19th 20th 21st Century Learning

By Bob McGahey
May 31, 2013

Henry Ford spoke about history in a 1916 interview in the Chicago Tribune.

    I don't know much about history, and I wouldn't give a nickel for all the history in the world. It means nothing to me. History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history we make today.[1]

Perhaps the philosophy of ignoring history enabled Ford to be an industry innovator and a very successful business person. Perhaps he also made many mistakes along the way to his success because he did not heed the lessons that history can teach. Ignoring history can permit old ideas to be new again or, as Yogi Berra is quoted as stating, “déjà vu all over again”. Of course, this may not be a good thing. As Edmund Burke said, “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it”. Anyone who has been around education for more than a few years will recognize new initiatives as they are reintroduced in fresh packaging as the solution to education’s current problems. This re-invention is true of the so-called 21st century learning skills.

Recently, a group of Fellows from Action Canada published a document entitled 2012/2013 Future Tense: Adapting Canadian Education Systems for the 21St Century.[2] In this paper, the authors selected a cross section of core competencies for analysis in their report[3]:

  • Creativity, entrepreneurship and innovation: students are taught to take risks, to view failure as an opportunity to learn and persevere in a new way, to take initiative and be self-motivated;
  • Critical thinking: students are taught to consi­der information with an open mind and a capacity to challenge and form their own conclusions;
  • Computer and digital literacy: students are taught to harness the power of modern technolo­gy safely and appropriately as an integrated part of their education and life; and
  • Character: students are taught to be global citizens, to collaborate with others, and to demonstrate ethical behaviour towards others and their environment.

The authors identified these four core competencies as critical for student success after they graduate from secondary school and implied that these skills are lacking as a current focus of Canadian education. We do not agree that they are lacking but see clearly that they have been downplayed in education because of initiatives that have pressed business interests in measurement and capturing revenue from providing services to schools over pedagogical interests. That has led to some interesting tensions in which the stated goals of reformers do not match the chosen methods of reform through measurement.

The Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills (ATC21S)[4] is a research project that proposes ways of assessing 21st century skills and encourages teaching and adopting those skills in the classroom. They identify four key competencies and are working to find standardized ways to assess these competencies:

  • Ways of thinking. Creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making and learning;
  • Ways of working. Communication and collaboration;
  • Tools for working. Information and communications technology (ICT) and information literacy; and
  • Skills for living in the world. Citizenship, life and career, and personal and social responsibility

Interestingly, nowhere in the core competencies for 21st century learning is there reference to numeracy and literacy other than implied in communication and information literacy. It is probably safe to assume that numeracy and literacy skills will continue to be necessary in the 21st century. By adding skills like citizenship and critical thinking back into the core competencies, education is returning to the vision that inspired Egerton Ryerson’s view of public education in the mid-1800’s when he stated that public education was created in Canada to ensure that youth were prepared for their “appropriate duties and employments of life … as persons of business, and also as members of the civil community in which they live.”[5]

The narrow focus on literacy and numeracy that characterizes much of today’s education system is not one created by educators. It was created by successive neo-conservative governments. Proposed solutions to the alleged problems of public education inevitably involved increased privatization, charter schools and standardized testing for both students and teachers. Take, for example, the Ontario Conservative government of Mike Harris in which then education Minister John Snobelen stated that he needed to “invent a crisis” in the education system, to create “evolution of education into a real customer- and client-focused service”[6].

Educational crises were followed by a series of accountability measures aimed at providing education consumers with a guarantee of a good product. Large scale testing regimes developed and reduced definitions of quality to what could be measured. Education change focusing on an increasingly narrow curriculum did not come from practicing teachers. This impact is seen in the effect of PISA results on national education policy. According to a study conducted by Simon Breakspear for the OECD[7]:

    The results make clear that PISA is becoming an influential element of education policymaking processes at the national level. Furthermore, the findings provide preliminary evidence that PISA is being used and integrated within national/federal policies and practices of assessment and evaluation, curriculum standards and performance targets.

    Policy-makers across nearly all PISA-participating countries/economies see PISA as an important indicator of system performance, and there is evidence that the PISA evaluation has the potential to ‘define’ the policy problems and set the agenda for policy debate at the national and state levels.

Researchers Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley sum up the situation in their 2011 Essay, The Far Side of Education Reform[8]. They refer to this time of educational change as the “Second Way”:

    Ideologically, much of the new Second Way rested on combining a belief that government investment should be replaced by market principles wherever possible, but that this competition should be conducted on centralized ground-rules defined by standardized curriculum and assessments.

Hargreaves and Shirley are even more pointed when they consider teacher input into education reform and the methods by which these reforms are implemented. This critique extends to those who think that 21st century learning is about using technology as the primary driver of education to the exclusion of quality teaching.

    Hackneyed harangues against whole-class teaching that equate it with factory-style schooling; excessive exaltation of technologically-driven instruction; reduction of deep personalization to slick customization; data warehouses that drive teachers to distraction; and exploitation of international performance comparisons to the domestic disadvantage of public school teachers in almost every developed country – these are the gimmicky Goliaths of educational change today.

De-emphasis on standardized testing combined with balance in approaching use of technology, in the “introduction” of 21st century learning skills could serve to reestablish an educational approach favoured by teachers. Brazilian educator and author Paulo Freire was quoted in 1968 as stating that “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” In reality, education may not be as dichotomous as Friere suggests but certainly some of the conformity of the 3 Rs mixed with the freedom of critical and creative thinking provides a balance that will best suit our students.

More recently, authors such as Andy Hargreaves and Micheal Fullan[9] are calling on education policy makers to “[d]eclare that testing has gone too far and technology is not the easy answer”. They go on to point out that the solution going forward rests not in a reliance of business models, large scale testing companies and technology conglomerates; but in the professional capital of teachers. Teachers are best suited, working with parents to determine what is in the best interests of the children. Treating them as subjects for testing or potential end-users of the latest technology cannot be the raison d’être of the education system.

Creativity, critical thinking, cooperation, character and the ability to utilize the current tools of the day to function in society have always been, for teachers, key components of the education system in Canada. These skills will continue to evolve to adapt to new methods of communication and developments in information technology. When packaged as 21st century skills, teachers will embrace them as new, knowing full-well that they have always been at the core of their professional practice and it will indeed be “déjà vu all over again”.


[5] Ryerson, Egerton. 1847. Report on a System of Public Elementary Instruction for Upper Canada. Page 9.

[6] McConaghy, Tom. 1997. A Battle Is Raging over Ontario Education. Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 79, No. 4. Page 332.

[7] Breakspear, S. (2012), “The Policy Impact of PISA: An Exploration of the Normative Effects of International Benchmarking in School System Performance”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 71, OECD Publishing. Page 27.

[8] Hargreaves, A. Shirley, D. 2011. The Far Side of Education Reform. Report commissioned by the Canadian Teachers Federation.

[9] Hargreaves, A & Fullan, M. 2012. Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School. Teachers College Press. New York. Page 186.

Bob McGahey is Acting Director of CTF’s Research and Information.

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