Aren’t ’21st century competencies’ just high functioning humanity? #edchat #teched

What I find surprising about the definition of ICT in education according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is the definition of three broad clusters necessary to function in today’s complex society: the ability to use ICT tools interactively, the ability to interact with heterogenous groups, and the ability to act autonomously, including assertive of rights, interests, limits and needs. First, conceiving ICT as ‘tools’ to be used interactively adopts an instrumental view of our relationship with technology, especially the diverse and varied forms of continuously evolving ICT, and the uses we can conceive of applying to the ICT we have. If we consider our human existence is inseparable from technological phenomena, it is misleading to position all technologies as ‘tools’ at our disposal. Clearly our relationship with technology is much more complex and intricate than this characterization would imply. If our relationship with technology was simply tool-use, then how can we explain the profound contradiction of our human existence with technology: on the one hand we need it to sustain our existence, on the other, our uses of technology threaten our ability to sustain our human existence on this planet?

Second, to imply the ability to interact with heterogenous groups is simply a competence that can be acquired through the education system seems a gross denial of the post-colonial, post-modern, racially-biased and politically organized world we live in today. Certainly it is a laudable goal to be able to interact with heterogenous groups, but it is not a competence that is exemplified at even the highest offices of government, much less the classrooms of educational institutions. If we consider our ability to interact with heterogenous groups as an indicator of our highest order of social and cultural achievement, we might be getting closer to the magnitude of change that is necessary to bring this ability to fruition.

Third, the ability to act autonomously, including the ability at assert one’s rights, interests, limits and needs, indicates a very high order of personal functionality and individual agency. However, if we examine the history of the education system, the very structure of educational activities is one of agency denied and individual rights and interests reduced to instrumental expressions of knowledge objects – for example, answering multiple choice or essay answers on a test to demonstrate knowledge acquisition. If our education systems were actually going to foster autonomous agency as an integral element of the educative process, the notion of standardized curriculum and assessment models, much less ‘best practices’ pedagogies, would have to be replaced with truly individualized programs for knowledge generation. The big question, in this case, would be, “What form would educational institutional structures and systems need to adopt in order to foster individual autonomy and agency within the learning processes?”

The OECD provides an opportunity to illustrate the inherent contradictions and paradoxes currently facing the education system. There are no easy answers to these questions, and the future form of education in knowledge-based societies is yet to be realized. What would be most helpful, at this point, is to engage in the difficult discussions about what it means to provide education in the knowledge age, and what systemic supports are required to ensure a fair distribution of educational opportunity across all ages, nationalities, socio-economic status’, race, gender, ability, etc.

The idea of 21st century competencies is really a misnomer, because the competencies ascribed to knowledge-age citizens are actually the very high-order functioning that has been needed of any citizenry throughout our human history. That our education system is admitting that it has systemically fallen short of this ideal is a step forward, but it is dishonest and unethical to pretend that the fact these ‘competencies’ are not part of the current education system should somehow be laid at the feet of teachers, teacher or educational reform, and most certainly the misguided notion that testing is somehow going to bring these ‘competencies’ into widespread interpersonal and interactive relationships.


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