The Mad Men and their 21st Century Skills mantra

One of my favourite USA produced TV soap melodramas is Mad Men. It’s a fun, but tacky fast paced series set in the 1960s, about the Freudian manipulation of the consumer market place by Madison Avenue advertising executives. They actually coined the term Mad Men for themselves. No self-deception there-just the irony of their in your face honesty of how deceptive their practices were to sell stuff that most people didn’t want or need to lead fulfilled lives. Many decades later not a lot has changed. The Mad Men are still with us in a new disguise similar to iRobot, selling electronic stuff that we don’t need while trying to prop up an ailing almost dead world economy.
However, there is one significant difference in the pernicious strategy of today’s Mad Men-the use of technology and the marketing of it as an essential aspect of 21st century living. The Mad Men of the corporate IT world would have us believe that we cannot live without gadgetry, mobile devices and the like. They would further suggest that information technologies, along with online activities, social networking and educational technologies have spawned a new kind of human being: homo-digitalis. These new creatures of humanity often referred to as digital natives, because of their unique ability to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time, have developed remarkable skills akin to the symbiotic relationship which is presumed to exist between Kyle XY and Spiderman. I attended a conference once, where one of the Mad Men claimed that through the use of electronic gadgetry, mobile devices, online activities and social networking interaction, the human brain of homo-digitalis was ‘rewiring’ itself to keep up with the incredible frenetic speed of evolutionary changes that these creatures are presumed to be undergoing. But there is no truth or scientific evidence in such a claim-it is simply a marketing ploy to encourage fear ridden parents and educators that they need to keep up with the madness in electronic gadgetry, otherwise their children or students will become part of the great unconnected, unplugged underclasses of the future-inept in everything IT skill except the old 20th century social skills of civility, politeness, humility, compassion, empathy, honesty and genuine concerns for other people.
More recently some remarkable empirical evidence has emerged suggesting that the rapid tsunamic development of homo-digitalis is not permanent, and like the fate of Dolly the sheep, could result in premature aging, and the onset of short-term memory loss and the debilitating psycho-cognitive disease dementia-electronicus.
Whilst driving my car yesterday, I thought the driver in the vehicle ahead of me was drunk, so I immediately went into defensive driving mode, overtook her and noted that she was texting on her mobile phone. Later that day, while walking along the corridor of a College I was visiting, a student fell down the stairs while he was texting. In my class the following day, a student said she couldn’t hear my lecture. I suggested she take the headphones out of her ears and concentrate a bit more as this would help. While these are isolated cases, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence which suggests that multi-tasking is a myth. The only rewiring of the brain which is going to take place in the near future is when one is hooked up to a life-support system, after suffering a near fatal accident of some kind while multi-tasking with a 21st century interactive mobile device.
The partnership for 21st century skills argue that their unified, collective vision for learning known as the Framework for 21st Century Learning is a prerequisite for students to be able to prosper in the interconnected world of the 21st century. They identify critical thinking, collaboration, communication and problem solving among the key 21st century skills which must be embedded into school and higher education curricula. They further argue that “students are more engaged in the learning process and graduate better prepared to thrive in today’s global economy” (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2009).
Notwithstanding the current global youth unemployment rate of around 12.7% or 74 million young people; it seems naïve to suggest that thriving is an option for anyone between the ages of 15-24 who is out of work in the 21st century. While the Framework for 21st Century Learning covers some of the essential cognitive development of an individual and how they should be using digital tools in their lives, it doesn’t consider how to be resourceful and adaptable when you cannot get a job after 12 years of schooling, and after graduating with a degree from a College or University. None of the most up-to-date gadgetry and technology in the world is going to feed you if you cannot work and earn a living.
Those of us educated in the 20th century could argue out a case that this very same skill set now rebranded as 21st century skills was to be found in the curricula of our respective eras. For example, a constructivist approach to teaching and learning formed an essential part of my experience as a learner in the 1960s. Furthermore, we could go back to antiquity and find subjects like logic, rhetoric, mathematics, philosophy and science essential subjects and disciplines which ensured that critical thinking, problem solving, communication and collaboration were required of an educated person. Socrates would certainly defer to this assertion.
So what’s the difference in the early years of the 21st century? Why the constant, repetitive almost ad nauseam reference to 21st century skills by the Mad Men? The answer is simple: technology. The multi-billion dollar corporate IT industry along with the Partnership for 21st century skills has the global reform of education in its sight-in fact it has well and truly begun.
Embedded in their all encompassing curriculum model is the concept of multiple literacies. This is a highly questionable term which probably doesn’t exist in its own right. It is more about developing a skill set or competencies to use a machine or device rather than a specific psycho-cognitive process such as to be found in the foundations of literacy-reading, writing, listening, speaking and numeracy. It is a mis-leading term which covers anything from politically correct understandings of the ‘other’ to business as practiced through the ruthlessness of 21st century advanced capitalism.
The idealism is in this model mirrors other more comprehensive curriculum models like the International Baccalaureate’s PYP, MYP and Diploma program. However the comparison stops there, because the curricula of the IBO have no corporate IT agenda and encourage a critical appraisal of their own learning culture along with its content. The kind of curriculum model proposed by the IT corporate world and their 21st Century partners doesn’t allow for this, and is based on conformity and compliance to a corporate global model of teaching and learning and deference to its compulsory inclusion of technological gadgetry. These include but are not limited to mobile learning, online learning, blended learning, social media, like twitter, Facebook, yammer, and so on, various multi-media platforms like padlet, OneNote, iPads, and the plethora of other educational technologies which are competing for a place in the world’s burgeoning IT educational sector.
The jury is still out on the extent to which any kind of educational technologies are producing brighter, more adaptable, more flexible, compassionate, caring, multi-skilled graduates from primary, middle and high schools, colleges and universities, who will contribute to more peaceful, just and socially cohesive societies.
Notwithstanding this fact, the Mad Men peddle the myth that digital and mobile learning will create the iRobot equivalent of Nietzsche’s Übermensch, and without the inclusion of branded educational technologies in teaching and learning all educational institutions are failing themselves and their students.
This is clear in the ITL research group’s recent report on innovative teaching and learning (2011) 95% of the report condemns schools and learning institutions for not using the latest products and gadgetry, there is no informed, clear critical research on how their products perform or affect learners cognitively or how they define the methodological and pedagogical processes in a constructive way. It is one thing to argue for every child having an iPad to reduce heavy back packs with lots of books, and quite another to pursue the argument that IT will increase knowledge gains for learners.
Traditional classroom style learning with its essential socialization and communicative processes along with the lecture theater are also targets of the corporate IT sector and some educators too.The CEO of AISH (Academy for International School Heads) Bambi Betts recently argued that it is ‘game over’ for education as we know it today through the flooding of the educational sector with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Her carefully chosen description of these courses as ‘disruptive innovations” in mainstream education highlights the willfulness of forceful change being imposed on teachers, students, parents and some administrators who question the efficacy and legitimacy of MOOCs and other kinds of educational technologies. The assumption that formal learning is an option which can take place anywhere and at any time is false and based on erroneous understandings about how we learn, why we learn, what we need to learn and how we measure and evaluate successful teaching and learning. An avatar lecturer or a video clip of a lesson hardly qualifies as innovate in terms of teaching and learning, but may well be disruptive to genuine critical enquiry, the acquisition of knowledge, and becoming a life long learner.
Teaching and learning is a highly sociable process. It is built on a fundamental axiom of clear inter-personal communication. Moreover, schooling and tertiary studies is a highly controlled social process as well as an intellectual one. We require those who graduate from our high schools and universities to be civil to others and to have good manners and treat people respectfully and contribute to the development of a more peaceful, just, fair and equitable world. Working in the isolated vacuum of virtual realities where “I am my screen” and “I do not have to compete to share my thoughts and ideas” does not contribute to positive social learning outcomes at all. I’m all for rethinking education and embracing technology and 21st century skills (whatever they are or will become); but the core principles at the heart of any future developmental plans in education should embrace sound pedagogy and how students learn, not what they like using and doing best.

Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2009). P21 Framework Definitions. Washington D.C: Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

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