What is the meaning of 21st century education in New Brunswick?

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University of New Brunswick


This dissertation analyzes and critiques the premise of “21st century education” reform in New Brunswick that “education is about adapting to a changing world,” as stated in the Department of Education's (2010) YouTube video on the topic. This focus arises from my experience as a Bachelor of Education student at the University of New Brunswick during the 2010-2011 school year, when the Department introduced the reform model. The immediate product of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (an American public-private partnership, which supported George W. Bush's notorious No Child Left Behind legislation), 21st century education rhetorically promotes so-called employability skills that centre on digital technology usage, purportedly to prepare public school students for an assumed life of constant technological change and concomitant economic uncertainty while simultaneously promising to improve the overall quality of life for the entire human species. In order to pass the internship component of my BEd programme, I was expected to teach English Language Arts and science at the secondary level in accordance with 21st century education standards; however, I was evidently supposed to do so without even understanding the meaning behind the model's rhetoric. As I demonstrate in reviewing and contextualizing the official case for 21st century education as put forth in Trilling's and Fadel's (2009) 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times and the Department's (2010) consultation document NB3-21C: Creating a 21st Century Learning Model of Public Education Three-Year Plan 2010- 2013, the model's rhetoric presupposes its abovementioned premise. Moreover, 21st century education presupposes the conceptual framework in which its otherwise uncritical premise and corresponding proposals presumably make sense. My primary aims are to access and critique the concepts that constitute this framework and to suggest a critical alternative to it. I determine that the model centres on nominal conceptions of progress, democracy, and justice, based on its connections (both direct and indirect) to several educational texts that draw attention to one or more of these concepts, notably The Republic of Plato (386-367 BCE/1906/1992), John Dewey's (1916/1968) Democracy and Education, Paulo Freire's (1970/2005) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and Theodore Christou's (2012) Progressive Education: Revisioning and Reframing Ontario's Public Schools 1919-1942. Upon analyzing the model's passing references to these three concepts (after situating them in the context of neoliberalism, drawing on Marxist critiques of state-capitalism), I determine that it presupposes that “progress,” “democracy,” and “justice” respectively refer to capital accumulation, a neoliberal social context, and neoliberal ideology generally. With these concepts in mind, the meaning of 21st century education reform in New Brunswick and its legacy become clearer. Finally, I look to a common line of thought in the aforementioned texts of Plato, Dewey, and Freire for inspiration for a critical alternative. Though all three philosophers responded in different ways to very different social contexts, they all argued that educational experience should transform social reality in the service of life itself, not merely one socially constructed class of it. A necessary means of advancing such a transformation, I conclude, is for people to communicate with each other about the (socially constructed but no less real) world, drawing on each other's personal, social, and formal/disciplinary sources of knowledge, rather than to conform uncritically to the world as encouraged by 21st century education.