of public education and the testing agenda has narrowed student choice. Many students are not able to take elective courses, as they struggle to meet the demands of provincial exams, and under-resourcing has limited student choice as schools have been forced to narrow course offerings. The very government that decimated apprenticeship programs, and through underfunding, reduced student choice for hands-on practical courses, is now promoting student choice. Once again, first you limit choice, and then use choice to further privatize public education as you encourage private providers for services that have been cut from public schools. For example, at one time, most secondary schools offered auto-mechanics, and due to lack of funding upgrading and maintenance for most of those workshops have been dismantled. The proliferation of private schools and tutoring services is a direct response to larger class sizes, lack of support for students with special needs, and reduction in learning assistance and support services to assist our vulnerable students. Once again, there is a disconnect between the talk of 21st century learning and the commitment to fund public education.

Teachers and teacher unions have become the target of the reformers as they see teachers, individually and collectively, as a barrier to their agenda to privatize public education. After creating untenable learning and teaching conditions, and imposing standardized tests, the reformers have turned to teachers being the problem. At the same time as there is talk of creativity, critical thinking, innovation, and personalized learning, there has been a concerted attack on teacher professional autonomy. There are attempts to hamper a teacher’s ability to design and deliver education programs, and to select resources and learning experiences. There are jurisdictions that are mandating reading and other scripted programs. At the same time, reformers are pushing to link teacher evaluation to student test results, and talk of value-added teachers who would be rewarded with merit pay. Job security and teacher tenure are portrayed as the biggest barriers to quality teaching. They do not want to talk about underfunding, working and learning conditions, learning resources, sound pedagogy, and the value of public education to a democratic society, but instead they focus on “fixing” the teacher with mandated courses so providers can make more money. Teacher unions and contracts are seen as barriers that must be discredited and weakened. A teaching force without the protection of a collective agreement or a union would be more malleable, and would not be able to mount a resistance to the undermining of public education; it would be much easier to silence the professional voice of teachers. All around the world, teacher unions are under pressure to move into the 21st century so teachers would be left without any protections, and employers would have all the flexibility.

The 21st century learning initiative proponents focus on the need to rethink and liberate the public education system. Teachers would no longer be teaching, but would be liberated to facilitate personalized learning for each student. Teachers are asking for class size, class composition, and specialist supports that allow them to meet the needs of every child. However, the reformers have visions of students attached to wireless digital devices taking personalized learning courses on-line, and students going out into the community to buy services. Schools would be computer labs, and this would remove the imperative to maintain and build new schools, and infrastructures. The school day and school calendar are seen as barriers to the proposed reforms. There would be no need to worry about class size, and there would be huge savings because textbooks would be obsolete. In light of the recent fiasco around the implementation of BCeSIS, the reformers have not taken into consideration the diversity of our province and that not all BC students have equal access to technology. Many of our schools do not even have fully operational computer labs, never mind having the capacity for wireless connections for every student. This agenda for reform will further increase the social divide as it feeds greater inequities. Not all parents will have the resources to buy additional learning experiences and new technologies. Our students are spending so much time connected to Facebook, Twitter, wireless handheld, and television. Do we then want their education experience to be with a screen? When students are wired and immersed in the new social media, who will teach them media literacy, boundaries, and appropriate usage? Where will they learn about community, civic responsibility, and a just, civil society?

As professionals, it is imperative to insert our voices into the debate about education reform. We must welcome a dialogue that is based on sound research, pedagogy, and practice. We cannot allow reformers to put their own spin on education change. We must embrace the elements that are sound, and critique those that will undermine and privatize public education. We can learn from our history. The Primary Program in the Year 2000 initiatives has survived and flourished because it was based in practice, and the experiences and knowledge of classroom teachers. It was play-based, child-centred, and developmentally appropriate. It was driven by, and embraced by, classroom teachers. So, if BC is serious about education reform, let the ministry engage teachers in a meaningful dialogue that is based on the professional experience and knowledge of teachers. Provide teachers with professional autonomy, and the resources to deliver quality teaching and learning. Last, but not least, trust teachers as they are highly qualified professionals. 

Jinny Sims is director, BCTF Professional and Social Issues Division. 


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