New Wine, Old Wineskins and 21st century education

Apr 17, 12 New Wine, Old Wineskins and 21st century education

There’s an adage that keeps coming to mind as I dive more deeply into thinking about what it means to be a teacher, a learner—even a parent—in this day and age. It’s an adage that’s borrowed from my faith tradition and it goes something like this:

 “You don’t put new wine into old wineskins!”

Why not? Well, because old wineskins have been stretched to their limit. Fermenting wine has made them brittle and any further use could result in the loss of both the wine and the skins.

I remember inserting this adage into the conversation about 10 years ago as our district struggled with the desire to have teachers integrate more “new” technologies into their practice. The same adage became part of our conversations a couple of weeks ago as our district program department began to talk in earnest about the idea of 21st learning.

Increasingly, I’m thinking that the conversations that we’re having about teaching and learning in this century must be multi-dimensional. On the one hand, we need to continue to pay attention to the new wine that is currently being produced. To be sure, it’s a rich blend that is energized by some rather agressive new grapes, but which is held together and supported by the fruit of some older and somewhat more stable vines. The vintage promises to be our finest yet!

At the same time, we have to be equally attentive to the “skins” into which we are attempting to place this new wine. It’s within the structures and infrastructures of our educational institutions that this new vintage is being poured, and it’s within the walls of these institutions that fermentation is expected to happen.

I believe that the metaphor draws us into the conversation in a different way in that it allows us to get excited about the new wine, but it forces us to ask important questions the nature of the places that counting on to hold and nurture our new vintages! And, in having these conversations on a more practical level, we have to be willing to look at the everything connected with the modern and not-s0-modern schoolhouse.

We need to have both the insight and the courage to stand up and say, “This practice right here just won’t do anymore!” or “A change here might allow us to do this” or “We need to completely get rid of this, else we’ll never get to that!”

The focused design work that we need to do extends well beyond the sweeping rhetoric about 21st century education that is beginning to turn many away from the conversations. There may be things about our current school structures that are worth hanging preserving, but there are many things that need to be re-examined and re-imagined if it is going to hold the new offerings.

When you think of the metaphor, what are some of things that come to mind in terms of our current model of school? What is worth keeping? What practices and traditions are standing in the way of us taking full advantage of what new ways of looking at teaching and learning have to offer?

This is a meaty metaphor wrapped up in some pretty general questions, but this is the path that I find myself moving down these days. In the next few weeks, I hope to unpack this a little more, and I would appreciate your insights, ideas…and your company!

About Stephen Hurley

I've been privileged to spend the last 30 years serving the public education system in Ontario. Through opportunities to work at most levels of the system, I have developed a heart for big picture thinking that is grounded in the reality of today's schools. I'm passionate about my own learning and look forward to nurturing that passion through my presence at


  1. Michael Harding /

    Stephen this a wonderful metaphor. What a beautiful depiction of blending the old and the new. As one who proudly considers himself to be “old wine” I appreciate the energy and the enthusiasm of the voiceEd community in nurturing the grapes for the new wine. I admire the passion of people like you who steadfastly search for the ideal skin into which the new wine will be poured. Today’s technology is rapidly becoming part of the fabric for the new skin. My only hope is that “everybody” will be able to afford the wine. Thanks for this Stephen.

  2. Neil Lyons /

    I had a conversation today with my teaching partners that is somewhat connected to your post, Stephen. I was bemoaning (proper word choice?) the strength of the symbolic representation of “school”. If you were forced to design a set for a movie scene that took place in a classroom, how would you present it? My guess is that it would have all the cliches: the blackboard, the teacher’s desk, the student desks separated and in rows, a map on the wall, a globe, and an apple (the kind that grow on trees, not in a factory). That is the meme of “school”. That is the old wineskin.

    What really interests me is that other symbollic cliches have not continued in pop culture. I’m thinking about police dramas on t.v and in print. Think about the contrast between Sherlock Holmes and Criminal Minds. Or Columbo and Law and Order. The police drama has changed from a solo expert, with an exceptional skill into a team-based approach. Medical dramas have changed as well. Dr. House is a genius, but he needs a team to maximize his skills. Imagine a bold new t.v. drama about a group of educators that work together to solve problems in today’s schools? Not going to happen. Has anyone ever seen a pop culture envisioning of the teaching profession that ISN’T individual desks in rows, with a chalkboard, a teacher’s desk at the front, a globe, and a large map? Even “progressive” movies (like Dead Poets Society? Or Freedom Writers?) are still extremely teacher-centred rooms.

    The old wineskin, the design of a school, IS school to most people. The wine? Secondary importance.

  3. James Cumming /

    The ability to use new technologies to our advantage is a skill that involves very quick adaptations to new technologies. Students at a primary level would benefit greatly from having some exposure to technologies at a young age so that they are exposed to a rapid changing framework from the beginning and are readily available to accept new ideas.

    However, this does not mean the education system should abandon old teaching practices. Just because we have Microsoft Word does not mean that schools should stop teaching grammar and spelling. Trying to rid ourselves of “old methods” is a mentality that assumes that new is always better. I think Stephen makes a great point that the old and the new can be integrated together where we take the best from both. If an education system can find a way to adapt new ideas with solid teaching methods, it will only help increase a students learning.

  4. Apt metaphor in many meaningful ways: The push for vocational skills in schools goes back at least to the early 1900s. Good coverage of this history in John Taylor Gatto’s ‘The Underground History of American Education’.

    Basically, there’s nothing meaningfully new about 21CL: It’s a re-branded agenda, updated for the neoliberal era. It speaks directly to the individualizing and narcissistic desires of corporatists, not the affirmative desires of teachers – who are, unfortunately, caught up in a tide of mystifying rhetoric and flowery spin.

  5. Neil Lyons /

    What is the alternative? Where is there an anti-neoliberal education system? When was there such a system? What is “the answer” to all this rhetoric and political noise-making? What should I do tomorrow, in my grade 7 class, to battle against this corporate agenda? Keeping in mind that I work for a school board that oversees the “education” of 152,000 students and Employs 15,000 people. Am I not part of “The System”?

    • This is one of the tensions that I’ve felt for many years, and, although it’s a perspective that lives and breathes in the halls of many universities, I think that it’s more than an intellectual exercise. I know that I didn’t encounter any of these lines of thinking until I returned to pursue an M.Ed but once I was introduced to the whole idea of critical pedagogy in terms of looking at where power was located and agendae created–in any organization–it was a way of thinking that was kind of woven into my “psyche”. That’s not meant to say anything except that it was something that I hadn’t thought of before, and now I do. Teachers, at the ground level, have never been the ones to design policy.

      I think that there is a good deal of rhetoric attached to any way of thinking once you get the ideological level. Socrates and his friends were aware of this, and any one that steps into the politcial arena realizes this.

      But what does it mean to those of us who need to go in and do our jobs this morning? Does it matter who sponsors the wireless, so long as it works? Does it matter who feeds and clothes my students so long as they come ready to learn? In the case of 21st century learning, does it matter who is leading the charge, so long as we get there? I don’t know for sure, but I think that they are questions worth asking.

      I know that people like @michaelhardin14 will remind us that it is the student in front of us that is our real curriculum, and I think that his writing is an important reminder to us that, in the midst of these conversations, there are students that arrive everyday expecting our best.

      On the other hand, this is an exciting conversation for me…including the many twists that are emerging…because it gets us back to the question that I’ve always appreciated: What is the purpose of schooling? We proceed as if we have a good handle on that one, but I think that there is still some deep thinking to do on it. And thank goodness for that.

      I’ve gone on to long; I’ll step aside (for now) and let someone else talk!

    • Hi Neil,

      Lots of good questions … will try to hit each and follow-up if needed:

      • “What is the alternative?”

      Do you mean to ask ‘What is the alternative [to 21CL]’? or ‘What is the alternative to [neoliberal-inspired education/curricular policies]’?

      To encompass both, I might draw attention to how 21CL and neoliberalism have a common theoretical foundation: Both draw on human capital theory, agency theory, property theory, and new public management theory. From within this frame, students are ‘self-capitalizing agents’, compelled into ‘hyper-competitiveness’ and marketization. The project of ‘What does it mean to be human?’ becomes reduced to: capitalize, exploit and consume.

      So, in a basic sense, ‘What is the alternative?’ might include a pedagogical frame that privileged cooperation (not competition), difference (not the sameness of /another/ consumer), agency and self-writing, etc.

      As it stands, 21CL is purely a vehicle for ‘vocationalizing youth’. As a result, any ‘alternative’ might begin with another goal or teleology: fostering critical citizenship practices, reinforcing the common good, operationalizing deliberative democracy, etc.

      • “Where is there an anti-neoliberal education system?”

      Neoliberalism is a global dilemma. However, there are lots and lots of good folks that are looking for and creating alternatives. Indeed, resistance to neoliberal ed policies has become a niche market within the field of education, more or less. As a result, in responding to this question I could cite examples from Chile, or Argentina, or Arizona, or New Brunswick, or Spain, or Turkey, etc. All over the world, good folks are asking the question ‘How to create an alternative to neoliberal education?’

      • “When was there such a system?”

      In a sense, neoliberalism has been around for eons, and is really nothing new. Like globalization: Globalization is a hot topic today, but the process of globalization includes the wanderings of the Vikings, the Egyptians, and who knows who came before them. What’s changed with globalization is the /intensity/ – and this is apt for neoliberalism too.

      To reiterate, neoliberalism /intensifies/ processes. So, for instance, when teachers complain about the bureaucratic increases to their workload, this is an aspect of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism brings an intensification of marketization, ‘efficiency’, managerialism, accountability, etc. As a result, the ‘new’ that’s in neoliberalism should be understood as a shift towards intensifying performances in order to extract more profit from bodies.

      • “What is ‘the answer’ to all this rhetoric and political noise-making?”

      Duchamp once insisted that, “There is no solution because there is no problem.” I think that’s apt here. There is no ‘answer’. Rather, we need questions and problems, not answers and solutions.

      With that said, I think part of the ‘answer’ is to translate teachers’ micro-resistances into macro-resistances. Maybe the seeds of this are being planted now?

      • “What should I do tomorrow, in my grade 7 class, to battle against this corporate agenda?”

      I think there’s some danger here in instrumentalizing, de-professionalizing teaching. The common question of: “This is great and all, but what do I do on Monday morning?” is an effect of the de-skilling of teachers, IMO. I might suggest that if the question is one of extreme immediacy, it might be more aptly directed towards study and networking. In other words, instead of looking for an ‘answer’ to a ‘problem’, we might better be served by looking for ‘problems’ to ‘answers’ – of which 21CL is a wonderful example.

      Alternatively, I also quite like Kaustuv Roy’s notion of an ‘apprenticeship of the signs’. In ‘Teachers in nomadic spaces: Deleuze and curriculum’ he pulls from Deleuze and Guattari to highlight the semiotic games that permeate teachers’ work. He discusses how signs convey affect, and how teachers can experiment with them.

      • “Am I not part of ‘The System’?”

      Yes! We all are! We are all guilty and complicit! In fact, De Lissovoy argues that /THE/ first step in becoming a critical pedagog is realizing our own complicity. Then it becomes a question of: “I am complicit, so what do I do about it?” At this point ethics and critique can come into play, which is a key facet of De Lissovoy’s argument.

      Two possible outcomes of this realization of complicity are nihilism and resignation: ‘What’s the point, it’s all going to hell anyway.’ I would suggest that this is something that we must guard against, lest we get lost in the void. Lots of danger, no shortage of work to be done.

      Hope that helps. :)

      • Neil Lyons /

        Actually, it does help.

        As a student, I learned to “play the game” of school. I knew how many credits I needed, and which grade I needed to continue moving forward. The message was, “keep moving forward, get your university degree and everything will be fine”. Obviously, with that direction, my education was pretty hollow, uninteresting, and unfulfilling. Talking with my peers, of that time, my experience was not unique. It was my disillusionment with “the system” that led me to be a teacher.

        Over the last several years, I have witnessed how “the game” is played from the other side. I have seen teachers scramble for “marks” for an upcoming report card. I have seen teachers desperate to find some “lesson” to fill an upcoming teaching period. I have heard the same conversation about a “misbehaving/terrible student” for 8 years (the student changes every year, but the conversation doesn’t).

        I guess my task will be to continue to ask questions about public schools, and my role in them.
        “Why am I teaching this?”,
        “Who are these young people in my class?”,
        “Who writes these curriculum documents?”,
        “Why is the median grade of all students in a school printed on every students report card?”

        I will have to spend some time reading up on your sources. Although, I can’t see much radical change happening anytime soon.

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