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Teacher Newsmagazine   Volume 23, Number 5, March 2011  

Teaching and learning in the 21st century

By Jane Turner 

When the ministry talks about 21st century learning and skills, it seems to be talking about the future, something to aspire to. Perhaps someone should tell the ministry that it is over a decade behind the times, not only chronologically, but also with respect to teachers’ practice.

In its “futuristic” vision, the ministry is calling for teachers to incorporate the seven Cs into 21st century learning. Along with reading, writing, and numeracy teachers are to include:

  • 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.

As if teachers weren’t doing this already. Teachers incorporate these Cs into their classrooms daily. However, there are some important words missing from the ministry’s list. In addition to all of the above, our vision for teaching and learning in the 21st century includes, among others, the following Cs:

  • co-operation among children
  • collegiality between teachers
  • consideration and care of others
  • collective knowledge and honouring traditional wisdom
  • complexity of issues and systems
  • concern for a sustainable future
  • civic responsibility.

Teachers throughout the province are preparing learning activities, lesson and unit plans, and learning experiences within and with their communities that incorporate the available technology, sophisticated learning outcomes, and skills needed in any century. The only thing standing in teachers’ way is shortage—shortage of resources, time, and support.

Government and some pedagogical and political pundits are calling for “…radical change of teaching and learning approaches to fit within new economies and new technologies…” (Naylor, 2011, p. 11 bctf.ca) The focus is on how schools can best prepare students for their future worklife. While it is important that students leave school with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that will help them in their economic endeavours, there are two very important things to keep in mind. The first is that we cannot know what precise skills and knowledge will be needed for the world of work five or ten years from now. We do know what foundational skills are going to be useful in any circumstance—reading, the ability to communicate, numeracy, flexibility, creative problem-solving, and care for our environment, are great skills for any age. But this debate shouldn’t be simply about the skills needed for tomorrow’s good jobs. It should be about “…what kind of world we want and then build approaches within education systems to create such a world.” (Naylor, 2011, p. 5)

Pardon my cynicism, but a decade of experience with this government has taught me that when educational change is afoot, it usually has more to do with undermining an already tremendous school system, encouraging privatization of public services and cutting real dollars out of the budget so they can be spent elsewhere rather than making improvements to public education.

The ministry is suggesting that there may no longer be a need for teachers in a classroom with students; instead teachers will be facilitators, helping students engage in their passions, on-line, or out in the community. Let students delve into their interests, apprenticing with those who are the experts, goes the mantra. In his paper,” 21st century learning—Widening the frame of focus and debate,” (2011) BCTF researcher Charlie Naylor addresses some of the shortcomings of the literature being cited by the government in its vision for “21st century learning.” Among other things, Naylor writes:

“While the ‘civil society’ advocates see public schools as central to maintaining democratic societies, the 21st century schooling advocates lessen the primacy of school both as the place for the delivery of educational services and conceptually as central to the socialization of youth into civil and civic norms. The paper entitled “Schools” in the future, (www.21learn.org/site/wp-content/uploads/Schools-in-the-Future-April-2010.pdf) uses quotation marks to make it clear that they do not necessarily see schools as central to learning.” (p.6)

“Schools” in the future and other documents cited on the ministry website offer numerous scenarios and examples of how students will learn in the future. Those based on real-life examples are taken from small-scale institutions piloting programs in private or charter schools. Naylor points out the challenge to move these models from small, intensely motivated exemplars to large scale, system-wide public education for all.

Why are we looking to school systems that fall well below us in international evaluations, like the United States and the United Kingdom, for educational reform inspiration? Why aren’t we looking to the school systems in countries that consistently outperform the rest? In the recent OECD Executive Summary of the 2009 results for the Programme for International Student Achievement (PISA), it states that the best performing school systems manage to provide high-quality education to all students. Canada is specifically cited as one of the countries that provides a flat structure of education, ensuring that all children, regardless of their background, economic status, and personal diversity, are welcomed into schools that afford them equitable opportunities.

It has been over 20 years since there was a systemic analysis of public education in BC. A lot has changed in that time and it might be time to re-evaluate our schools. Teachers would welcome a fair and comprehensive assessment of how we can best educate the children of our province. If education reform is on the table, then teachers need to be an integral part of the conversation. Teachers are best positioned to know how policy gets translated into practice. After all, we are the ones in the classrooms and schools across British Columbia. We are the ones teaching so students can learn in the 21st century.

Jane Turner is an assistant director, BCTF Professional and Social Issues Division. 

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