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Teacher Newsmagazine   Volume 23, Number 5, March 2011  

21st century learning for survival, not keyboarding skills

By Joanna Larson 

When we think of the speed at which technology advances and changes our lives, we have a tendency to get panicky about preparing our children for the future. How do we educate today’s youth so they can keep up, be competitive in the job market, and solve problems we have never even heard of? It is this anxiety that I believe has led to the 21st century learning movement that is becoming increasingly pervasive in BC’s education circles today, but I also think may be wholly and completely the wrong approach to preparing today’s students for tomorrow’s future.

The 21st century learning movement has a tendency to confuse the ability to use technology, with actual knowledge. The difference being, the first is merely a mechanical skill, the second is the wisdom which is the true essence of what is necessary to preparing our children and ourselves for an uncertain future.

It is dangerous for us to confuse wisdom with skills because it misdirects us from realizing the importance of accumulated learning, reasoning, critical analysis, creativity, and the ability to analyze, unravel, and solve complicated problems. This is what is really needed, not just for success in the future, but possibly the very survival of humanity.

It seems the biggest proponents of initiatives such as 21st century learning work from the misassumption that our future depends on a yet undiscovered knowledge. This is a new knowledge that can only be derived from the cumulative beliefs and culture of the western world, which is increasingly heightening its focus on technology. These often self-described “futurists,” fail to acknowledge the full complement of the more than 7,000 languages and cultures that comprise our world—each a unique variation on who we are as humans.

It is possible the answers to the questions that evoke our fear and anxiety about educating our children for tomorrow have already been answered, just not by the western world. This is the crux of the problem with this burgeoning preoccupation with digital technology. Rather than broaden our knowledge base, it is actually narrowing it.

In his Massey Lecture series “The Wayfinders, Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in a Modern World,” anthropologist Wade Davis discusses what he refers to as humanity’s greatest legacy, our ethnosphere. He describes the ethnosphere as the sum total of all language, thoughts, intuitions, social and economic organizations, myths, beliefs, religion, decorative arts, stories, and ritual practices of all humanity. In other words, the cumulative knowledge of every culture spanning the world, since the modern human evolved to walk upright.

Since language is implicitly tied to the transmission of information, knowledge, myths, and beliefs, it is the foremost delineator of unique worldviews from around the globe. What does it mean to us then, that over 600 of the world’s languages have fewer than 100 speakers, and at least 3,500 languages are not being passed down to children? What does it mean that we are allowing the disappearance of these enormous cultural vaults of information and expertise through the possible extinction of half of the world languages spoken today?

On average, every two weeks, the sole speaker of one of our world’s languages dies, taking with her or him all the wealth of knowledge, intuitions, skills, and expertise of that particular language and culture. It seems to me, that at this rate, we are losing far more knowledge on any given day than we are acquiring through research and development at Microsoft, Apple, or Research In Motion.

Perhaps, preparing our children for the future that awaits them is not about teaching them how to improve their keyboarding skills, or using the latest marketed software. Perhaps, preserving and understanding the importance of ethnodiversity is the key to their future success.

The ancient wisdom permeating a myriad of cultures around the world is simply not inferior to the new knowledge and skill set evolving in western society. It is merely an alternate paradigm to how we should exist in our world and move forward as a people. This is precisely why I believe preservation and study of that wisdom should be the heart of education in the 21st century. Addressing global warming, environmental degradation, depletion of energy resources, unbridled population growth, and economic instability requires this.

Joanna Larson is president of BCTF local 52, Prince Rupert, and is a member of the BCTF Professional and Social Issues Advisory Committee. 


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