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BCTF Advantage

Teacher Newsmagazine   Volume 23, Number 4, Jan./Feb. 2011  

British Columbia’s neoliberal folly: Dissecting the 21st century agenda 

By Tobey Steeves  

As reported in Teacher (October 2010; Nov./Dec. 2010), educational reform in British Columbia has recently taken on the 21st century narrative as a model for modernizing and upgrading curricula. However, like most other pre-packaged educational reform initiatives, the 21st century learning agenda appears more firmly rooted in political ideology than pedagogic practice. While many educationists have contested the appropriateness of 21st century skills for youth, most critiques have focused on the contentions of privileging skills over content, the transferability of critical thinking skills, or coherence of vision. In contrast, I fear 21st century skills may mask a concerted attempt to align public education with a neoliberal world view.

According to Rod Allen, BC’s superintendent of student achievement, 21st century skills encompass gathering, synthesizing, and analyzing information, working autonomously, leadership, creativity, tolerance, ethics, and communication skills.

Despite wide divergences in approach, these skills—far from modern—are representative of the 21st century movement. However, even though the 21st century narrative has many of the sensibilities of authentic student-centered reforminitiatives, it may be unnecessarily constrained by the ideological horizons that give it shape—namely, neoliberal capitalism. By that, I mean that the 21st century agenda may maintain and institutionalize neoliberalism’s emphasis on “giving greater scope to the single-minded pursuit of profit and showing significantly less regard for the need to limit social costs or for redistribution based on non-market criteria. The aim of neoliberalism is to put into question all collective structures capable of obstructing the logic of the pure market.” (Tabb, W. (2002) Unequal partners: A primer on globalization. New York, NY:The New Press)

Beneath the assurances of sympathetic politicians and reformists in the UK, United States, and Canada lie the principle objectives of the 21st century agenda—nationalistic and economic advantage. Originating in the UK in 1983, with the establishment of a trust called Education 2000, the 21st century movement began as a means of addressing the academic/ vocational divide in England’s two-tiered education system. In an educational world view, in which it was believed “sometime between the ages of 14 and 16, young people [could] be divided into two groups—the academically gifted (at least relatively), and the rest,” an emphasis on “core skills”—skills seen as necessary to a robust workforce—was seen as pragmatic. In other words, 21st century skills? were developed to manage the labour pool, which was seen as critical to extending England’s advantage in a competitive global economy. Likewise, according to P21, the largest advocacy group for 21st century skills in North America, successful education is inextricably linked with capitalist production. P21’s policy texts make repeated references to the role 21st century skills should play in “reinvigorating the economy,” “competitive realities,” and “entrepreneurial literacies.” By envisioning students as human capital to be sculpted in a particular way, the 21st century agenda attempts to normalize neoliberal values while supplying the business community with eager and profit-driven employees.

Nevertheless, many critics suggest framing an educational policy as student-centred in order to satisfy ulterior motives is deeply problematic. Authentic student-centred programs situate power and agency in students, so when students are denied access to power or agency, an educational program cannot be said to be legitimately student-centred. To that end, it should be emphasized that from the vantage of the 21st century agenda students are said to meaningfully exercise power and agency when engaged in entrepreneurially relevant skill development. As an illustration, the 21st Century Learning Initiative—an advocacy group backed by the Canadian Council on Learning—emphasizes the necessity of cognitive mentorships. According to John Abbott, the current president of the initiative, cognitive mentorships allow students to learn by doing. By directly modeling skills, scaffolding understanding, fading into the background, and coaching to success, experts, i.e., cognitive mentors, are enjoined to harness the chaotic enthusiasm of the adolescent brain while providing a superior, real world curriculum. Even so, it is important to note that the 21st century learning initiative sees cognitive mentorships primarily as an opportunity for the corporate community to access and influence students. Admittedly, students should have the opportunity to explore careers, lifestyles, and values; but so long as an educational reform initiative is centred in a drive for profit and maintaining status quos, it cannot be student-centred.

Like many British Columbians, I think our public schools need significant reform.

While working as an employee on call for the Vancouver School District I have bounced from classroom to classroom, and school to school. In many of these classrooms it was obvious that teachers are over-worked and under-resourced. Moreover, when it comes to technology, Vancouver’s schools are an unmitigated embarrassment. Architectural features, for instance, make several schools akin to digital black holes: carrier waves are blocked and technology stops working once thresholds have been crossed. These schools are throwbacks to a bygone era, a time before Wi-Fi, smartphones, and Facebook, and they are as anachronistic as betamax cassettes and drive-in movie theaters. Against this backdrop it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that BC’s school system requires systemic reform, but it is not in need of policy initiatives that subjugate student-centredness beneath economic competitiveness. Rather, following the suggestion of Félix Guattari, perhaps the challenge of educational reform lies less in building bridges between the domains of education and economy than endeavouring to set in motion new desiring machines capable of building an altogether different social order. Conversely, the 21st century agenda can be construed as an attempt to explicitly bridge education with neoliberal desire. While these horizons constrain educational reform debate, truly radical feasibilities will remain unrecognized and the needs of the public trumped by an insatiable and unethical demand for profit. That being the case, the people of BC might ask themselves whether 21st century learning should be considered deficient, obsolete, and inappropriate for our schools.

To access the complete essay, go to http://bit.ly/eVGFxS.


Tobey Steeves is a Vancouver TTOC. 


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