'We're in the 20th century, you know': My problem with '21st-century learning.'

When I ditched my WordPress blog for this Hugo website last month, I got hung up on whether and how to transfer my old WordPress posts to this new platform. I ultimately decided that taking the time to do that would prevent me from finally taking the Hugo leap and that I could always revisit and improve some of those posts if I felt like they were missing. Today, I ran across the phrase “21st-century learning” in an article that I’m assigning to my students, and it made me think of one of my earlier WordPress posts, so now is the time to begin that process.

The phrase “21st-century learning” is, to be frank, one of my biggest pet peeves in educational research and discourse today. I don’t think the intent behind the phrase is malicious or even misplaced—it’s true that the 21st century presents technological contexts, affordances, and challenges that educators need to be attentive to, and it’s reasonable to assume that parts of our approach to education should also change in response to that. However, as Kereluik and colleagues have written:

though the 21st century is different from previous times, it does not mean that our core roles (to know, to act, and to value) have changed. So, in that sense, there is no disjuncture between what we have been doing as educators in the past and what we do today (and in the future).

In short, 21st century learning does—and should—have much in common with “previous generation of education.” In a follow up article, Punya Mishra and Rohit Mehta go further, writing that:

It is clear to us that as 21st-century educators, we need to first step away from the hype surrounding new technologies and Internet resources to under- stand that in some ways the goal of schooling and education has not changed. It is still about instilling in learners ways of thinking that are tightly connected to disciplinary ways of knowing embedded within a humanistic worldview. The mere presence of infor- mation and communication technology (ICT) and the immediate availability of information do not mean that these forms of knowledge are obsolete. New tools and technologies do provide us with new and innovative ways of acquiring and transmitting such knowledge, but they do not fundamentally change the goals and purposes of education. We ignore or simplify these goals at our peril (and the peril of the learners under our care). Learning is hard, and simplifications that ignore its challenges and realities do more harm than good.

These articles do a better job than I ever could of adding nuance to our discussions of 21st-century learning while highlighting what I find to be most bothersome about the phrase. Let me get to that point by introducing a scene from the second volume of one of my favorite Franco-Belgian comic series, Van Hamme and Vance’s XIII:

image from XIII comic

The protagonist, a Jason Bourne-like figure (or, less-charitably-but-still-accurately, ripoff) who has lost his memory and is currently going as “Steve” as part of his efforts to reconstruct his mysterious and action-packed past, is consulting David, a teenager whom he believes to be his cousin, in an effort to identify the lake in a photograph that he’s found. In the center-left panel, Steve asks David whether David has an atlas that he could use in his efforts to track down the lake. David’s response and the resulting conversation follow:

Don’t need an atlas for that. Just have to ask Big Brother.

Big Brother?

The computer at school. We’re in the 20th century, you know.

This volume was released in 1985, and I’ll admit that I’m not in a good position to say whether a school computer would be able to help identify a lake based on the series of search terms that David types in over the next few panels. I am skeptical, though, and when we get to the next page, I definitely know that this series is as dependent on its readers’ suspension of disbelief when it presents the capabilities of 1980s technology as when it introduces yet another sinister conspiracy into the main storyline (take my word for it—things get complicated in this series). In short, David manages to find the lake in question by holding Steve’s mysterious photograph against the screen of his computer, pulling out a stylus, and tracing the outline of a mountain that’s in the background. Then, the amazing Big Brother uses this outline of a mountain in conjunction with the previously-provided search terms to magically identify the lake that Steve is looking for. Not bad for 1985—I don’t know if Google could pull that off today.

This scene neatly describes my issue with “21st-century learning.” Van Hamme and Vance have David tease Steve about not being “up to the way we do things in the 20th century” (my paraphrase), but the vision they present of 20th century technological capability is wildly overconfident (though perhaps knowingly so) and, nearly 35 years later, laughable. As we wrestle with how to organize teaching and learning in the 21st century, I have three inter-related hopes: that we won’t mock those we don’t believe are “up to the way we do things in the 21st century,” that we won’t be overconfident in our modern superiority over previous generation of educators, and that when the 22nd century rolls around, our belief in the uniqueness of this era won’t be laughable.