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21st Century Skills | Viewpoint

The Old Revolution

In January 2009, Jay Mathews of the Washington Post disparagingly labeled the call for new media literacy and 21st Century skills “the latest doomed pedagogical fad,” asking “How are millions of students still struggling to acquire 19th-century skills in reading, writing and math supposed to learn this stuff?” [“The Latest Doomed Pedagogical Fad: 21st-Century Skills” by Jay Mathews, The Washington Post, January 5, 2009]

Though I disagree with his conclusions, Mathews was right to point out the movement as the latest fad. As long ago as 1938, John Dewey was able to write about “Traditional vs. Progressive Education” [in Experience and Education, by John Dewey, 1938] and recount several decades of debate. “Traditional” education, even in Dewey’s time, could be summarized as content-centric, authoritarian, and “sharply marked off from other social institutions” (Dewey, 1938). Progressives countered with student-centric, communal schools that were integrated with the local community and its relevant issues.

Flash forward to 1957 after the Russians launched Sputnik, forcing the US to examine its educational system. The famous Woods Hole Conference [1959] called together top scientists and educational theorists to help our schools. Traditionalists expected a bigger, deeper, richer, and more refined definition of the body of content students must learn to keep up with the Russians. Instead, the scientists overwhelmingly noted that it was not the content that mattered. What mattered was that students learn how to think. Jerome S. Bruner’s The Process of Education explicated the position (1960). Progressives largely agreed, but felt that Bruner and the Woods Hole team had not gone far enough, as they failed to address larger systemic and organizational issues that made the traditional classroom inadequate for the critical and creative thinking they were championing. By the late 1960s a slew of books emerged lambasting our school system. Jonathan Kozol’s Death at an Early Age (1967), Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), and Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969) were just a few of the revolutionary titles.

As Postman would later note, these revolutionaries “ripped into the curriculum, the regimentation, the industrial mentality, the grading system, standardized tests, school bureaucracy, homogeneous grouping, and all the other assumptions and conventions which gave the classroom its peculiar character ... and then suddenly,” he continues, “it was over” [Teaching as a Conserving Activity (1979)]. He gave several reasons for the revolution’s demise. First, the Vietnam War had inspired a spirit of revolution. That spirit faded along with the war itself. Second, the stagnating economy of the 1970s hindered any implementation of plans that were built during the utopian hype of the 1960s, which Postman named as the third factor. And fourth, a “back to basics” movement emerged against the revolution and won over school administrators.

We revolutionaries should be humbled by such events and our similar circumstances. Nearly a decade of war is now fading. Our economy is stagnating, making it difficult to implement broad-scale changes. And there is a solid and entrenched “back to basics” movement to counter our own, of which the article by Jay Mathews is just one example.

But there are reasons to believe that this revolution will not fail. The urgency of our movement is not grounded in a single political issue. It is grounded in broad cultural and technological shifts pervasive enough to be recognized by virtually everybody in our society. The tools that enable us to experiment with new modes of education are mostly free, and they can be implemented in many diverse bits and pieces without the need for large-scale top-down planning or intervention. And perhaps most importantly, [this revolution] is driven by what one might call a “rethinking the basics” movement, in which educators everywhere cannot help but see a disconnect between their traditional modes of teaching and the world in which we all now live.

As Dewey noted, the goal is not to counter traditional education and its strict organization with its perceived opposite (disorganization)—but instead to create what Web designers today might call an “architecture for participation.” The learning environments we need may be more fluid, adaptable, collaborative, and participatory, but they are not unstructured and unorganized. As Maurice Friedman noted while explaining Martin Buber’s educational philosophy, “The opposite of compulsion is not freedom but communion…” (1955). [Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue, by Maurice S. Friedman, 1955]

In the pursuit of these new learning environments we find ourselves asking those wonderfully fundamental questions: What are “the basics” and “basic literacy skills” today? How might our students best learn them? How are schools/classrooms/desks/subjects/schedules/teachers necessary to this learning process, and how are they not? And these are the best kinds of questions, because their best answers are just more questions. And so we find ourselves exactly where any great learner would want to be, on a quest, asking question after question after question.

[Editor’s note: Michael Wesch, a cultural anthropologist, researcher in digital ethnography, and an associate professor at Kansas State University, will present the opening keynote, “From Knowledgeable to Knowledge-able: New Learning Environments for New Media Environments” at Campus Technology 2011 in Boston, July 25-28, 2011.]

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