Published on October 22, 2008
DRAFT WORKING PAPER PRODUCED FOR THE HANDHELD LEARNING CONFERENCE, LONDON, OCTOBER 2008 Re-imagining teaching in the 21st century: challenging some assumptions Professor Keri Facer Education and Social Research Institute, Manchester Metropolitan University & Futurelab; Contact Keri.Facer@futurelab.org.uk or Keri.Facer@mmu.ac.uk Introduction In this paper I want to talk about how we might go about ‘re-imagining teaching’ in the 21st century. I’ll do three things: First, I’ll talk about some of the lines along which I might re-imagine education in the context of some major technological developments. Second, I want to talk through some of the general trends in how the future of teaching is being re- imagined in the public sphere and wider debates. Finally, I want to talk about some of the holy cows in this debate, some of the unspoken assumptions that tend to structure any public discussion about the future of teaching. And by doing so, I want to ask whether we are unhelpfully limiting our capacity to fundamentally rethink education for the 21st century. And because this is a lot to try to do in 20 minutes I’ve decided to write a paper (for a change) – so apologies for reading rather than just talking to the slides. So, ‘re-imagining the future of teaching: from technological development to educational challenges….’ On the basis of what seems to be pretty shared consensus in the tech field1, we can see a few key trends that are likely to be of significance in shaping the future of teaching over the next 25 years: the development of ubiquitous and pervasive computing infrastructure, the possibility of being able to access information and network with people wherever, and whenever, we might want. the development of the capacity to bring massive computing power to bear on any problem and any issue we might consider relevant. the development of an increasingly ‘mixed reality’, as objects, spaces and buildings are tagged and augmented – mixing virtual and physical like never before. the capacity to create immersive experiences which could potentially transform us into new times, spaces and simulations. the development of new interfaces between brain and body, and the merging of biology and computing in ways which challenge our understanding of what it means to be human. the development of increasingly complex systems of systems that will challenge human intelligence to comprehend - let alone manage and control. These trends provide massive challenges in our understanding of what it will mean to be a ‘teacher’ over 1 See, for example, the paper by Prof Dave Cliff et al for the Beyond Current Horizons Project at www.beyondcurrenthorizons.org; see also ‘Beyond 2020’ Facer and Daanen, 2007, www.futurelab.org.uk
the next 25 years. They challenge our understanding of what ‘knowledge’ means and what it is that education will need to teach (they require a massive rethink in the nature of the ‘curriculum’). They challenge our understanding of what the individual unit of education could be (a learner, a learner + technology, a learner + technology + network of collaborators). They challenge our understanding of the tools and resources we will be able to bring to bear to solve our problems. They challenge our understanding of where learning could happen and who could be mobilized to support it. These trends also bring with them significant environmental and ethical challenges what will be the material and energy costs associated with these developments? to what extent will these tools and resources be used to support human flourishing rather than simple economic competitiveness.? And so, if I were to produce a scenario of ‘teaching in the 21st century’, I would produce a picture that is very very different from the type of education that we know now. It would show educators and learners working together in fluid ways on real problems that are meaningful both to learners and to their communities It would show different types of people involved in education, drawing upon the expertise of different communities, and conducted in a range of different sites and sectors It would comprise an environment in which learning was characterised by the ability to enter into, become expert in and move between different knowledge communities It would show a system in which assessment of learning was conducted through multiple lenses – as what is ‘valuable’ knowledge will be massively context dependent2 And finally, it would show a system in which the ethical and environmental challenges posed by technological development were consciously examined in the education sector. Now, I think that is what I was supposed to elaborate on for the next 15 minutes. However, I’m reluctant to do this. And the reason I’m reluctant to just talk about my own ‘future visions’ is that I’ve been doing that for the last 10 years, and many people in this room have been doing it for much longer, and still, we don’t see significant change in educational practice today. This was brought home to me when I read the following paragraph recently: The new education has as its purpose the development of a new kind of person, one who […] is an actively inquiring, flexible, creative, innovative, tolerant, liberal personality who can face uncertainty and ambiguity without disorientation, who can formulate viable new meanings to meet changes in the environment which threaten individual and mutual survival. This was written not this year, not ten years ago, but nearly 40 years ago by Neil Postman and Charles Weingarter in a book called ‘Teaching as a Subversive Activity’. Despite the many years we have spent arguing for a new sort of teaching, a new sort of education, today, 2 See Facer and Pykett ‘Assessing Personal Skills and Competencies’ paper for QCA, available from www.futurelab.org.uk
DRAFT WORKING PAPER PRODUCED FOR THE HANDHELD LEARNING CONFERENCE, LONDON, OCTOBER 2008 ve n we still ha a ‘informa tion tion-obsessed’ educa system, designed a round individua a inment, ta l tta ilored to short term a ccountability measures a which unfortunately (a despite the best efforts of ma nd nd ny people) ill equips children a lea nd rners to cope with the complexity a cha nd llenges of the world toda (let y alone in 25 yea rs). S the question, I think, is not wha ‘future visions’ I might ha for tea o t ve ching over the next 25 yea but rs, what is it that keeps education systems fundamentally unchanging in the way they are organized, the way teaching and learning happens, and the types of people who are involved in education? I’d like to say that it isn’t enough, today, to simply berate education for ‘looking the same now as it did 100 years ago’ (only with a few computers). Instead, we need to better understand the forces which drive the innate conservatism of education. And I’d like to suggest that the answer to this question is nothing so straightforward as ‘technophobia’ or simple inertia. Instead, I think that what gets in the way of serious change in education is simply our unexamined assumptions about what education is for and how it is organized, and the fact that many of us who argue for educational change are often quite coy about tackling these assumptions. To elaborate this, I want to take a look through the sorts of assumptions that underpin some of the popular debates on the future of education. I’ll do this by looking at how ‘Google’ constructs the public debate in this area – by analyzing the sorts of issues that constitute the public debate and the sorts of issues which are overlooked or absent from the discussion. What happens when you google ‘teaching in the 21st century?’. You get 415,000 hits, of which about the first 20 to 30 are highly relevant to the specific issue. So what are in our top ten3? They include A website offering a ‘the gateway to 21st century skills’ – resources for teachers to teach a new curriculum comprising collaboration, thinking skills, entrepreneurship and the new basics. The Scottish Government’s agreement on pay, conditions and development for teachers The Australian Government’s strategy for teacher development – focusing on skills, leadership, school management, and ‘quality recognition’ (for which you might want to read accountability….) The ‘Digital Classroom’ edition of the Harvard education newsletter – use of ICT in education and the role of teacher development A teachers blog with technology tips & a teachers blog on his experiences as a teacher and things he wants to do differently A report on an international study comparing TIMS data in the US and internationally, and the role of ICTs in supporting maths and science The University of South Florida course on ‘teaching for the 21st century’ – lots on use of ICTs 21st century skills teaching wiki by a teacher (no affiliations identified) – tips on using technology, summaries of 21st century skills campaign and ideas of digital natives. Cisco website looking at use of ICTs to support learning and enhance attainment in range of subjects And it goes on in a similar vein for the next 20 or so sites before it descends into the specifics of ‘the 3 NB – google searches on the basis of keyword matching, incoming links (relevance/quality), and website optimization for search purposes. Google can also take into account previous Web history in focusing search. In this case, in order not to skew the search towards my previous interests, this search was conducted with web history turned off. Search was conducted October 10th 2008.
future of petrology teaching’ a other wonders. nd There are 5 main areas of debate in these websites First – there is the debate on the role of technologies in the future of teaching and learning Dominating the debate are ideas about the relationship between teaching and ICTs. At least three quarters of the sites are concerned with this relationship – ranging from top tips for teachers using technology, to sites promoting the creation and development of online learning courses, to sites about using ICTs to enhance the teaching of traditional subjects. And remember, this was a search about ‘the future of teaching in the 21st century’, not about the future of teaching with ICTs. The two terms ‘technology’ and ‘21st century’ seem to have become synonymous. Second – there is the debate on the types of ‘21 st century skills’ that schools should be teaching A famous quote from Alvin Toffler turned up on two different websites4 in the top 10 sites. The quote runs: ‘the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn’. The quote appears alongside teaching materials and resources and reports to support the teaching of ‘21st century skills’. It is notable in these sites that this is a debate that is driven massively by commercial companies – entrepreneurialism and business skills are flagged up alongside team working, collaboration and leadership. Another analysis that we might conduct looking at the ‘public debate’ on the future of education is an analysis of who is involved in this debate? Who gets to shape the agenda? Interestingly, none of the sites promoting 21st century skills (amongst which most flag up the need to be critical about information sources and analyse information) cite the origin of this quotation – it has become disconnected from its source document and now flies around the web as a rationale and justification for educational change. It would be good to see the advocates of 21st century skills practicing what they preach by showing some basic good practice in referencing. I tracked over 50 pages with this quotation, not one of them gave a source for it. It turns out to be a misquotation or amalgamation of quotes from his early book ‘Future Shock’ in which he is quoting someone else entirely. The third debate is the debate over what ‘knowledge’ should be valued, what should count as ‘truth’ in education – and the role of the teacher in mediating that One site, for example, is dedicated to a set of resources designed to help science teachers challenge creationist and intelligent design beliefs5. The site suggests that teachers are going to be operating in a very complex knowledge environment in the 21st century – it makes visible the fact that there are competing beliefs about what counts as truth, about how we come to value different sorts of knowledge. The debate is over the teachers’ role in maintaining the boundaries between these different sorts of knowledge. This representation of teacher as ‘boundary maintainer’ comes up again in the teachers’ blogs. These blogs are sites where individual classroom teachers share their experiences and their advice and a frequently recurring theme in the blogs are the ongoing battles over what knowledge should count in schools – one teacher6, in particular, spends many posts discussing whether she should care about grammar or creativity. The debate here is nothing less than what counts as truth and knowledge and what role a teacher should play in maintaining this. 4 http://www.thegateway.org/teaching-learning; http://21stcenturyteaching.pbwiki.com/ 5 http://www.teachersdomain.org/pd/nova/teachevolution/index.html 6 http://aquiram.wordpress.com/
DRAFT WORKING PAPER PRODUCED FOR THE HANDHELD LEARNING CONFERENCE, LONDON, OCTOBER 2008 New slide This question of what knowledge counts also emerges in a very different set of debates around the future of teachers and teaching. For example, two sites reference the Third International Mathematics and Science Study comparing mathematics and science results among students in 41 countries, and both make recommendations for future teacher development strategies on the basis of this work. These sites suggest a different area of debate in education. They suggest there is contention over: How should student data be used to assess individual, teachers, school and national performance? What could or should be assessed? What is the relationship between teaching and accountability – to students, to tax payers, to government? Interestingly, this area of debate foregrounds the fact that developments in ICTs have arguably had most impact in education precisely in the area of generating massive amounts of standardized data about students, and thereby making it possible for students, teachers, schools and countries to be compared, assessed, audited and held accountable for their progress. The whole accountability and assessment regime is underpinned by this fundamental change in information about students – and we never talk about this in discussions about the relationship between ICTs and education. It’s not cool, it’s not sexy, but it is, fundamentally, underpinning significant shifts in educational practice, policy and philosophy today. Finally, there is the debate over the professional identity of the teacher. Very visible in our top 20 sites were the sites in which unions and governments share the results of their negotiations over pay and conditions, professional development and training. The future of teaching, in these sites, consists of new terms and conditions of employment, entitlements to hours of development, delivery strategies for initial teacher education provision and strategies to raise the esteem in which teachers and teaching are held in wider society. In stark contrast, but part of the same debate over the professional identity of the teacher, there are the sites that represent a completely different account of teaching. In these sites, usually teachers blogs, teachers debate their personal motivations and aspirations to make a difference to students. Whether it is in the site dedicated to finding ways to teach Shakespeare for the 21st century through performance, or the blog which describes a moment of success in ‘reaching a child’ for one disillusioned teacher. These different types of sites showcase the debate that teachers are having within the profession around the types of relationships they should attempt to build with their students – whether teachers are functionaries or visionaries, whether teachers are there to engage emotions or to ensure attainment of standards What, from this rapid survey, are the key areas of public debate in about the future of teaching in the 21st century7? So there are five big debates going on – around the role of technology, around the question of new skills, around the question of who acts as arbiter of knowledge, around the question of how education should be assessed and accounted for, and around the question of teacher professional identity. Some of these, although not all, are likely to be the focus for discussion in this conference, and they act as the general contours of the debate on the future of teaching. 7 Clearly, this analysis needs to be understood for what it is – a survey of search results. A much more thorough analysis of public debates surrounding the future of education would be merited to test this analysis further – including analysis of diverse media outlets, academic conferences and policy fora.
More interesting, however, is what the sites don’t say, what is taken for granted so completely that no one is arguing for or against it, what is seen as so implicit that it doesn’t need to be advocated for or challenged. What are the ‘holy cows’ that aren’t even considered in the debates on the future of teaching? In this snapshot I would say that the following issues are so taken for granted that they aren’t even up for discussion: The idea that ‘teaching’ is about teaching children (there is no recognition of any possibility of demographic change, the lifelong learning arguments are more or less absent and part of a different agenda, the possibility of a fundamental shift in formal education to be education for multiple age groups isn’t even acknowledged) The idea that ‘teaching’ is done only by adults, and only by trained professional teachers (there are still fundamental resistances to learner voice and to taking learners’ expertise seriously, there is no challenge to the traditional relationship between adults and children in the educational setting; there is also no acknowledgement of the expertise and knowledge that resides outside school and no strategies to bring this into educational practice) The idea that schools are still the fundamental organisational unit of education (the possibility of accessing information and knowledge in diverse locations isn’t discussed, the challenge that technologies pose to the traditional role of the school or university as repository of information is unexamined) The idea that the individual learner remains the fundamental unit of education (not the individual + technology or + network) (while there is reference to ‘team working’ and collaboration, there is no examination of how what we need to know and how we need to know it might change if you take the network rather than the individual as the basic premise for education) The idea that economic competitiveness is an unproblematic goal of for (there is zero discussion of the role of education in developing personal attributes, community identity, environmental sustainability; there is a very limited conception of ‘global citizenship’ which doesn’t analyse the extent to which global citizenship and economic competitiveness might be mutually exclusive) 8 What are the implications of these assumptions for educational futures? The implications of these assumptions are that there are significant limits placed on how we might re- imagine education. It means that some ideas are likely to be successful and easily appropriated into the debate - for example, I’d lay money on ideas being successful which are about: Appropriating digital technologies … To help young people achieve new skills which can be described as offering new economic benefits … 8 Arguably, the idea that education should be mandatory is also unchallenged in these analyses. This, however, only occurred to me after the conference, and so I just mention it here in passing. It is, however, tied in with the points on adult-child relations, schools as the primary unit of education and the identity of the professional teacher – all of these are, to greater or lesser extent, sustained only because education is legally required of young people.
DRAFT WORKING PAPER PRODUCED FOR THE HANDHELD LEARNING CONFERENCE, LONDON, OCTOBER 2008 And which ca be ea a n sily ssessed in wa tha a ys t llow comparison between students a sta nd tes. But if we are interested in more significant change than this - if we are interested in educational change that recognizes young people’s social agency, if we are interested in educational change that acknowledges that the ways we managed knowledge in the 19th and 20th centuries will need to change, if we are interested in educational change that is able to draw on the talents of society at a time when economically, environmentally and demographically things may get a bit tight over the next 25 years - then we are going to need to challenge some of these underlying assumptions explicitly. We are going to have to start addressing some of these fundamental underlying questions that will shape the future of teaching: What should the relationship be between adults and children in education if we take seriously the view of young people as social actors – could we consider them teachers as well as learners, experts as well as novices? What is the distinctive role of professional teachers, as opposed to individuals and communities with other forms of expert knowledge? What are the skills that distinctively constitute the contribution of teachers to learning, over and above subject and disciplinary knowledge? What is the role of the school, as opposed to the home and community and workplace, as a learning organization? What is the role of education in relation to not only economic but personal or social goals – and are these goals necessarily compatible? It is only by tackling some of these questions – rather than by simply assuming we all mean the same thing when we talk about ‘teaching for the 21st century’ – that we can create the basis for a new and more challenging debate on the shape of education over the next 25 years. This does not mean that we will inevitably see a future for education that is the direct opposite of all that we have now – for example, I can see significant social justice arguments that make the case for schools to be retained, I can see a new role for teachers that is fundamentally based upon a new identity as ‘learning specialists’. This willingness to ask these questions does mean, however, that our analysis will not be built upon unchallenged assumptions which cloud our ability to identify both the weaknesses and the strengths of the ways in which we organize education at the present time.
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