The Reflective Educator

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The Case Against 21st Century Schools

Paul W Bennett, a former Headmaster of the Halifax Grammar school, and director of Schoolhouse Consulting, has a pretty serious critique of 21st century learning. You can read his argument here.

It’s pretty clear that Mr. Bennett has done very little research on the topic of 21st century learning and is lumping all activities and people who do these activities into the same group. I’ve responded to his critique (which has to be moderated and so will not show up on his article any time soon) and will share my critique of his critique here:

Your chief complaints with the push toward 21st century learning seem to be with:

1.  The assumption that more technology is necessarily a good thing in education.

2.  That our education system is discarding that from its heritage which is good.

I am going to agree with you on the first of these complaints. There is lots of technology being pushed in schools which has no business being there.  More technology does definitely not mean better teaching or learning is going on. To ignore technology completely in schools though is foolish. Pencils, paper, overheard projectors, photocopiers, all of these were once outlandish and new fangled technologies that eventually got adopted by schools. Computers are nothing new in this respect.

On the second complaint though, we disagree intensely. Heritage is never a good enough reason to keep a system intact. Our current education system was designed after the Prussian model of strict conformity and indoctrination of the working class to accept their lot in life, to be industrialized workers in a factory.

Where are the factories that we need to prepare our populace for? They are almost all gone, sent overseas. The vast majority of our populace will not work at jobs which require the kind of numbing of self that the industrialized age required. Instead, they will likely work at jobs which require them to use their creative abilities and ability to collaborate with each other.

Why are you fixated on teaching content over skills? Some content is incredibly useful, and needs to be in place to give context to the world. However, much content is radically transforming. How many planets are there orbiting our sun now? What elements are necessary for the formation of life? Both of the answers to these questions have changed in the last 3 years, but most sources of content still contain the incorrect answers 9 and "carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur" to the previous question.

If you do not have the ability to learn and process new information yourself (ie. you have the SKILL of learning new things independently) then you will never keep up with the changes that occur naturally (and more frequently) in our knowledge base.

Furthermore, I would like to point out that these three issues: "soft student-centred pedagogy, classroom info-tainment, and nurturing the self-esteem of students" are not necessarily all nicely packaged up together as you suggest, and to assume that they are necessarily intertwined is illogical.

I would like to make it clear that you do not speak for all independent educators. We have been teaching the International Baccalaureate PYP, MYP, and DP for a few years now in our small independent school, which are all based on "soft" student centred approach to education, and have a history of 40 years behind them. Oh, and they are favoured by most Canadian Universities, as they produce kids who are successful at university.

In many ways, Mr. Bennett’s critique is quite insulting, as he somehow assumes that we are all marching quite blindly forward without consideration to the path we are on. He also makes the very strange assumption that a historical adherence to what we did in the past in education is better than looking at making changes in education to keep current with a very rapidly changing world. If we continued to teach like the "good old days" then we’d still be beating kids with wooden paddles and chanting out multiplication tables in unison, to help prepare our kids for the drudgery of the factories.