Future Tense: Where is “21st Century Learning” Heading?

Jun 02, 13 Future Tense: Where is “21st Century Learning” Heading?

Educators are well known for recycling. The so-called “21st Century Learning Skills”, as Bob McGahey of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation recently noted, are a classic example of the phenomenon. Anyone familiar with North American education over the past fifty years is immediately taken aback seeing such old panaceas being repackaged around technology as the solution to education’s current problems. 

FutureTenseCoverA group of six ‘Young Turks’, funded by the Action Canada Foundation, has produced yet another report on the state and future of Canada’s provincial education systems. The latest offering, a rather thin 16-page paper, published in February 2013, carries an auspicious title, Future Tense: Adapting Canadian Education Systems for the 21st Century. Upon its release, the paper relatively little attention for good reason – it simply offers nothing much that’s new. After identifying the yawning gap between official policy rhetoric and school-level reality for teachers, the Action Canada report parrots the standard 21st Century Learning platitudes and puts its faith in the anemic Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC) to lead us to the promised land.

The Action Canada Fellows accept, rather uncritically, the familiar late 20th century knowledge-based economy tenets and skills now recast as 21st century competencies:

Creativity, entrepreneurship and innovation;

Critical thinking;

Computer and digital literacy;


The “Young Turks’ operate based upon the rather broad assumption that the ‘critical core competencies’ are absent in the current educational system.It is also abundantly clear that they think such skills are newly discovered concepts emerging fully formed from the fresh air generated by 21st century winds. It is difficult to discern, however, whether this is a reflection of youthful idealism or simply naivete.

The Action Canada report focuses on five Canadian provinces, Alberta, British Columbia, New Brunswick, Ontario, and Quebec.  Its  analysis, based upon a survey of 920 teachers, conducted in December 2012 and January 2013, and attempts to assess the “salience” of each of the core competencies in provincial education policies and practices. The Policy Review revealed “little consistency between provinces” as to the substance of 21st century learning or the goals (p. 7).  The five provinces, simply put, were all over the map in their policies and implementation.

Among the Canadian provinces British Columbia and Alberta fared best, demonstrating more integration of 21st century skills and more evidence of policy implementation, including a focus on “innovation.” Ontario specializes in promoting critical thinking and character development, but shows “lack of attention to computer and digital technologies.”  New Brunswick was found to be in limbo, following the abortive 21st Century Learning initiative, halted by the David Alward government.  Quebec policy proved to be the most archaic, with no policy initiatives on “computer or digital technologies in the last decade.”(pp. 7-9).

The Teacher Survey was quite revealing, identifying a significant gap between the promise and delivery of educational policies. Descriptive thinking and writing still ranges between 38% and 46% of the curriculum, and teachers with graduate degrees are more likely to set higher analysis/evaluation expectations.    Classroom IT use remains surprisingly low in all provinces, and even in New Brunswick where all teachers have personal laptops.  Character development is strongest in Alberta and weakest in Ontario, where it is a state provincial curriculum priority. Overall, Canadian teachers aspire to demonstrate creativity, but “conventional modes of teaching” remain prevalent. (pp. 10-12).

One of the report’s real revelations is how much the the New Brunswick 21st Century Learning initiative, launched with tremendous fanfare by Shawn Graham’s Liberal government, has fizzled. After 3 school years, classroom computers are still used very rarely in the province’s schools. It’s anyone’s guess why the initiative’s champion,  former Deputy Minister John Kershaw, was chosen as a mentor for the group (p. 7) that produced this report.  Only in education are architects of programs asked to evaluate the success of their creations.

The report’s Recommendations are incredibly disappointing, particularly given the teacher survey findings. Since Dr. Paul Cappon, the Canadian Council on Learning, and most educational policy analysts  consider CMEC to be a weak sister, and a poor substitute for a national education agency, putting such faith in that body to deliver is likely doomed to failure. Sinking more financial resources into promoting teacher professional development has to be questioned given the lukewarm response from regular teachers skeptical of technology-driven solutions.

The sad state of commuter integration in the classroom and online learning, documented in the report, warrants more action and the authors completely ignore the specific policy proposals set out in the SQE research report, The Sky Has Limits, released a year ago. Top down solutions proposed in Future Tense rarely work, especially when so many structural barriers to online learning and virtual schools remain in place in our provincial school systems.

The Action Canada team’s prescription for 21st Century Learning is an anemic and conventional policy reform document. There was a time when we could look to  the ‘Young Turks” to shake up the educational system. It’s difficult to fathom where the Action Canada team developed its abiding faith in the Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC) as a body capable of stepping up to the challenge of national leadership. The more robust agenda advanced in the October 2011 Final Report of the Canadian Council on Learning has far more to offer us as a guide to the future.


About Paul W. Bennett

Founding Director, Schoolhouse Consulting, Halifax, NS



  1. OTR Links 06/04/2013 | doug --- off the record - [...] Future Tense: Where is “21st Century Learning” Heading? | voicEd.ca [...]
  2. Future Tense: Where is “21st Century Lear... - […] Educators are well known for recycling. The so-called “21st Century Learning Skills”, as Bob McGahey of the Canadian Teachers' …

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

five − = 2

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>