Several questions come to mind as I look at the BC Education Plan with regards to digital literacy standards and the idea of teaching ‘competencies’.
First, I question the use of the term ‘tool’ to refer to the complex living systems of human interactivity and the phenomena of technology that attends it. I argue that our tendency to reduce our involvements with technologies to ‘tools’ sets up a false conceptual basis by which we might understand how our uses of any technologies (including digital technologies) extend, amplify, or enrich our human capabilities. If we are going to re-conceive our human position on this planet as part of ecological systems, rather than superior entities under which other living organisms, objects, and environments are subjugated within our dominion, we must examine our notion of ‘tools’ and the kinds of relationships we form as a consequence of that conceptualization.
Second, I question the use of the ISTE technologically deterministic approach to understanding digital technologies in relation to learning, our socially constructed technological systems, and the social life of information. If you examine the top 10 priorities ISTE has identified as essential for boosting student achievement and closing the achievement gap, you see an inordinate amount of confidence placed on the role technology should play in changing the potential for individual student success in education. However, in the course of our human history, technological innovation has not significantly altered the basic socio-economic strata of human societies. Yes, it is important to become technologically proficient and capable of adapting to changing technological conditions. But technology does not drive change, if it did, the billions of dollars spent on educational technologies in schools would have resulted in massive changes in the education system. It is our uses of technologies that change our social organization. With the advent of each new significant technological change (in concert with the social and cultural capacities to conceive those technological changes) we re-organize ourselves cognitively, culturally, and technologically. It is our cultures of technological use that change the possibilities for human achievement with technologies. ISTE promotes a notion of social and cultural change determined by technology. “Build it, they will come” has not worked to date.
Third, the knowledge and skills needed to be successful in the 21st century are actually dispositions that have been necessary for social and economic success throughout our human history. The advent of digital technology does not change these dispositions. The realms within which they are applied change, the qualities and characteristics of individual cognitive, cultural, and technological capabilities, in the service of building strong networks and communities of learners, citizenship, and productivity, are unchanged. It might be difficult for educators to admit that the need foreground ’21st century competencies’ is actually a comment on the deficiencies of industrial age educational philosophy, curriculum and pedagogy. In this sense, if we need to call it ’21st century competencies’, then, let’s do that, if it improves the philosophical, curricular, and pedagogical basis of our education system. The challenge is going to be actually understanding that implementing ’21st century competencies’ is a paradigm shift in conceiving of educational purposes and what constitutes successful educational outcomes. Attempting to instrumentally attach ’21st century competencies’ to an education system that has systemically constructed learning that did not support these dispositions is not going to result in lasting change.
Fourth, the knowledge and skills needed to be successful in the 21st century are also knowledge and skills educators need to be able to teach and prepare students for life in the 21st century. However, teachers have been trained and disciplined within a system that is now admitting that the competencies for success in the 21st century have been absent from 20th century education systems. The qualities and characteristics we hope this new education system to foster must be qualities and characteristics that are encultured into the entire education system, a systemic response to changing the beliefs, values, policies, and practices of professional educators. If anyone has ever tried to change a belief or practice in their own lives, they know how difficult it is to change a habit of thought or routine. For educators, their beliefs about what is important in their profession may be strongly or loosely held, their practices may have been hard won solutions to recurring problems in their professions. It is no simple matter to simple say, “And now we are going to do it this way.”
What we are facing, at this time in our human evolution, is a evolving growth through our ‘technological adolescence’. Our education system is part of this evolution. We need to understand the foundational conceptions of education, and the kinds of thinking that is going to hinder our transformation form industrial age knowledge transmission factories to knowledge age learning networks. Some of these conceptual positions – human superiority and subjective positions of domination; technological determinism and enduring structures of social hierarchies; learning paradigm change and institutional structural change; and processes for cognitive, cultural and technological change in the profession – require programmatic responses to learn (and unlearn) educational perspectives and practices conducive to forming new human societies in relation to digital technologies.
I do believe our education system, and teachers, have an unprecedented opportunity to provide leadership in our social evolution to the digital age. In order to do this, we, as educators, must become sophisticated leaders in the development of ICT philosophical, curricular, and pedagogical responses to envision the emergence of Canadian society in this new age.