Another dot in the blogosphere?

Empty rhetoric of 21st century competencies

Posted on: March 6, 2014

I often cringe when I hear “21st century competency” or “21cc” used in conversations about change. 

We are a little over a decade into the 21st century and there are almost 90 years left in this century. Can we claim we know what students really need to know as workers 20 years from now? Most of us cannot predict what will happen in 20 months and some of us cannot see beyond our own nose.

The so-called 21ccs are mentioned in the context of change. Changing schooling. Changing teacher mindsets.

Practically every generation notices change, is cautious about change, or calls for change. Sometimes we do not look back enough to realize that these observations about change are constant. Every evolution of technology or mass media simultaneously drives change and creates resistance to it.

So when anyone says that we must change because of the demands of the 21st century, we should not take them at their word blindly. Those who call for such change sometimes focus only on rhetoric.

For example, why is collaboration a 21cc? Did people not have to collaborate in other centuries?

Surely they did and that is not what some people mean when they cite collaboration as a 21cc. They might actually mean the technology-mediated or enabled collaboration that can take place now as compared to back then. Whereas communication, compromise, and collaboration might have been almost exclusively face-to-face back then, that is not the case now.

We have technologies like video conferencing that simulate FTF meetings. But we also have wikis, work logs, social media platforms, and shared documents, presentations, and spreadsheets that provide asynchronous collaboration as well. In the future we might collaborate with resources as fronted by artificial but supremely intelligent agents.

This sort of collaboration involves dealing with inordinate amounts of data and working with others on larger scales.

While these might remove the human face in collaboration, they still allow the connection of minds. In fact, the absence of physical appearance, skin colour, different accents, and other trappings of FTF meetings might reduce bias or allow for simultaneous and multiple conversations.

This is real and is already happening now. It will only get more extensive but easier in the future. This is the type of human collaboration we need to prepare our kids for and not the classroom sort.

But some people spout rhetoric about 21ccs like armchair prophets. I have found that it remains rhetorical instead of becoming transformative practice for at least two reasons.

The words of wisdom or warning are spoken by those who say but cannot actually do. They are not deep participants of the sorts of things they observe or attempt to describe. They can only imagine.

Another reason for the 21cc rhetoric is lip service. The words are empty. Papers are pushed and policy is set, but it is a game with many empires or observers and not enough players.

Some rhetoric is necessary to perhaps get buy-in and create ownership. Then people actually get on with the act of change. Such rhetoric initiates and enables. But other words remain words or even create barriers to change. We should be wise enough to tell the difference.

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