Bill writes to me: We are in the 21st century, get used to it

A very able teacher (we’ll call him Bill) from a South Auckland contributing school wrote to me saying:

Sorry Kelvin

I can’t agree with you on this one.

We are in the 21st century, get used to it.

The job market is changing, education is changing, and well-managed digital enhances learning and improves learning outcomes.

We have seen evidence of it with our kids, who are far more engaged and focused, and in charge of their own learning than in pre-technology times.



Bill was responding to a posting of mine that was headlined: Digital curriculum must be thrown out: educators must wrest from corporates

I am unsure whether Bill had only read the headline or the full posting.

Surely all in education agree that educators should have main control of the digital curriculum, and with this one being done behind closed doors by a group dominated by the corporates, that shouldn’t have put me on the wrong side of Bill.

In fact, educators under the present system, rarely get a chance to get together across curriculum lines or roles, to discuss curriculum matters. It is called neoliberalism.

Who discusses what with whom is tightly controlled.

And that is why, instead of working out things face-to-face we are forced to communicate in bits and pieces. You can guarantee those driving the corporate digital curriculum have never had to face arguments in committee rooms such as expressed here.

Note, however, that Bill begins with: Sorry Kelvin, I can’t agree with you on this one. In other words, in other matters, we have a large degree of agreement. So that’s encouraging for me.

But then he gets direct: ‘We are in the 21st century,’ says Bill, ‘get used to it.’

My views on the use and deviousness of the use of the expression ‘21st century education’ are well canvassed, so I’ll leave it there.

‘The job market is changing, education is changing, and well-managed digital enhances learning and improves learning outcomes.’

Notice the reference is immediately to jobs.

What this leaves out is just about everything else.

As education narrows and continues to decline in New Zealand, we have a striking example of how an ideological government insidiously uses administrative and digital technology to stamp that ideology on education, to the detriment of education and democratic values.

School education fundamentally is a human activity not a digital one.

My next posting is to begin with this:

This posting is about education experience of the sort that transforms children intellectually, aesthetically, ethically, and reflectively. Such experience takes children back to two fundamental cultural breakthroughs – the way things are, are not necessarily the way things are or should be; and an individual’s place in it is not predetermined: and from that the realisation of ‘I am’ and the capacity to think, imagine, appreciate, and appraise. In a sense, the individual becomes of the world he or she lives in and a step beyond it. Leading to three questions continually to be asked, wrestled with, and answered but never concluded, they are: Who am I? Why are we living this way? How can we make things better?

Are these ideas not an important consideration for education, encompassing the digital and going far beyond?

Or is this too 20th century?

Are we set on producing a generation whose narrow-mindedness and lack of heart could put our democracy at risk?

The arrogance of computer experts; the gullibility of so many in education; and the exultation of those presently in control are foreboding signs for the welfare of our education and society.

Sorry, but I’m not ready to collapse in a heap because digital experts nay-say the broad-based, enlightened, and humanistic education that most of us in education espouse.

But to move on.

I must say that the claim that the digital will lead to jobs for those who have those skills is laughable, though I agree all children need those skills.

Digitalists like to see themselves as futurists, hanging ten on that particular wave.

There is much talk about the inclusivity of the digital and the equitability.


If I was a digital futurist I would be saying that the only real future as a digitalist is as an engineer in its widest sense. The other jobs will be a dime-a-dozen.

Now what would you need to be a successful engineer? well, you are quite good at computers, so far so good; then you would need to be good at science – oh dear, science in New Zealand schools is in quite a bad way – and by science I don’t just mean using study skills to rearrange science information; then you would have to be very strong in mathematics – oh my goodness, mathematics – a  near disaster area; then technology – technology in schools is like Matariki, once a year and tick them off as done (that is technology and Maori) ; creativity – oh dear! Creativity, enough said; a good grasp of language – but reading and writing are in decline, also a second language is very helpful in understanding structures – Maori would be great, but what chance?

There are a whole lot of hoops and it is quite clear (on present form) which socio-economic grouping is going to get through them.

Digital is fine as a first step to a digital job, but digital alone, is selling a pup.

We need a strong, well-funded, creative education system as a whole and within that the digital appropriately placed and acknowledged.

Bill continues in his letter, ‘We have seen evidence of it with our kids, who are far more engaged and focused, and in charge of their own learning than in pre-technology times.’

The success of the digital in helping learning is fraught. Bill’s response in his letter is fraught too: Yes – most children are ‘far more engaged and focused’ with computers, but not invariably; I have seen classes even more engaged and focused with just good teaching; and with computers what is the quality of the learning? from my direct observation – if I match the main aims of the curriculum areas against what children are learning on computers and the degree of creativity and thinking, I am regularly disappointed.

When children are handed a computer, those things teachers have learnt about teaching and learning often go out the window: motivation and open-ended introductions; the acquisition of cohesive and significant knowledge; and the use of that knowledge in a range of ways. Yes – they are often more engaged but to what effect? Children should not be in charge of their own learning, or have it personalised, as they say – that is an abdication of function. The absence of such teaching and learning characteristics aids corporatist long-laid plans of teacher-less classrooms, though more imminently, fewer classroom teachers.

My observation is that many teachers have given up on understanding the curriculum and fled to computers for education meaning and structure which isn’t there unless you understand the curriculum.

I now remind myself, as well as this site’s readers, what I said in the disputed posting.

My source in the ministry says The Digital Technologies Hangarau Matihiko Curriculum Reference Group was dominated by technology corporates who proceeded to produce a fully-fledged curriculum abounding in steps and outcomes with a computer programme in preparation for teachers and the review office to check out ‘progress’.

It was made clear that the corporates involved wanted to monopolise services and products for the digital programme and, eventually, to extend the process to the wider curriculum such as maths, reading, science, and social studies. They are constantly talking to the government about how the programmes could mean savings to the government in teacher numbers. But the corporates are quite explicit that they can only provide their product and services at the price they are offering if the Communities of Learning are functioning in business-like way – that is, with a non-educational professional acting as CoL leaders.

What followed was a few paragraphs from the best teacher organisation leader we’ve had in years, Whetu Cormick, in which he ironically reminds the minister he was sure she would not want a digital curriculum based on ‘standardised progressions’. Then he launched a serious attack on of moves by the government to have CoLs run by an executive administrator.

My posting seemed all rather inoffensive but perhaps Bill was seeing it as a culmination of a direction that irked him.

I sincerely thank him for the stimulus.

The key idea: it takes a full curriculum and a creative education system to make a successful digitalist learner.

This entry was posted in Curriculum, Education Policy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Bill writes to me: We are in the 21st century, get used to it

  1. John Elliott says:

    I think Bill has a lot to learn. His language style is that of an over-dedicated sports fan, and he must be oh so trendy…

  2. As a teacher in a ’21st-century space’, I totally agree with you Kelvin. Bill appears to confuse engagement with learning. These are two very different things. While engagement might kick start the learning process, it is not learning. It is not even performance, learning’s lesser cousin.

    I take exception to Bill’s assertion that devices improve student focus. I observe many students who flit from screen to screen, with multiple screens open at once. Their ability to focus for lengthy periods is seriously compromised. Those that spend hours at home in the evening are even less able to focus, their attention shifting continuously. Hence the Ministry of Health guidelines that say young people should spend no more than two hours per day on recreational screen time.

    While devices are certainly part of learning today, they are definitely not the whole of it.

  3. Steve Pedersen says:

    Thanks Kelvin for disecting my response. I admit it was a hurried comment at the end of a busy day. But I believe just as passionately in the exponentional possibilities of digital learning as you believe against it.

    I am not saying that digital by itself will provide any better education than non digital, but I am saying that the digital toolbox offers educators and learners a richer, wider range of ways to manage, explore, and engage with learning than the absence of digital. I am not saying that all learning should be digital or that digital is just about getting the student in front of a computer. It is so much more than that.

    The teacher or educator will always still have the key role in the process and the joy of learning, and yes, digital learning can be shallow just as non digital can be. But education is an immensely rich and diverse journey in which digital will play a major role. Yes, we need great teachers of science and maths, of technology and the arts, of language and literacy but I believe with a passion that they will increase the richness of the learning experience if they have the skills to use their digital toolbox where it is best needed.

    Having engaged my senses with the exciting possibilities of digital learning as an important part of the learning journey I would never go back to the days of no digital. As a motivator alone digital has the power to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. But it is so much more than that in the hands of great teachers.

    I am not discussing government agendas or educational restraints. I’m looking beyond that.
    I work at a primary school that nurtures positive values, delivers a sensationally broad curriculum, where our kids have opportunities to learn many instruments, to belong to an exceptional choir, to enjoy a wide range of cultural activities, to learn real science and science thinking, explore a practical technology curriculum, and use digital tools to enhance their learning, and yes, we also have an academic record to be proud of. All this in spite of the pressures put upon us.

    You are welcome to pull me apart again but I stand firmly by everything I have said.


  4. Kelvin says:

    Thanks Steve. Well done. All my writings on the digital, if you look back, are reasonably close to your position. However, my context is the broad-based and humanistic not the digital. First, there needs to be a firm grasp of what the broad-based and humanistic curriculum looks like (from where would teachers develop that?), then how the digital fits into that. Others and I might talk about such a curriculum, but how would we know we were within cuckoo of each other? (There should also be, I add, a curriculum time set aside for digital exploration.) Not only have the basics gone back with the move to the digital, the other parts of the curriculum have been trashed. We only have PISA and the Dunedin group to go by for the basics as national standards and NCEA are a farce. But I do most of my research now in first year secondary, the way digital is being used there and students lack of respect for it is a revelation. The future lies with the digital in the context of the wider curriculum.

  5. Bruce Hammonds says:

    There is no doubt of the great potential for learning that the digital age offers but in itself it does not result in in depth understanding. Without a desire to challenge and interrogate what is read/seen students can come to depend on what they pick up without question. To make full use students need to have be immersed deeply in something they wish to explore and to make their own. When students are so intrinsically motivated they are able to take advantage of information from any source.
    It is this in depth understanding that is all too often missing in schools today

  6. poled says:

    As a long time inmate with kids in classrooms, “pre technology” and otherwise, I’m always amused to hear of some great technology thing coming out of the sky and suddenly the kids are “involved and focused”. The appearance of this new beast strangely, wondrously, brings a magic which sees kids in charge of their own learning! Wow! To me it’s all a bit like saying we didn’t see anything before Alessandro Volta and Humphrey Davy came along.

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