33 Years Ago…When I was 17 years old, I had a summer job making diswasher doors in a factory in my hometown. There were probably 600 or so employees on three shifts running 24 hours per day. It was a great job. It wasn’t terribly hard nor physically demanding and the pay was excellent. I would have enough money saved by the end of the summer to satisfy the registrar at my university, and then some. I arrived every morning at 7:00am to start my shift. One morning I arrived for my shift to find people milling around but there was no activity on the factory side of the fence. The plant had closed and moved its operations to Mexico – just like that. However, there were lots of factories around and I soon had another job and life went on. Many of the 600, though, were not as fortunate. They had the challenge of suporting their families full time and long term. This was my first experience with globalization.
Today I’m finally starting to understand the true meaning of what happened all those years ago. It turns out that the late 70s were the beginning of a trend that would accelerate through the 80s and 90s and into the new millenium. Factories all over North America closed their doors and relocated to places like Mexico, Asia and elsewhere - anywhere manufacturing could be done by people, just as capable, but at a lower cost. The result has been a net loss of millions of manufacturing sector jobs in Canada and the United States. After all this time, we might as well admit to ourselves that manufacturing isn’t coming back. That bus has left the terminal, and taken lots of high paying jobs with it.
However, all was not lost. North America still had a burgeoning service-based industry, unparalleled in the world. Unparalleled because of our economic might and technological advantage over the rest of the world. With the steady decline in the GDP attributable to manufacturing came a tsunami of service sector jobs that easily made up for it. As jobs were lost, others were created until in the late 90s, over 80% of the GDP was dependent on service sector employment. It would appear that although many jobs were lost, more were created. Our economic dominance was still assured and our standard of living cemented in stone.
The figure below shows the decline in manufacturing jobs in the US and the subsequent surge in Service sector employment. (from the US Department of Labor Statistics).
The following figure shows the proportion of the US economy dedicated to service sector employment (taken from Apte, Karmarkar and Nath, 2008). The same authors maintain that the economyin the US hasn’t been manufacturing based since 1997.
Trending in Canada has been similar to that in the United States.
Service Based Economy Dominance – Not!
Moores Law and Gilder’s Photon Law have allowed computing capacity and connectivity to grow exponentially while the price point for both has enabled the rest of the world to share in the digital age as equal participants. This resulted in more offshoring and direct competition for contracts and services literally from anywhere in the world. India has an established prowess at delivering services worldwide, in the language of their clients. Legal and medical services, warranty, technical support, design and engineering services, and publishing are but a few of the areas now available from offshore. Given that the North American stranglehold on technology and information has been broken, the global economic playing field is not only changed – it is quite possibly the flattest it has ever been. Any superiority we may have enjoyed is gone. To maintain our standard of living, our workforce has to be at least as good as the rest of the world, period.
Whose job is it to make sure that our workforce is up to the task?
It is education’s mandate to prepare our children for prosperous, healthy and productive lives. In the industrial age we prepared them with an education model that mirrored the values and demands of an industry/manufacturing based economy. That economy is all but extinct. The new reality is one of a digital and information economy. This calls for a different skill set than the one we learned as students. Creativity, Critical thinking, Self management, Cultural awareness, Literacy (information, digital, financial), Collaboration, Versatility and Tolerance are among today’s essential competencies. Personlaized, relevant and rigourous experiences for students are the hallmarks of 21st century education.
Educational researchers have identified the competencies above as being the holy grail of learning throughout my teaching career. Who doesn’t want these things for their students? Skills like these have been the gold standard since John Dewey. Every new craze to hit the education street has spoken to their virtue, yet education has not waivered significantly from its industrial pradigm and truly embraced them.
The 21st century learning “movement” is not really new; it calls for all the same old things. However, the difference this time is that the horizon forecasted is finally upon us. Changes to what and how we teach are now an economic imperative. Twenty-first century skills will drive the social and economic engines in countries across the globe. Educational jurisdictions are rushing to address this imperative on a global scale. Each is aware that the first one through the door will also be the first at the table.
No matter how you slice it, the move to a 21st century learning model will require a shift in teacher practice, in the way we think about education in general. As Ian Jukes so nicely put it, “We need a change in headware as well as hardware.” I suspect that the hardware will be the easy part. The headware change will be more daunting for most.
Economies aren’t the only things that have changed.
Students are no longer content to sit in rows and to absorb content from a teacher’s frame of reference. They aren’t as likely to trust the teacher as a sole source of information. They want to network, to collaborate with others in the classroom and around the world. Today’s youth are wired differently, they aren’t the kids who are motivated by the good mark for spitting back their lessons verbatim on a pen and paper test. They are independent thinkers who need to be challenged by relevant problems and coached by teachers who are willing to function in the role of co-learner. Today’s student also needs to be able to demonstrate what they have learned and how it’s connected to the world in ways that are meaningful to them. Today’s students are wired. They are natives to the digital age. The PEW Internet & American Life Project, Horizon Reports and the Kaiser Family Foundation research all point to the extent which today’s children are immersed in media and technology.
Scads of data exists pointing to the effect of all this on student engagement. Schools everywhere are recording rampant absenteeism, discipline referrals, assignments not being done and ignored homework. A school in my jurisdiction reported more than 50% of grade 9 and 10 students were absent more than 50% of the time during the months of February and March. This speaks strongly to how relevant education in its present form is to our youth. Whatever the reason for their truancy, one thing is clear. If students aren’t in school, then we can’t educate them.
In the infographic above, the Canadian Education Association
(CEA) maintains that in Canadian Schools, student engagement drops from more than 80% in elementary to less than 45% in grade 12. The reason isn’t hard to fathom. If students perceived that their educational experience was relevant, they would remain engaged. Clearly, those who disengage (55% by grade 12) feel that other things are more relevant than school.
Video Blogger Dan Brown makes the point in ”An Open Letter to Educators” that the lack of technology, creativity and learning that spoke to his reality was actually interfering with his university education – so he quit.
“If we and our students know that education is no longer relevant, and we understand the economic and social rammifications of this, why are we so slow to systemically acknowledge and respond?”
It is no longer relevant to talk about a time down the road when the workplace will change, when technology will demand new skillsets, when 21st century skills will be needed. That time has come. In fact, it has been with us for a few years now. What we need is a conversation about how 21st century skills will be incorporated into the curriculum, how they will be taught and perhaps most importantly, how they will be assessed. Currently there are many educators – early adopters - who aren’t waiting for policy to dictate a 21st century agenda. They are already creating engaging, collaborative and technology rich experiences for thier students.
We need to collectively examine the impacts they are having on their students and leverage their strategies throughout the wider system. Early asdopters are the most powerful resource that any jurisdiction has – and every jurisdiction has them. They will be the divers of change for teachers who are reluctant, fearful or simply unsure how to embrace the pedagogical shift needed to address the realities of today’s youth. Networking between teachers to propagate ideas that work in the 21st century context is, to my mind, the only sustainable way to manage the “headware” change needed to ensure education stays relevant. I call this Instructive Interference.