Banned books, censorship, and other assaults on free speech in school. What’s a teacher or author to do? In this blog, I discuss two defining legal cases on the topic and offer strategies for defending challenged content.Read More
It’s time to rethink the mantra 21st Century Skills: They’re nothing new, and we need to aim beyond 2099.
We live in a time of great change: accelerating use of technology, global instability, shifting ground for energy security, all coupled with potential climatic changes that could create millions of climate refugees displaced by flood, drought, fire, and rising sea levels.
Against this backdrop has been the relentless call for educational reform based on “21st Century Skills” such as the oft-cited “4 Cs” of critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication.collaboration. The trend was launched in part by well-funded coalitions of business leaders, educators, and technology companies, such as Achieve and The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (which became the Partnership for 21st Century Learning). Raising the alarm about dwindling U.S. competitiveness, the movement has built its rationale on the urgent need to “prepare students to compete in the global economy”—the cornerstone of neoliberalism.
Sure, jobs are crucial, but the mantra offers deafening silence about the basis for the global economy: the environment. By failing to co-center issues such as climate change, the 21st Century movement does nothing to advance economic literacy based on immutable ecological principles (the transdisciplinary thinking that defines the field of ecological economics). And, when we consider that a child born today may well live to see the 22nd Century, it’s clear that we need to look beyond 2099.
Skills for the 200th Century BCE (Before the Common Era)
No doubt collaboration, critical thinking and communication are vital skills to prepare students for the future. But far from being new, humans (and other species) have practiced these competencies for a long, long time.
Like, since the dawn of humanity.
Human adaptation and evolution has been dependent upon cooperation, relationship-building and collaboration within and across communities. Hunting and gathering—perhaps the earliest human “economy”—required extensive knowledge of the landscape as well as communication, coordination of tasks, experimenting and addressing fundamental questions such as What is safe to eat?, How can we get enough?, and What happens if we deplete this area? The big solutions of the day—such as taking down a mastodon—must have certainly required extensive planning, coordination and problem-solving. In short, these skills have been around for hundreds of centuries before the Common Era (BCE).
As we fast-forward through time, the so-called 21st Century skills were employed again and again in the development of agriculture, cities, global commerce, cultural expression, technologies, and more—in short, in every aspect of human history.
So what’s changed?
While the skills are not new, the scale of today’s global challenges changes the landscape in which skills must be employed. For example, the implications of new technologies and instant communication demand unprecedented levels of media literacy. Climate change and food security and water availability are just a few of the issues that will unfold in the 22nd century and beyond.
Advocate of the skills are thus correct in reviving them. Classroom practices too often reflecte an obsolete factory model designed to develop a compliant workforce. Rote work, ordered rows, adherence to rigid directions, one-way delivery of content by teachers (“the boss”), and a day controlled by bells are great ways to squelch collaboration and student-led problem-solving.
Time for 22nd Century Thinking
In these rapidly changing times, the skills movement is certainly correct in shining the light on the 4 Cs. But skills—no matter how essential—are not enough. We must teach skills in the context of content knowledge (one must have something significant to think about).
Of course, content is not equally important. Not all topics or content are worthy for students’ time and attention. Students must gain knowledge that builds upon the past while preparing them for the 22nd Century (and beyond, for their children). We need to expand our view beyond economic competitiveness and consider the health of communities, our social fabric, and the environment that contains it all. To do otherwise is myopic and will leave students blindsided by the challenges they will face.
Equality and equity: Two familiar terms often used interchangeably. But the words have distinct (and sometimes contested) meanings. Let’s examine a few definitions.
The terms equal and equality both refer to sameness. For example, equal rights means having the same rights, such as the right to vote.. By this definition, inequality means differences and disparities among (or within) populations, such as unequal access to opportunities and resources.
But sameness is not always fair. Consider a building with access only via a flight of stairs. Imagine two people trying to get into the building: a person who can walk and a person in a wheelchair. While both have the same entry method (the stairs), the sameness creates a barrier for one person. This shows us that the well-intentioned phrase “treating people the same” can actually result in inequality.
This brings us to the meaning of equity.
Equity encompasses a “moral dimension” of fairness, i.e., equal access and opportunity. But this can look different for different people. Returning to our example, the addition of a ramp results in two different entryways, but it’s this very difference that provides equity.
Gender issues provide another example. Globally, the under-representation of women in governmental leadership positions is an example of gender inequality (a disparity between men and women). But this inequality is created by gender inequity: women’s lack of access to the education, rights, and opportunities that lead to such positions.
It’s critical that educators know the difference between the equity and equality and the implications for their use/misuse. Calls for “equal funding” for all schools mask the fact that the children within these school have different needs. This means we must pursue equitable funding to ensure that each student has access to opportunities to be successful. It’s about giving students what they need. Equity thus requires that we rectify the well-documented pattern of unequal access to advanced coursework and challenging learning for students of color and low-income students. This is just one step in addressing a host of inequities in disciplinary policies, expectations, and much more.
The United Nations Development Program sums this up nicely: “Inequalities in outcomes are largely the product of unequal access.” To meet the needs of a diverse population, we must replace the rhetoric of “sameness” with a commitment to opportunity and access. What are steps you can take to make this happen?
The world of educational reform overflows with methods and strategies to solve perennial challenges. Classroom behavior problems? Try a new classroom “management” strategies. Struggling with student disengagement? Reach for “personalized learning.”
But for some “reformers,” programs and techniques merely tinker at the edges, failing to target the root problem: the public nature of education itself. In this way of thinking, nothing will change unless we put public control of education directly in the cross-hairs.
Welcome to neoliberalism.
Neoliberalism is a worldview grounded in the principles of free markets, limited governmental intervention, meritocracy, and personal responsibility. As an economic philosophy, neoliberalism is seen in policies such as free trade or the weakening of environmental and labor regulations—practices that gained ground in the 1980s in response to decades of Keynesian policies that favored more governmental intervention. Today, neoliberalism reigns today as the dominant global economic paradigm.
Neoliberal Influences on Education
When applied to public education, neoliberal logic sounds like this: “Public schools are inherently inefficient because they limit choice and reward mediocrity by accepting any kid who walks in the door. It’s time to revolutionize the stultifying, factory-model education that is crippling global competitiveness. To save public education from itself, we must throw open the doors to the private sector: “edupreneurs,” venture capitalists, and multinational corporations.”
At first glance, it sounds kind of appealing. Who doesn’t like innovation? Who hasn’t been bored stiff by the rote learning and compliance too many of us have experienced in our educational careers? But when we dig a little deeper, we see questionable impacts on key facets of schooling, including its purpose, governance and accountability, and curriculum:
The purpose of school: In neoliberalism, the educational system’s primary purpose is to prepare students (“consumers”) to be competitive in the global economy. The larger goals of preparing students to be empathetic individuals, critical thinkers, and citizens are tangential or even contrary to neoliberalism’s focus on economic growth. For example, asking critical questions about the carrying capacity of the environment calls into question the primacy of raising the GDP.
Governance and accountability: Neoliberalism’s disdain for the public sector is seen in the form of vouchers, for-profit charter schools, and other schemes that direct public funding to private actors. The logic here is that competition will inject much-needed motivation and innovation in a system that’s being smothered by its own bloated bureaucracy. If schools were responsible to shareholders, not the public, we’d have real accountability.
Views of inequality: Neoliberalism hinges on an unquestioned belief in meritocracy. In this view, high-stakes testing serves as sound policy because it sorts winners from losers. Disparities in outcomes based on race or socioeconomic status are simply proof that “those people” don’t value education or are inherently (dare we say genetically?) inferior. In this mindset, solutions for improving achievement should focus on raising the bar, clear rewards and punishments, and fixing faulty character and morals.
Curriculum: Neoliberal shows up in curriculum in both overt and subtle ways. Examples:
Economic textbooks that present only conventional models--models that externalize environmental impacts as “externalities” or “market failures.”
Coded language about “developed” and “undeveloped” countries that champions Western industrialization, whitewashes its colonial roots, and marginalizes indigenous perspectives.
A narrow focus on tested subjects (primarily math and English) at the expense of arts, physical education, or anything else deemed dispensable or peripheral to “real” learning.
Efforts to eliminate world language courses and replace them computer coding.
Keeping the “Public” in Public Education
It goes without saying that jobs are important and that businesses, like all sectors of society, have a stake in our educational system. Moreover, bureaucracy in any sector is burdensome and frustrating. But neoliberalism isn’t just about improving management; it’s about changing the very nature of public education. Neoliberalism’s creeping influence is eroding the civic mission of schools and redirecting it to serve ever-narrower ends. The case here is thus not against improving education, but for changes that preserve public accountability and the commitment to equitably serving all students.
Here are the questions we need to be asking ourselves: To what extent will society be able to meet civic goals if schools only prepare children to meet economic ones? The answer may lie in the questions we pose of our educational system: What do communities need from citizens? This question will yield a very different response than, What does the economy need from its workers?
The modern world still grapples with a centuries-old problem: hatred based upon race, ethnicity, religion, and, well, the list goes on. But what's less frequently discussed is the science—or lack thereof—that has long fueled strife. To understand this, we must turn back to the days of Charles Darwin and his groundbreaking work on natural selection. As you might recall from biology, the basic idea is that organisms with the most favorable variations for adaptation are “fittest” and more likely to reproduce. For example, a brown moth, which blends in well with bark, is less likely to be eaten than a yellow one, which stands out to its predators. The brown one then passes on the trait to its offspring. (The phrase “survival of the fittest was actually coined by Herbert Spencer (1820—1903), an English philosopher.)
Since the 1800s, this ecological principle has been applied to human societies under the banner of Social Darwinism. The “theory” posits that some groups of people (those of northern European background) are “fitter” than others. The nod to natural laws offers an aura of scholarship and a logical explanation for inequality: Success is due to superior genetic, and conversely, poverty or crime are the result of “bad” genes. Social hierarchy is thus not a problem of unjust systems; it’s simply inevitable.
These biological “theories” helped spawn the eugenics movement—crudely put, selective breeding and sterilization to “improve” the human genetic stock and save society from future problems.A key leader in the movement was Charles Davenport (1886-1944), who spread his ideas in the 1910 publication Eugenics: The Science of Human Improvement by Better Breeding. Hitler embraced the false science to justify the Holocaust and elevate the supposed superior (but non-existent) Aryan race. Framed as a benefit to society, eugenic sterilization spread in the United States and abroad among many sectors of society, including the medical community, academics, and even religious leaders (although Catholics opposed it). Despite rising criticism, state-level efforts to legalize eugenic sterilization accelerated, leading to the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, which upheld the practice on the grounds that the benefits to society outweighed individual rights.
Eugenics and Social Darwinism have a staunch ally in dehumanization, the portrayal of people as not fully human—a practice with a long, ugly history. Hitler compared the Jewish population to rats, and nineteenth-century scientists bolstered the slave trade by comparing African people to apes, a mindset that is still all too prevalent. In Australia, European colonizers declared the land “terra nullius”—empty land, implying it was not inhabited by people.
Interestingly, Darwin was a fervent abolitionist. While he considered “arguments in favor of and opposed to ranking the so-called races” in The Descent of Man (1896), he opposed the use of the then-accepted biological hierarchies as a rationale for slavery. That said, in The Voyage of the Beagle (1909), Darwin marveled at just how similar the “lower” races were to whites once “they” are “improved.” Darwin thus took a paternalistic view that inferior peoples are salvageable through Westernization.
Fast-forward, and the pseudo-science of Social Darwinism has been thoroughly discredited. The best science tells us that while physical traits are genetically determined, there is no “race gene.” Nonetheless, the toxic idea of genetic hierarchies lives on through the ideology of white supremacy. Other attempts to maintain the charade have permeated the mainstream, such as The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure (Hernstein & Murray), a 1994 book that asserted innate racial differences in intelligence. Still other individuals, such as Jordan Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, cloak the falsehood in more palatable language, such as the “hierarchy of competency” Peterson discusses in one of his videos.
Ignorance and ideology, not nature, are the cause of racism. Racism, in turn, spawned the concept of race: something far from natural, but rather a category created to justify oppression based on it.
Earth Day is here again, and kids around the country may well be busy making endangered species posters or constructing a paper mache rainforest. Such projects—mainstays of what I call Environmental Ed Lite—can be fun. But focusing on exotic animals and ‘wild’ places sends the message that the environment is a place both far away and without people. That keeps kids from understanding a vital and basic scientific fact: humans are part of the environment.
“Green” learning that prioritizes stereotypical topics such as rainforests and endangered species—however important—doesn’t advance the more complex critical thinking and civic engagement goals of sustainability literacy. Can the student who draws a rainforest toucan identify a bird that’s native to the local ecosystem? Can the student who made an Amazonian kapok tree name an indigenous tribe that inhabits the forest? I wonder. Perhaps most significant, presenting the environment as external to students can inadvertently reinforce the idea that the natural world is at our disposal—an anthropocentric mindset that is not innate but learned.
How can we change the story? One approach is place-based education (PBE). PBE situates environmental literacy in the actual places students inhabit, making the community the starting point for investigating environmental, cultural, political, and social phenomena. PBE views the world as it truly is—a system—by using local environment conditions, cultural perspectives, and historical events to teach concepts in practically any discipline. PBE can happen inside, outside, or both.
Place-based education is not simply about (for example) interviewing local residents as a point of interest. Rather, PBE cultivates students’ identities as members of ecological and civic communities with a shared stake in common issues. PBE fosters students’ capacity to solve real problems, and used as the basis for project-based learning, PBE provides immediate relevance. Because students engage with issues right outside their doors, they naturally raise questions complex enough to support meaningful projects.
For example, in a rural community in Oregon, students in an interdisciplinary STEM course focused on the redevelopment of a “brownfield” (a contaminated site) located on school property. Working with state and local agencies, students investigated the history of the site, soil and water quality, and associated health risks. As a final project, students created redevelopment proposals and presented them at a state brownfields conference. In addition to impressive academic gains, the course also provided student exposure to career pathways in STEM, law, public policy, and more.
Global learning starts at home
Place-based education doesn’t discard a global perspective, but rather gets there by starting at home. For example, to bridge local ecosystems and the Brazilian rainforest, students might compare the two ecosystems and (as age-appropriate) learn about indigenous tribes, the impacts of industrialization, revitalization movements, and ways our own consumption habits affect it all. Including social justice themes ensures that place-based education doesn’t neglect—or even reinforces—colonial mindsets by remaining silent on the cultural or ecological ramifications of “development.”
Is it time to clear-cut the paper mache rainforest? Not necessarily. But let’s raise the bar. Environmental literacy is an essential 21st century skill that will determine life in the 22nd century. Our kids deserve the best we can give them.
You can learn more about place-based education in my book, Reframing the Curriculum.
The hard work of becoming informed citizens is a dying art, but we can revive it. The health of our democracy depends on it. Effective dialog is the foundation.
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