I was recently solicited for my thoughts on the key priorities for 21st Century learning and surprised myself – and my client – with the answer. Prior to this query, I might have rhymed off the usual classroom2.0 mantra: blogging, social media, virtual worlds, mobile technology and, of course, multi-tasking. But the more I reflected on my teaching and client experiences these past few years, the more I realised these priorities aren’t especially technical at all.
This led me to the conclusion that few 21st century learning priorities are less about technical skills, tools, services, software or hardware but far more social, cultural and behavioural as they relate to states of being, thinking, feeling and acting with technology in new and meaningful ways. While emergent technical literacies and mastery of systems and hardware dominate the discussion, many fundamental challenges in education remain systematically ignored or denied by those whose privileges within that system preclude any concern or perspective on the experiences, realities or identities of those who are aggressively marginalized, alienated and harmed by dominator models of education.
There are a number of unproblematized assumptions among educators that the soft skills and social and cultural codes and privileges they take for granted in their mastery of social media and digital technology are somehow present in abundance among the so-called digital natives or else easily accessible to all learners.
Critical pedagogy and the hidden curriculum
At the heart of social justice education (critical pedagogy) is an understanding that education is mediated by a set of unspoken yet experienced power relations, ideological forces and social conditions that contribute far more to “student success” than the mastery of skills or curriculum. These unspoken yet very real conditions are referred to as “the hidden curriculum“:
“Hidden curriculum is said to reinforce existing social inequalities by educating students in various matters and behaviors according to their class and social status. In the same way that there is an unequal distribution of cultural capital in this society, there is a corresponding distribution of knowledge amongst its students. The hidden curriculum can also refer to the transmission of norms, values, and beliefs conveyed in both the formal educational content and the social interactions within these schools.”
The hidden curriculum of 21st Century learning refers to all of the skills that are increasingly soft and social, presumed but not explicitly taught or scaffolded, in education. Skills that are largely present among the most socially privileged learners but not explicitly addressed within the curriculum or school structure as a whole.
My feeling is not that the hidden curriculum of a mostly racist, classist, sexist status quo be taught or scaffolded but that it be illuminated and interrogated as the basis of much of that which is rewarded in this system in order that we redefine education on more equitable, inclusive and holistic terms. This hasn’t been the goal or even an acknowledged priority within the classroom2.0 arguably because that sphere is, itself, dominated by the same voices, identities and ideologies that dominate the old model. As I see it, it’s the same old hegemonic schooling with a new interface.
When I reviewed my thinking about my own practice as well as the mounting evidence that 21century literacies are increasingly social, I came up with these three priorities (as a starting point) there are many others:
1) Digital citizenship (publics & participation v. consumers & audiences)
This defines a participation focus for the public sphere – information and social spaces for the purposes of active citizenship and civic, public and social purposes (publics, commons, communities, participants). This includes fan cultures and other spaces where learners engage in cultural activity, leisure and social praxis.
2) Equity and inclusivitiy
This defines much needed social dispositions such as empathy, compassion and inclusive strategies for diversity (culture, race, class, gender, sexual identity, belief and cognitive styles) in relation to curriculum and pedagogy – choice of technologies and close examination of how these technologies are inscribed or reinforcing of marginalizing values.
Surprisingly little emphasis has been placed on emergent privacy issues within the use of social media and other online spaces for education. Privacy is still largely framed as ‘secrecy’ by those who wish to destabilize the privacy debate from an ideological agenda that precludes fundamental rights very few of us are aware of or properly understand. Privacy is a key literacy for 21 century learners and this ought to be a focus of emergent curriculum and pedagogy. As well, we need to reflexively interrogate what it means for power holding teachers to invite students into what is otherwise engaged as a social space for ostensibly social interaction that is documented, assessed and evaluated in ways that can damage, silence or impair truly democratic social expressiveness that would otherwise be enacted by our learners in their own self-selected social spaces. ADDED: see my creepy treehouse post.
There are several other priorities I would add to this. Among them: play, autonomy, collaboration, mindfuless. But for the meantime, these three offer a first inquiry.
Educators: Check your privilege
As well, many of the norms, values and beliefs that are currently associated with 21st Century are mediated by class divisions in online life and technology. For those who experience social alienation or marginalisation according to their race, class, sexual orientation or belief, engaging in online “social” activities isn’t always so appealing – when these spaces are regarded as potentially oppressive, unsafe or unwelcoming. For the poor, taking part in social spaces where the sharing is largely material and associated with lifestyles and activities, involves not only time but investment in the social and class signifiers that largely define social status within these spaces. And then there are the social skills and dispositions I talked about above, which may be absent or differently constructed.
Another negated and problematic aspect of the hidden curriculum of 21st century learning is presumption of hardware access among technologically privileged educators. Due to the highly material nature of hardware, many schools are either out of date or else cannot afford current technologies. The reality is, poverty exists wherever there are human communities – in rural, urban and suburban areas.
And finally, there is the readiness of privileged educators to encourage enthusiastic tech adoption without assessing them according to social justice or equity considerations. For example, in the recent Horizon Report there was a lot of emphasis on “personal mobile technology use” in schools. This forecast said nothing about the highly variable data plans from country to country or the classist assumption that all children have access to a mobile device. These statements also don’t answer any questions about who would be paying for all this personal technology use and the enormous cost of data plans in some learning communities.
Social “status” versus social justice
One of the selling points of social media is that it is an opportunity for young people to “define” themselves. Unfortunately, the nature of “self” as defined within these spaces is largely focused social, cultural or material capital and status — as opposed to other expressions of self and community. We encourage users to think of themselves as social performers and their peers as audiences or “followers.” This is quite different than encouraging ideas of community, commons and publics. The focus, right now, is I, me, my and mine. If we regard social media as a pit of narcissism it’s because of the behaviours we’re encouraging within these spaces – not the technologies.
One of the ways we can start to cultivate more focus on the “us” and less on the me is via the three priorities I defined above. It starts with evaluating our online focus and behaviours according to our participation focus, orientation and disposition as participants, publics and contributors to the public sphere. First and foremost, it involves asking questions about the nature of our engagement in the commons. Are we consumers of each other’s social, cultural or material status or are we participants and contributors in larger projects that benefits us all?
I’ll leave it to you to decide what these projects are or should be, but in the meantime I think we need to start putting the social – and especially the social justice – into what we now term social “media” and 21st century learning.