22nd century learning?!

I woke up early this morning with the thought that it is time I wrote again. It has been a while - there is nothing yet in my 2019 writing file. Budgets, staffing, the annual charter and so much more have taken precedence. So here I am, the world still cloaked in darkness, sitting in front of my computer screen and wondering what to write about – leadership? growth and development? reframing literacy? - hoping that inspiration will take hold of me. I am slightly anxious that it won’t.

So I search my heart and mind for what’s on top – what is the thing I am most compelled to say at the moment? And I alight upon it - we cannot wait until the 22nd century! I discovered a week or two ago that people are now talking about learning in the 22nd century. They say we are over 21st century learning (it’s so yesterday!), describing it as the “already distant 21st century”. I am not sure that 19 year olds who might now reasonably expect to live to 100 would appreciate being described as being in the past or as “already distant”. Nineteen year olds are still early in their lives, still finding their feet, still getting into their stride. The 21st century is still young and while we should be mindful of a rapidly changing future, we should be focused on today. In this time of rapid change, we cannot be thinking in centuries, we should be thinking in decades or even in single years - of creating significant change within generations, not over generations.

We must not dismiss the 80 odd years left of the 21st century to focus on the 22nd century. We should be living in and for today. Mindfulness, which is a big thing in schools at the moment, tells us we should be present in the now. Why wouldn’t we want “care”, “connection”, “culture”, “community” (The new 22nd Century Cs for Education!) now, in our present. I think these four Cs are right on the button but not for the 22nd century, for right now. Just the other day I began formulating an overview of our approach to professional learning for staff and called it, “The growth and development of OUR PEOPLE: a community approach”. We need to rebuild a sense of community and we certainly need a culture of optimism, not in the future, but right now.

Thinking about “care”, for example, the blogger said, “Too often, we push our students with a lever of pragmatism – with an emphasis on production and efficiency to achieve a tangible goal (Biesta’s “qualification” in “The beautiful risk of education”, 2014). And while we need to get things done, tasks accomplished…we cannot do so at the detriment of care.” I have written about the importance of a pragmatic approach in education today. It has to be about what works to overcome the pervasiveness of ideological talk in education and the binary positions that result and which make change in education so difficult. However, that was never to be at the expense of “heart and care” in teaching – it was to be a pragmatic approach with strong and deep heart and care.

Heart and care have always been central to education. Nel Noddings has been writing about the need for teachers to have an ethic of care for decades (this is not care as warm fuzzies, but rather care as a commitment to doing what it takes - increasing our competence as teachers and leaders, for example - to make a difference in the lives of children) and it is an essential aspect of culturally sustaining or responsive practices. These ideas have been around for a long time. I agree that Tomorrows’ Schools and its raft of (probably) unintended consequences including the now defunct National Standards has created a huge challenge to the ethic of care and heart in teaching. To be honest, some of the tools we developed as a school leadership team to enable deeply personalised learning for students had the absolutely unintended consequence of removing the focus away from heart and care in teaching and learning – not because of the limitations of the tools, but just because it did – maybe because as humans we are not yet very good at focusing on more than one thing at a time. The effort to change in one area, often results in a temporary loss somewhere else. Temporary…because once we notice it, we can adjust our approach and realign with the fullness of what’s important (Schools as constantly self-improving algorithms).

As a result of realising this, my colleague and I published articles about “heart in teaching” (The heart of teaching, Leaving space for the world to teach us, Rescuing education: Acknowledging the other dimension, Missing in action: the spiritual dimension) and carried out professional learning sessions with our teachers about the importance of heart and care in “opening up the space for the student to appear as subject” (Biesta, 2017). This year our professional learning so far has focused on exploring purpose and meaning in writing and asked the question “Why explore why?” Simon Sinek argues it is because “why” messages appeal straight to the part of our brain that is responsible for the expression and experience of emotion and which drives decision-making - the limbic brain. Effective marketing campaigns don’t use logic to entice us to buy, but go to the big picture of purpose and meaning because that is what drives decision-making, not logic. We need to engage the hearts and minds of all our students with purpose and meaning in their learning – equity depends on it.

Yes, we have lots to overcome in education. The centuries known as modernity or the modern era in the western world have a lot to answer for with their focus on order and science and the removal of heart from any serious consideration of important matters. However, we cannot wait until the 22nd century to put heart and care, connection and community back at the centre. Change does not have to, cannot, take that long. The cheese advertisement that we loved so much back in the day, “Good things take time” may still be true for wine and cheese but cannot be true of education today. We cannot, must not, allow any more generations to pass without cracking the hard nut of change in education – the hard nut of equity in education.

I applaud the Minister’s Future-focused Education Workforce Strategy to 2032 and beyond.  However, there are a great many barriers to change in education and it will take significant governmental resolve to ensure that change takes place. Politics must be put aside and the best interests of our children prioritised. We will have to talk about the elephants in the room, the Voldemorts of education that “must not be named”. We will have to be brave and face the barrage as issues are fought out in social media. It doesn’t have to get ugly, but it might.

If it is true as the blogger said, that in schools we actually “explode those 21st Century Cs [communication, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration] on a daily basis for all students!” then let’s not create a new list and call them 22nd century learning. Let’s simply look at what is needed next and start working on those now. It doesn’t have to be a new thing. Actually, it doesn’t have to be a thing at all. It can just be what we do around here as we listen to the conversations around us and notice even nuanced changes to the world and are continually responsive to what we notice. Change can be a way of being and it may be that we go through multiple iterations of different “C”s or “B”s or “A”s over the 21st century because of the 3 “Cs” - a Culture of Constant Change.

Let’s not dismiss the 21st century. It is still in its early days and there is important work to be done now. We cannot accept that important change will take generations to bring about. With all the tools we now have at our fingertips, change can happen and happen quickly; and change in education, and most particularly, equity, cannot wait.