Should We Boycott the Term “21st Century”?

It really is amazing what you can learn when you dive into Twitter and start building your own professional learning network (PLN). I have to admit, some days I follow more than others so I do what I can when I can. Fortunately however, last week a Tweet by George Couros (@gcouros) caught my eye during an extended Twitter session.

“I think the time has come to stop using the term 21st Century [education context] & become authentic #RIP21stC”  The Tweet lead me to this article by Anne Knock. Some will argue when the 21st century actually began but most agree that the official start of the 21st century was January 1, 2001. Therefore we are roughly 11 years and some 250 plus days into the 21st century. So why all the hub-bub about 21st century learning or 21st century skills? Why now? What’s changed since 2001? Why didn’t we see this coming? Here is a little perspective from where I stand.

In 2001, I was finishing my 5th year at Spencer Middle School. The available technology at the time for us? One computer lab of 25 PCs. Arguments raged about whether or not to let students use calculators in math class. No student and most teachers didn’t have a cell phone let alone a smart phone. Internet access was limited to our media center computers.  A television could be found in every classroom and was supposed to bring the world (Channel 1) to us and assistive technology for our special needs students could have been a cassette recorder or an over-sized computer keyboard. A laptop was a luxury and VHS cassettes dominated the world of video. A few history teachers still clung to their 16mm projectors, and the crazy ones even had an overhead projector in their room! As for me? I had a brick sized analog phone that could make and send calls and my desktop PC with email. That was it. Nothing sexy but it was common in many schools of the time.

It was a very different world back then yet it was the 21st century. What kept us from identifying these essential 21st century skills back then? Why is that within the last five to six years we are just now identifying them? Wow! These look pretty timeless to me. (Snark inserted.) Hasn’t every generation wanted these same skills for their children? Their workforce?

1. Employability skills

2. Financial literacy

3. Health literacy

4. Technology literacy

5. Civic literacy

So what’s up? Why now are 21st century skills all the rage? Here is how I approach my own health care. If I don’t go to my doctor, I don’t run the risk of finding out if there’s something serious with my health. Therefore I must be healthy right? Bam! Done! Here is how educators, the gurus, and your state’s legislators approach reform. “If we keep using the same terms long enough, we can extend the shelf life of our latest initiative. Once people stop showing up at workshops and conferences, it will be time to repackage the same old same old. So let’s milk this cow as long as we can.”

DISCLAIMER: I’m guilty as charged so save your hate mail and comments.

I too drank from this same trough as a classroom teacher and principal.

So why are we still talking about 21st century skills 11+ years into the new millennium? For what it’s worth. My thoughts.

Education is Sloooow to Change

We’ll call this the Captain Obvious observation. Education has always been slow to change. The lack of a competitive mindset in order to survive, which businesses have used as motivation to improve and remain viable is virtually non-existent in the world of public education. Not too long ago, almost every community in Iowa had a school. Every child of compulsory age had to attend school. Having a captive audience, or a guaranteed consumer base provides little incentive to grow, evolve and innovate in order to survive. True, standardized test results, open enrollment, charter schools and vouchers have given some schools a little shot in the arm of innovation; but by-and-large, without a sense of urgency to survive, most schools merely carry on business as usual or at best, tinker around the edges of true reform.

We believed that technology was the answer.

Slightly embarrassing but certainly the case through my experiences in education, we believed more in the technology as the driver of innovation than in the role of the teacher. Some of us, myself included, viewed the technology at our disposal as the prime motivator for the micro-changes in our classrooms. In reality it was our own internal beliefs and sense of efficacy that drove us to integrate what we had into our classrooms. I never had a principal that was an obstacle but I also didn’t have one that was a cheerleader. I’m not being critical towards those who TRIED to supervise me. It was simply how we did business. But for those less agile, it simply was “one more thing to do”.

Looking back, those of us who jumped in head first were the minority; and not all of us were young teachers. We had the same cagey veterans who knew a good thing when they saw it and they were our lifeline during this time of change. Fortunately we now have a better understanding of first and second order change and its impact on the individual and the system. Before any significant change can grab hold and endure, the people must first be stirred into action. If you don’t have critical mass, which experience has shown to be at least 75% of your people on board with a second order change, it simply won’t happen. And if it does, it won’t last.

Technology integration in fits and spurts is doomed from the start.

“Let’s put all of our computers together and make one big lab.”

“Let’s buy a classroom set of iPads.”

“Let’s get graphing calculators for the math department.”

“Let’s reserve a set of GPS units from the AEA.”

What do all of these well-intentioned suggestions have in common? Each one, while worthy of consideration, is doomed to fail if the resource itself isn’t readily accessible by any teacher. All too often schools, with their limited resources, are unable to provide enough of the desired technology in order to make it easily accessible when teachers truly want it. Teachers will be patient for a while. However, at some point, the desire and interest will begin to wane as those who are waging war for access get tired of the battle. It’s merely human nature. Time is precious in our schools and, when push comes to shove, we will continue to access what is readily available in spite of something better being out there. In other words, if schools cannot garner, here it is, a critical mass of the resources too fully jump-start a desired initiative, then save those resources until you can. We need to avoid the knee-jerk reaction to say, “We’re in the game too”, when in reality you are still sitting on the bench. Be patient. You only have to be a first-teamer for your kids; not the entire world.

Teachers and principals didn’t believe they had the capacity to take on reform efforts. Someone else had to be smarter.

As a middle school teacher in rural Iowa in 1986, I never believed that I was an expert. We always looked elsewhere for our professional development. Like most schools, we too brought in trainers or went to workshops and worshiped at the feet of the gurus who stood before us. Today’s public schools are filled with remarkably talented educators who are more than willing to share their talents. Social media have certainly played a signficant role in getting each school’s local experts and connected with others. In turn, schools themselves, regardless of their financial constraints can access the world around them and bring that world to their students. It doesn’t take a 1:1 effort. Now, almost 12 years into the 21st century, we have to put to bed the notion that our isolation or lack of resources will keep us from moving forward. It simply isn’t the case any more.

Social media was in its infancy.

As mentioned briefly above, social media has changed everything. In 2006, Twitter was launched and today, roughly 500 million people use the service. Now it’s relatively uncommon for one of us not to have a Twitter account. I myself am a late Twit-ite. But it now has become my go-to source for professional development in every way shape and form. Facebook, which I have yet to engage with, is now causing “good” problems for school leaders. Access to primary sources through Facebook pages of the experts in a field of study or of business and organizations is available to us in real-time. No more wretched phone calls, messages, emails caught in spam filters and so on. The biggest obstacle is getting over the fear of Facebook that it is a tell-all platform. Classroom Facebook pages are popping up like Jolly Time popcorn. Some individuals and schools are quick to adapt to it and tap into its use while others are waiting for others to break down the wall.

The 21st century is here. In fact it’s been here for over a decade. While the technology that was available in January, 2001 has changed dramatically, if we keep perpetuating 21st century skills as something new, we will be forever stuck in the same mindset that if we keep using a term long enough, it will remain current and viable which means we will remain cutting edge. Sorry folks, your 21st century ship has sailed.

In a strange way technology, it seems, finally caught up with educator’s and their desire to network and share ideas. Gone are the day

It’s better in the middle!


2 thoughts on “Should We Boycott the Term “21st Century”?

  1. I like the notion that this label is a new, current and relavent thing, when I reality it’s 11 years old and should’ve been addressed then. As a leader, it’s vital to look ahead to what we need. Certainly, “21st Century Skills” are required; however, are we doing our students a disservice by labeling them as such? Besides, 5 or 10 years from now will those same skills and technologies remain relavent? What is identified as “employable” in 2012 very well may not be in 2022.

    Excellent thought!

    • Precisely. Not that the term doesn’t evoke a particular vision or point of view or, for that matter, isn’t relevant. Those of us working in education need to be much better read about what’s trending in education. Analyze it closely. Then move efficiently. Our profession, must remain relevant in this global interconnected environment or the students WILL outpace us. It’s only a matter of time.

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