Pointless Preparation (‘for the 21st century’) Prevents Progress

One of my least favourite cliché mission statement assertions, and one which schools seem to enjoy spouting more and more as we get closer to the 22nd century: “we provide a 21st century education”.  “Phwoar”, we’re supposed to say.  “What great blue-sky thinking!  Who, after all, is going to operate our flying cars and manage the bit-coin salaries of our holographic bin men if we keep teaching this outdated Newtonian physics instead of real world, 21st century skills.”

As a school teacher I do what I can to influence the future prospects of the young people in my care when it comes to being a happy citizen of the changing world.  I would go so far as to say the immediate and future happiness of my students is my main day-to-day priority.  Nonetheless, I maintain that it’s utterly idiotic to be ‘preparing students for the 21st century’ (which, by the way, we’ve been in for 17 and a half years now, and in which the key advantage remains being a rich white man who went to Cambridge).

If we, as a society, are heading towards some inevitable destination, one for which some sort of preparation is needed, then my work is as pointlessly depressing as it sometimes feels on Friday period 5.  But I’m more optimistic than that.  I think the shape of our  future is not determined by anything other than the people who will live and work in it.  In other words, the children in our education system now are going to determine the character of our future society, not ‘fit in’ to it.  If they want their future world to be paperless, or carbon-neutral, or liberal, or progressive, or peaceful: it will be.  Regardless of whether we taught them on iPads.  Our job is not to guess what they’re going to do with the world and try to decide what skills they’ll need to operate within the structures they themselves have built.  Our job is to tell them what we know about our subjects, to encourage them to take our knowledge further and, most importantly, to help them to have moral priorities as they do so.

I’m not a parent yet.  But when I am, I look forward to sifting through prospective schools’ mission statements with my children to find one which doesn’t think that a good ’21st century education’ is as straightforward as doing lots of IT in a room with a 3D printer.  Like any reasonable person in any other century, past present or future, I’ll be looking for an institution which helps young people to be happy, empathetic and moral.  And if my kid does need to learn to drive a flying car, I’m sure she’ll manage somehow.

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