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Putting 21st Century Learning in Context

Shifting the Conversation
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Growing up, I knew a whole lot about Anteaters, Aardvarks and Africa.

Walla Walla and Zanzibar? Not so much.

You see, beyond the walls of my school, the only consistently accessible sources of information were the 3 sets of encyclopedias that graced our living room bookcase. The challenge was that they were somewhat incomplete. We owned four volumes of the Columbia Encyclopedia; the first volume of Funk & Wagnall's New Encyclopedia, 1968 and 1969 and, curiously, Volume 'M' of the World Book. My best explanation is that the latter was spirited away from our elementary school library during a project on either Magellan or Madagascar! The only inspiring thing about our little collection was the spine of one of the Columbia editions: Volume 4—DARE to DREAM. (Admittedly, that may only resonate with those steeped in encyclopedia culture!) I kept that one close to me.

It seems that in the 1960's, grocery stores had forged occasional partnerships with major publishing houses to provide the opportunity for shoppers to combine their weekly shopping trips with the purchase of a reputable source of knowledge for their family. The first few volumes were offered for $0.99 each, and after that, the price increased to the point where my parents eventually stopped purchasing—at least until the next offer came along. As a result, much of the knowable world beyond the first few letters of the alphabet was pretty much a mystery to me during those early years of my life.

In an interview earlier this year with TVOntario's Steve Paikin, educator and author, Douglas Thomas, suggested that technology is helping to shift the role of teacher from a provider of content to a framer of context. But, what does that mean, and what implications does that shift have for the way we think about schools: how they are designed, organized and even staffed?

Despite the caricatures of "traditional" schooling that are often carted out in conversations about education reform, I'm not sure that there was ever really a time when teachers saw their role as simply pouring discrete pieces of information into the minds of students. The challenge of making content meaningful and relevant—the heart of context—has always been on the minds of good teachers, and one of the goals of quality education.

But technology has substantially changed the game, hasn't it?

The advent of complex and more accessible information networks has done three important things—each of which supports the case for a major redesign in the way we approach schooling and education.

First, the boundaries between information acquisition and information creation have been considerably blurred. Not only can we now access great vast stores of data, facts, figures and thinking about the world, but it is now possible for more of us to actually contribute to those volumes!

Second—and I think that there's lots of room for conversation here—technology has not only opened up greater stores of information to a greater number of people, but it has also introduced us to multiple conversations and interpretations of what all of that information means. No longer is the traditional and fairly homogenous family-(religion)-state-school dynamic the only game in town. Quite the opposite! Within a couple of hours of any major news event occurring, it's quite likely that we'll be able to access several different versions of the facts, as well as several different contextualizations. This is both exciting and challenging and clearly calls on different ways for us to "make sense".

Connected to this is the realization that the task of helping students make meaning of information has become much more complex of late. The job of creating rich contexts that will help students weave strong connections among and between knowledge domains has been made more challenging by the variety of perspectives that live in our classrooms and pulse through our information networks. But the very complexity that makes this challenging also makes it important and extremely worthwhile.

So, there is plenty of real estate to walk around here, but I'm finding that using the context argument as both a frame and a filter for thinking about transformation is proving useful.

To what degree do the innovations suggested by those excited about changes in education actually help educators and students build stronger contexts through which they might view and participate in the world? How does the familiar list of 21st century skills relate to the shift from becoming experts in content to masters of context? What new approaches to teacher education begin to emerge when this transition becomes the focus? What types of people should we be trying to attract to the teaching profession in light of the content-context shift?

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The term, 21st Century

The term, 21st Century Skills, has become one of the most referenced catch phrases in contemporary culture. The definition of those skills has been expanded and refined over time until it now amounts to nearly a full page of text on the official website the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.I write essay online on various technologies for education in 21st century which leads to a greter opportunities in new era of learning. Thank you Mr. Hurley for sharing such a wonderful blog with us.

Hi Mr. Hurley,   I very much

Hi Mr. Hurley,


I very much so appreciated your attention to context(ualization) and "sense". By highlighting context we draw in features like power, race, class, gender, machinic processes, structural violence, etc. Although unstated as such, you're basically flirting with postmodern epistemology and poststructural semiotics, and I think these are very fruitful fields of inquiry and play for teachers. At a minimum, I think you've troubled the modernist assumption that there might be conflict-free truths that are ready and waiting to be claimed and transmitted by teachers.


With that said, however, I found a few other points a little more problematic. 


For instance, the emphasis on information as a quantitative force elides the qualitative features of information. Although it is certainly the case that access to more information has impacted public schooling, I'd rather not give succor to the trap of quantity over quality and would invite a shift in focus to matters that matter.


As well, I'm somewhat confused by the privileging given to "21st century skills". As I describe in my thesis (https://circle.ubc.ca/bitstream/handle/2429/43675/ubc_2013_spring_steeve...), the emphasis on "skills" masks a reduction and impoverishment of education. To re-iterate, Pring (2004) understands this economic skills agenda as relying on “the bewitchment of the intelligence by a misuse of language.” Pring critiques the vocationalistic skills strategy by suggesting that a skilled philosopher is not necessarily a good philosopher. A skilled philosopher, for instance, may be quite adept at the mechanics of philosophical argumentation without actually having “anything philosophically interesting to say.” This critique holds for lawyers, authors, musicians, and other professions. Therefore, Pring suggests that “to focus on skills traps us into a limited language which transforms and impoverishes the educational enterprise.” In other words, there may be noble hopes animating the push for skills and embedded in policies, but they may actually “impoverish the educational enterprise.”


Finally, I worry that the teacher as 'content expert' vs. teacher as 'context master' is a highly vulnerable - if not false - binary. Content without context is as useless as context without content. A consequence of this is that teachers' work must necessarily encompass both content and context - and more. 


Notwithstanding, I appreciated the provocations in your post, and wonder if you might find this essay on sense and nonsense in the 'literacy wars' helpful for elaborating on the importance of sense vis-a-vis teachers' work => http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.0309-8249.2005.00422.x/abstract




Thanks for the comments--and

Thanks for the comments--and the pushback on some of these points, Tobey! I don't want to dismiss any of this as a "problem of language", but I am sometimes frustrated by the limitations of some of the language  that we are forced to employ. Sometimes, I think, we don't have the frames that allow us to "get on the same page" around this type of conversation. That's just a thought, and isn't meant to detract from your very valid points.

The tendency towards binary thinking is one of the things that frustrates me a great deal and your caution against thinking about content and context as it relates to the work of the teaching professional is a case in point. I struggled with this in my original post, realizing that it is never an either/or thing. In shining more light on the importance of context, there is always a danger that content appears to get left in the shadows. Your point about this is very important. Content will always be important. One of the frames that I'm currently exploring is seeing content as the text of the teaching/learning dynamic. Context, quite literally, would be something that accompanies that text and allows us to bring meaning(s) to it. In this way, one is wrapped up in and embraced by the other. More exploration on this.

Your thinking on 21st century learning skills is well presented in your thesis, and I would encourage others to read that. I agree that talk of 21st century has become one of our times most powerful memes and, in many conversations, taken as a given. There are many assumptions that are hidden beneath the surface here--assumptions that need to be critically examined from many perspectives.

But I will leave my own comments there...for now...and look forward to other perspectives.

You have provided many points for future conversations. I appreciate that.

For now,


Hi Stephen,   I don't think

Hi Stephen,


I don't think the importance of language can be over-stated. George Orwell made this argument in 1984, where the management of words aligned with the management of history - and the enslavement of the present. And Michel Foucault made this argument throughout his career, when he analyzed how discourses construct identities, power, and truths. Far from unique, Orwell and Foucault are just two of scores who have stressed the importance of language as the key to becoming otherwise. One of my personal favorites hails from Nietzsche, who argued that we need new concepts, for 'new concepts help us think differently - so that we might achieve even more - to feel differently.'


For me, language shackles and enables - it's a slippery slope of games and claims. But, of course, my thesis focuses on how language can be used to construct and limit teachers' work, so I'm obviously a bit biased in favor of wallowing in the stickiness ...


Anyway, re. the 'dilemma of binaries', I think this can be reconciled rather easily: reciprocal determination - the one determines or structures the other. Like a yin-yang, where there is no white without black and no black without white, and both are in a continuous dance of becoming and oblivion. Or, similarly, like day and night, where there is no possibility of day without night, and no possibility of night without day. Text and context operate in much the same way: there is no text without context and there is no context without text. Not all texts are books. Sometimes they don't even have words. A text, in this sense, is a story to be read - and we must remember that every fact is a story, and no story is neutral. This means, literally, that we are inundated by and within texts. We cannot escape them. And the contexts are what link and give meaning to what might otherwise be misapprehended as discrete facts and/or texts. 


Reciprocal determination helps reconcile some of those seemingly prickly [false] binaries. Even so, it's worth noting that for many there's a cold comfort in [false] binaries that can be difficult to cast aside, and sometimes a false binary can be quite effective in getting a point across ...




I appreciate the Nietzche

I appreciate the Nietzche reference as it zeroes in on the challenge (and frustration) that, I suspect, many have been experiencing. Among other things, the  power of language allows us to talk about the language of power but the attempt to develop new concepts is always hindered by how saturated current words and phrases have become. It's extremely difficult to "dry them out" so that they can be used in other contexts. Short of making up new words (as some of us like to do), one of the first tasks of critical thinking is to become aware of the language that we use and the context that is woven throughout. 

But, these are just words. A little surreal. A little confounding!