21st Century Blues

I grew up in an era where, as children, we were forced to face up to our futures, every Thursday night. Perhaps that is an exaggeration but ‘Tomorrow’s World’, a half hour show which introduced the inventions of the next generation, was on before Top of the Pops and there wasn’t anything to do but wait. I’ve no doubt ninety percent of the inventions were never heard of but, still, this was the future and it was hard not to be impressed. That future was ages way. Back then, if you’d told me I could be a web designer or even worked in a call centre I would have stared at you goggle-eyed. You see, the jobs of the future had still to be invented. Hmm.

So it troubles me now when I see the Ken Robinson TED talks for the umpteenth time and he tells me we need to prepare kids for a world of work of which we have no idea. Hasn’t it always been that way? In preparation for a seminar I’m delivering to future English teachers on the use of ICT in English, I’ve come to the conclusion that we are having the wrong conversations. ICT is a valuable learning tool but it is just that. A tool. As I analyse the way I use technology in school I come to the conclusion that it s mostly to aid my teaching rather than the pupils’ learning.

If it doesn’t make my job easier then I tend not to bother. If it doesn’t allow me to achieve something in a better way then I tend not to bother. Technology should be there to make life easier, no? Inventors have always striven to provide us with new ideas because, well, we are intrinsically lazy. As Daniel Willingham states in ‘Why Don’t Students Like School’,

‘Humans don’t think very often because our brains are designed not for thought but for the avoidance of thought.’ P.4

So we label the things we want our kids to do as ‘21st Century Learning’ because it sounds exciting. Tech companies hover above us rubbing their hands as we lap up the future. However, if we thought about that logically then 21st Century learning would be much easier than it has always been. Surely we create new technology to make that happen.

What becomes the ultimate irony is that the luxuries of one generation become the necessities of the next. The childish excitement we felt at the internet explosion becomes something different when our pupils grow up with it. Everything seems easier to them; information arrives on a plate; learning is more interactive. And we resent them for it; for embracing the world we created for them. Like Gordon Ramsay running out of his kitchen to berate us for enjoying his beautiful food. We tut and disapprove when they use the inventions of Tomorrow’s World in their present. And we wonder why they don’t understand. More than half of the kids I teach were born in 2000 or after; they know no other century. The term ‘21st Century’ at best confuses them; at worst frightens them.

When I speak to the student teachers this week I want to stress that 21st Century learning is a myth, that we need to embrace what is all around us and use what helps the kids to learn. Gimmicks and fruitcake ideas were a massive part of my Thursday nights s a child; they don’t need to be part of anyone else’s. Let’s stop trying to furnish them with our past and prepare them for their future. But let’s do it without the scary rhetoric. After all, if I were to believe all I’ve heard about the future I could be flying back and forward to learn in any century I wanted.



9 thoughts on “21st Century Blues

  1. Hi Kenny,
    Great post. Thought-provoking as ever! Not sure that I can agree with your central premise though. I certainly don’t ‘learn’ in the same way today as I did in the last century, and I don’t think kids do either. If you take the example of writing, we still teach them to write on lined A4 paper, but I personally would never dream of doing that any more, and I guess out of school most of them wouldn’t either. My own preference is to regard the digital age as a different learning environment rather than the same world with a new set of ‘tools’.

    • Cheers Bill,
      Not sure my premise was that they learn the same way, merely that we have always prepared for jobs that don’t yet exist. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.
      I would argue that still need to learn to write, handwrite even, as there are more cognitive skills involved in just pencil to paper. I do it rarely now but couldn’t imagine not being able to.
      Thanks, as always, for your comments
      Hope all’s well

  2. Just as I was reading this my son came in to say he has to give his art teacher a print copy of the Matisse biography homework he’s wrote on Glow word 365 last week 😦

  3. I love this: “What becomes the ultimate irony is that the luxuries of one generation become the necessities of the next.” So true.

    I agree with your notion (I hope I’ve understood it right) that we’re constantly looking ahead to what ‘might be’ – and that’s how it should be. On the flipside, however, I wonder if it’s almost impossible to teach about a world that doesn’t exist yet. Without sounding defeatist or hyper-boring, we can only prepare students for the future that’s just beyond the here and now, right? Or, at least, we should firmly root the ‘unlimited possibilities’ of the future in the current certainties of the here and now. Otherwise, the future we imagine (I’m obviously talking about Dr Who-like time travel, Mary Poppins-like clicking powers and mind-reading Apple products that arrive at your door before you’ve even ordered them etc.) may not ever actually present itself in the form we expect?

    Intended more as questions rather than disagreements…

  4. Yes, I suppose you’re right.

    Perhaps the difference we experience now is that the advances made from one ‘age’ to another are so great, we seem to be perpetually bombarded with the arrival of easily obtainable mini-futures on a more regular basis. Perhaps the new technologies and routes of communication that appear so quickly year on year are making the ‘future’ less of a mystery.

    What the world wants, the world gets…?

  5. Hi again Kenny,
    If you’ll allow me the indulgence of another tuppence-worth – which I guess will amount to fourpence-worth – the 21st Century is the present, not the future. I don’t have an issue with the term ’21st century learning’ since the arrival of the internet, which roughly coincides with the arrival of the century, changed everything. I am also unashamedly a fan of Ken Robinson. It is worth remembering that, despite being dismissed as a mere ‘performer’ by many commentators, he has had an incredibly impressive academic career, including a lead role in the publication of ‘All Our Futures’, one of the most influential reports on UK education in the late 19th Century. For me, he isn’t so much exhorting teachers to prepare kids for an unknown world as encouraging them not to prepare kids for a world which no longer exists.

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