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Kelvin Smythe: When Pooh and Christopher Robin Went Searching for a 21st Century Education

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Kelvin Smythe is an educator and blogger in New Zealand who left the education system when the ideas of the New Right took over. He has since been a critic and an activist.

A friend Down Under sent me one of his recent writings, in which Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet and Christopher Robin go searching for a 21st Century Education.

But first a bit about Smythe. He wrote this about his views:

Kelvin Smythe makes a plea for teachers to see behind the commodification of education, the managerialism, the data gathering, the claims of new knowledge, the fads, the array of electronics to what teaching is really about – key interactions between teacher, child, and what is being learnt. He knows that many of his concerns about education, his aspirations for education, his style of writing about them will be dismissed as out-of-date. His claim, though, is that these key interactions are the essence of what teaching should be, and are timeless.

In the story he tells about Pooh and friends, there is this beginning:

Just as they came to the Six Pine Trees, Pooh looked around to see that nobody else was listening, and said in a very solemn voice: ‘Piglet, I have decided something.’

‘What have you decided Pooh?’

‘I have decided to catch a 21st Century Education.’

Piglet asked, ‘But what does a 21st Century Education look like? Then continued thoughtfully: ‘Before looking for something, it is wise to ask someone what you are looking for before you begin looking for it.’

Smith then observes:

We are, it seems, getting ourselves tied in knots about something called 21st century education – before looking for it, as Piglet suggests, it might be wise to find out what we are looking for.

This could be done in respect to how it might differ from what went before, how it might be the same as what went before, how it might be worse than went before, who is supposed to benefit from it, who is calling for it, does it exist, should it exist, what are its aims and, being education, how much is career- or self-serving bollocks.

I intend this posting to be a search for something called a 21st century education.

As part of that I declare my prior understandings about the concept – a concept because there has never been any discussion about something called 20th century education, it was never conceptualised in that way, so why for 21st century education?

The formation and high usage of the concept label suggests powerful forces at work – forces, I suggest, taking control of the present to control the future.

Those active in promoting the concept of 21stcentury education are mostly from political, technology, and business groupings, also some academics: the immediate future they envisage as an extension and intensification of their perception of society and education as they see it now. And in the immediate future, as well as the longer term one, they see computers at the heart of 21st century education, which is fair enough as long as the role of computers is kept in proportion as befits a tool, a gargantuanly important one, but still a tool….

Smythe goes on to write about the dominant philosophy behind the 21st century education hullaballoo.

School education is being pressured to inappropriate purposes by groups who claim a hold on the future and from that hold generate techno-panic to gain advantage in the present.

Another prior understanding is that the inappropriate use of computers for learning has contributed to the decline in primary school education (though well behind the contribution of national standards and the terrible education
autocracy of the education review office).

For all the talk of personalising learning, of building learning around the child, of individualising learning, the mandating question for 21st century education seems to be: how can we build the digital into learning instead of how can we best do the learning? And even further: how can we build schools for digital learning instead of what is best for children’s learning environment? Large open spaces are not the best environment for children’s learning, meaning that in combination with the heavy use of computers to make large open spaces ‘work’, a distinct problem is developing. Computers and large open spaces are being promoted by 21st century advocates as the two key ideas to carry us forward to the education for the 21st century.

I think you will find this an interesting read and will spot the commonalities that we face, in the U.S., Australia, Great Britain, and New Zealand. It is the phenomenon that Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg calls GERM (the Global Education Reform Movement). Its proponents say that it is sweeping the world, and that the train has left the station. But please notice that educators and children are not on the train. They are on the tracks.

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