Archive for the ‘21st century skills’ Category

Always learning

In an earlier post , I explored the use of the phrase ‘Always learning’ as a promotional tagline by Pearson. Pearson’s use of the phrase peaked in the early years of the 2010s at a time when the company, facing growing criticism for the length and aggressivity of its tentacles in US education (Ravitch, 2012; Sellar et al, 2016), was particularly keen to fashion ‘its image as a socially responsible edu-business’. Not coincidentally, ‘lifelong learning’, the big idea evoked by ‘Always learning’, saw a resurgence of interest around the same time, as the United Nations published their Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. The fourth of these was:

‘Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.’

This was an extension of the earlier (2000) UN Millennium Development Goal, which aimed for universal primary education. It had been recognised that this was not sufficient to break global cycles of poverty. For that, not only universal secondary education, but also post-secondary (lifelong) learning, were needed, too. The goal was criticised for being vague, over-ambitious and unrealisable, but it was so obviously a ‘good thing’ that it could do nobody any harm to be associated with it.

Lifelong learning, democracy and human capital

The idea of lifelong education may be vague, but its history can be traced back to at least Confucius who said that ‘life is limited, while learning is limitless’ (Guo-Dong, 1994). Plato advocated lifelong learning for the highest ranking members of society. Comenius promoted a more democratic version of lifelong learning, as did Condorcet during the French Revolution (Matheson & Matheson, 1996). More recent incarnations of the idea are often traced back to John Dewey (Fleming, 2011), who saw a close connection between education and democracy, and believed that learning should continue past school ‘irrespective of age’ (Dewey, 1916: 55). The UNESCO report (Faure, 1972), which did so much to establish the idea of lifelong learning in contemporary educational discourse, was very much in the democratic Dewey tradition.

In more recent discourse, the democratic veneer remains visible, but a human capital approach to lifelong learning is now clearly privileged (Fleming, 2011). Supported by international bodies like the OECD and the EU, current discourses prioritize the needs of the marketplace, and place the emphasis on learning as an individualized responsibility (Olssen, 2006). References abound to the rapidly changing nature of our contemporary world, especially the world of work, where only lifelong learning can offer the adaptability and flexibility needed for our occupational, political and ecological survival. Notions of a fuller life and self-actualization have not gone away, but interest is much more squarely centred on the part that lifelong learning can play in the development of human capital. A recent (2021) article from Pearson entitled ‘New research shows employers see lifelong learning as the ‘new normal’ as UK Government releases skills data’ https://plc.pearson.com/en-US/news/new-research-shows-employers-see-lifelong-learning-new-normal-uk-government-releases-skills is typical in this respect. In a similar vein, MOOC provider, FutureLearn (2022), has recently brought out a report into the ‘future of learning’ in which ‘lifelong learning’ is seen as ‘critical to upskilling the workforce of the future’.

Like so many other words I have looked at on this blog, ‘lifelong learning’ ‘has all the trappings of what might be termed a ‘good idea’ — it is bedecked with hurrah words and emotive terms, liberally dispersed by its proponents, and this gives it an air of conceptual solidity, together with making it more readily popular’ (Matheson & Matheson). Meaning little more than learning that is not confined to school, the best way of understanding the term is perhaps to look at what people actually do with it.

Lifelong learning and English language teaching

In the world of English language teaching, one of the early uses of the term ‘lifelong learning’ was in the title of a plenary IATEFL presentation, ‘Developing learner autonomy – preparing learners for lifelong learning’ (Dam, 2002). It was an interesting, but hardly contentious, lecture, arguing that (1) lifelong learning is necessary because schools can’t teach everything, (2) that learner autonomy is necessary for lifelong learning, so (3) our educational focus should be more on learning and less on teaching. Precisely what should be learnt in the long life of learning is left unspecified, and whether that learning should literally continue till death do us part remained equally unclear. Leni Dam was invoking the fashionable term of ‘lifelong learning’ to sell the idea of ‘learner autonomy’. But it really wasn’t needed: even month-long learning would be enough to justify the encouragement of learner autonomy.

There is, however, no disputing the potential of the term ‘lifelong learning’ in selling ideas. I recently came across the lovely phrase ‘premature ultimate’ (try googling it!) – ‘a concept or term that provokes such reverence and contains such connotative potency that its invocation tends to silence any further discussion on a matter’ (Brookfield, 1986). Great for selling, in other words, as on the website of the wonderfully named ‘Enjoy TEFL’ , ‘the Global Number 1 Accredited TEFL and Mindfulness Provider’, which manages to pack ‘lifelong learning’, ‘21st century’, ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’ into just two lines. Their current promotion offers two free mindfulness courses when you buy a 120 / 180 hour TEFL course.

Linking ‘lifelong learning’ and ‘21st century skills’ is standard practice. The Lifelong Learning Programme 2007 – 2013 of the EU had rather vague objectives, but the desirable skills that were listed were largely indistinguishable from other lists of C21 skills / global skill / soft skills: communication competencies, digital competencies, social and emotional skills, and so on (Kaplan, 2016). Coupling the two concepts means that anything loosely connected with the latter can be promoted by association with the former. Two examples. Creativity and lifelong learning are associated in an article by Daniel Xerri (2017) that seeks to ‘mobilise students’ creative thinking’ and to show ‘how the English language classroom can serve as an incubator for an awareness of the need to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education, and to promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’. Xerri is certainly interested in using ‘creativity’ tasks to promote awareness of the first part of the UN’s SDG, but the ‘lifelong learning’ bit is not explored at all. In contrast, Reinders et al (2022) explore in some depth what they mean by ‘lifelong learning’, but the bottom line is the promotion of the use of digital tools in language learning. ‘Lifelong learning’ (or ‘lifewide learning[1]’, as they call it) is just one reason for advocating the use of digital technologies.

Competing with ‘Enjoy TEFL’ for the prize of the crudest invocation of ‘lifelong learning’ is Darren Nicholls, a product manager for Pearson. A promo for some new Pearson proficiency tests describes them as ‘web-based tests [that] first stream students into the appropriate class and then monitor their progress over an extended period of time. Both tests are hosted on a new platform, Test Hub, which supports lifelong learning by bringing together all proficiency assessments under one roof’. Lifelong learning would seem to mean digital homework.

Lifelong learning and CPD

I have often heard myself (and many others) saying that a good teacher is one who never stops learning. It’s the kind of wisdom of online memes. Once you stop learning you start dying, Albert Einstein didn’t actually say, but let’s not worry about attributional details. ‘Enjoy TEFL’ tries to sell its courses by appealing to the same sentiment, and they are not alone. The blurb for an IATEFL Poland webinar says ‘Being networked is of key importance to all professionally active people in the process of lifelong learning …’ A joint LTSIG and TDSIG conference in Istanbul in 2012 waxed lyrical: ‘This is an age of lifelong learning, or ‘perpetual beta’, of learning anywhere, any place, any time’. Professional development is a lifelong obligation and, for those who are super-keen, JALT (the Japanese Association of Language Teachers) has a ‘Lifelong Language Learning Special Interest Group’ which organises events and a regular newsletter.

All well and good, you may be thinking, but pause a moment to think about the way in which the discourse of lifelong learning ‘orientates education to the enterprise society where the learner (or the teacher as learner) becomes an entrepreneur of him / herself’ (Olssen, 2006). Never mind that increasing numbers of teachers are on zero-hours contracts or fail to take home the minimum wage, a commitment to lifelong professional development is expected. Where better place to start than next week’s IATEFL conference, with its free, daily mindfulness workshops? If you’re based in the UK and working at one of the many language schools that pays the minimum wage, you’ll only need to clock up about 100 hours of teaching to afford it.

References

Brookfield, S. (1986) Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning. Hoboken, NJ: Jossey – Bass

Dam, L. (2002) Developing learner autonomy – preparing learners for lifelong learning. In Pulverness, A. (Ed.) IATEFL 2002 York Conference Selections. Whitstable, Kent: IATEFL

Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and education. New York: Macmillan.

Faure, E. (1972) Learning to be: The world of education today and tomorrow. Paris: UNESCO.

Fleming, T. (2011) Models of Lifelong Learning: An Overview. In M. London (Ed.). Oxford Handbook of Lifelong Learning (pp. 29-39). New York: Oxford University Press.

FutureLearn (2022) The Future of Learning Report 2022. London: FutureLearn https://www.futurelearn.com/info/thefutureoflearning

Guo-Dong, X. (1994) Lifelong education in China: new policies and activities. International Review of Education, 40, (3-5)

Jackson, N. J. (Ed.) (2011) Learning for a complex world: A lifewide concept of learning, development and achievement. AuthorHouse Publishing. Available at: https://www.lifewideeducation.uk/learning-for-a-complex-world.html

Kaplan, A. (2016) Lifelong Learning: Conclusions From A Literature Review. International Online Journal of Primary Education, 5 (2): pp. 43 – 50

Matheson, D. & Matheson, C. (1996) Lifelong Learning and Lifelong Education: a critique. Research in Post‐Compulsory Education, 1 (2): pp. 219-236, DOI: 10.1080/1359674960010207

Olssen, M. (2006) Understanding the mechanisms of neoliberal control: lifelong learning, flexibility and knowledge capitalism. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 25 (3): pp. 213-230.

Ravitch, D. (2012) The United States of Pearson? http://dianeravitch.net/2012/05/07/the-united-states-of-pearson-2/

Reinders, H., Dudeney, G., & Lamb, M. (2022) Using Technology to Motivate Learners. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Sellar, S., Hogan, A. & Lingard, B. (2016) Always Learning. Education International https://www.ei-ie.org/en/item/21091:always-learning

Xerri, D. (2017) Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. In Maley, A. & Peachey, N. (Eds.) Integrating global issues in the creative English language classroom: With reference to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. London: British Council, pp. 49 – 56


[1] ‘Lifewide learning’ is not a term made up by Reinders et al. The idea has been around for over 20 years, piggy-backing on lifelong learning, and referring to the fact that learning takes place in a variety of different environments and situations. For more information, see Jackson (2011). And, if you really have nothing better to do, check out ‘lifedeep learning’. I thought, at first, it was a joke, but it’s been written about in all seriousness.

There’s a video on YouTube from Oxford University Press in which the presenter, the author of a coursebook for primary English language learners (‘Oxford Discover’), describes an activity where students have a short time to write some sentences about a picture they have been shown. Then, working in pairs, they read aloud their partner’s sentences and award themselves points, with more points being given for sentences that others have not come up with. For lower level, young learners, it’s not a bad activity. It provides opportunities for varied skills practice of a limited kind and, if it works, may be quite fun and motivating. However, what I found interesting about the video is that it is entitled ‘How to teach critical thinking skills: speaking’ and the book that is being promoted claims to develop ‘21st Century Skills in critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity’. The presenter says that the activity achieves its critical thinking goals by promoting ‘both noticing and giving opinions, […] two very important critical thinking skills.’

Noticing (or observation) and giving opinions are often included in lists of critical thinking skills, but, for this to be the case, they must presumably be exercised in a critical way – some sort of reasoning must be involved. This is not the case here, so only the most uncritical understanding of critical thinking could consider this activity to have any connection to critical thinking. Whatever other benefits might accrue from it, it seems highly unlikely that the students’ ability to notice or express opinions will be developed.

My scepticism is not shared by many users of the book. Oxford University Press carried out a scientific-sounding ‘impact study’: this consisted of a questionnaire (n = 198) in which ‘97% of teachers reported that using Oxford Discover helps their students to improve in the full range of 21st century skills, with critical thinking and communication scoring the highest’.

Enthusiasm for critical thinking activities is extremely widespread. In 2018, TALIS, the OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (with more than 4000 respondents) found that ‘over 80% of teachers feel confident in their ability to vary instructional strategies in their classroom and help students think critically’ and almost 60% ‘frequently or always’ ‘give students tasks that require students to think critically.’ Like the Oxford ‘impact study’, it’s worth remembering that these are self-reporting figures.

This enthusiasm is shared in the world of English language teaching, reflected in at least 17 presentations at the 2021 IATEFL conference that discussed practical ideas for promoting critical thinking. These ranged from the more familiar (e.g. textual analysis in EAP) to the more original – developing critical thinking through the use of reading reaction journals, multicultural literature, fables, creative arts performances, self-expression, escape rooms, and dice games.

In most cases, it would appear that the precise nature of the critical thinking that was ostensibly being developed was left fairly vague. This vagueness is not surprising. Practically the only thing that writers about critical thinking in education can agree on is that there is no general agreement about what, precisely, critical thinking is. Lai (2011) offers an accessible summary of a range of possible meanings, but points out that, in educational contexts, its meaning is often rather vague and encompasses other concepts (such as higher order thinking skills) which also lack clarity. Paul Dummett and John Hughes (2019: 4) plump for ‘a mindset that involves thinking reflectively, rationally and reasonably’ – a vague definition which leaves unanswered two key questions: to what extent is it a skill set or a disposition? Are these skills generic or domain specific?

When ‘critical thinking’ is left undefined, it is impossible to evaluate the claims that a particular classroom activity will contribute to the development of critical thinking. However, irrespective of the definition, there are good reasons to be sceptical about the ability of educational activities to have a positive impact on the generic critical thinking skills of learners in English language classes. There can only be critical-thinking value in the activity described at the beginning of this post if learners somehow transfer the skills they practise in the activity to other domains of their lives. This is, of course, possible, but, if we approach the question with a critical disposition, we have to conclude that it is unlikely. We may continue to believe the opposite, but this would be an uncritical act of faith.

The research evidence on the efficacy of teaching generic critical thinking is not terribly encouraging (Tricot & Sweller, 2014). There’s no shortage of anecdotal support for classroom critical thinking, but ‘education researchers have spent over a century searching for, and failing to find evidence of, transfer to unrelated domains by the use of generic-cognitive skills’ (Sweller, 2022). One recent meta-analysis (Huber & Kuncel, 2016) found insufficient evidence to justify the explicit teaching of generic critical thinking skills at college level. In an earlier blog post https://adaptivelearninginelt.wordpress.com/2020/10/16/fake-news-and-critical-thinking-in-elt/ looking at the impact of critical thinking activities on our susceptibility to fake news, I noted that research was unable to find much evidence of the value of media literacy training. When considerable time is devoted to generic critical thinking training and little or no impact is found, how likely is it that the kind of occasional, brief one-off activity in the ELT classroom will have the desired impact? Without going as far as to say that critical thinking activities in the ELT classroom have no critical-thinking value, it is uncontentious to say that we still do not know how to define critical thinking, how to assess evidence of it, or how to effectively practise and execute it (Gay & Clark, 2021).

It is ironic that there is so little critical thinking about critical thinking in the world of English language teaching, but it should not be particularly surprising. Teachers are no more immune to fads than anyone else (Fuertes-Prieto et al., 2020). Despite a complete lack of robust evidence to support them, learning styles and multiple intelligences influenced language teaching for many years. Mindfulness, growth mindsets, grit are more contemporary influences and, like critical thinking, will go the way of learning styles when the commercial and institutional forces that currently promote them find the lack of empirical supporting evidence problematic.

Critical thinking is an educational aim shared by educational authorities around the world, promoted by intergovernmental bodies like the OECD, the World Bank, the EU, and the United Nations. In Japan, for example, the ‘Ministry of Education (MEXT) puts critical thinking (CT) at the forefront of its ‘global jinzai’ (human capital for a global society) directive’ (Gay & Clark, 2021). It is taught as an academic discipline in some universities in Russia (Ivlev et al, 2021) and plans are underway to introduce it into schools in Saudi Arabia. https://www.arabnews.com/node/1764601/saudi-arabia I suspect that it doesn’t mean quite the same thing in all these places.

Critical thinking is also an educational aim that most teachers can share. Few like to think of themselves as Gradgrinds, bashing facts into their pupils’ heads: turning children into critical thinkers is what education is supposed to be all about. It holds an intuitive appeal, and even if we (20% of teachers in the TALIS survey) lack confidence in our ability to promote critical thinking in the classroom, few of us doubt the importance of trying to do so. Like learning styles, multiple intelligences and growth mindsets, it seems possible that, with critical thinking, we are pushing the wrong thing, but for the right reasons. But just how much evidence, or lack of evidence, do we need before we start getting critical about critical thinking?

References

Dummett, P. & Hughes, J. (2019) Critical Thinking in ELT. Boston: National Geographic Learning

Fuertes-Prieto, M.Á., Andrés-Sánchez, S., Corrochano-Fernández, D. et al. (2020) Pre-service Teachers’ False Beliefs in Superstitions and Pseudosciences in Relation to Science and Technology. Science & Education 29, 1235–1254 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11191-020-00140-8

Gay, S. & Clark, G. (2021) Revisiting Critical Thinking Constructs and What This Means for ELT. Critical Thinking and Language Learning, 8 (1): pp. 110 – 147

Huber, C.R. & Kuncel, N.R. (2016) Does College Teach Critical Thinking? A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research. 2016: 86 (2) pp.:431-468. doi:10.3102/0034654315605917

Ivlev, V. Y., Pozdnyakov, M. V., Inozemtsez, V. A. & Chernyak, A. Z. (2021) Critical Thinking in the Structure of Educational Programs in Russian Universities. Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research, volume 555: pp. 121 -128

Lai, E.R. 2011. Critical Thinking: A Literature Review. Pearson. http://images.pearsonassessments.com/images/tmrs/CriticalThinkingReviewFINAL.pdf

Sweller, J. (2022) Some Critical Thoughts about Critical and Creative Thinking. Sydney: The Centre for Independent Studies Analysis Paper 32

Tricot, A., & Sweller, J. (2014) Domain-specific knowledge and why teaching generic skills does not work. Educational Psychology Review, 26, 265- 283.

On 21 January, I attended the launch webinar of DEFI (the Digital Education Futures Initiative), an initiative of the University of Cambridge, which seeks to work ‘with partners in industry, policy and practice to explore the field of possibilities that digital technology opens up for education’. The opening keynote speaker was Andrea Schleicher, head of education at the OECD. The OECD’s vision of the future of education is outlined in Schleicher’s book, ‘World Class: How to Build a 21st-Century School System’, freely available from the OECD, but his presentation for DEFI offers a relatively short summary. A recording is available here, and this post will take a closer look at some of the things he had to say.

Schleicher is a statistician and the coordinator of the OECD’s PISA programme. Along with other international organisations, such as the World Economic Forum and the World Bank (see my post here), the OECD promotes the global economization and corporatization of education, ‘based on the [human capital] view that developing work skills is the primary purpose of schooling’ (Spring, 2015: 14). In other words, the main proper function of education is seen to be meeting the needs of global corporate interests. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the impact of school closures becoming very visible, Schleicher expressed concern about the disruption to human capital development, but thought it was ‘a great moment’: ‘the current wave of school closures offers an opportunity for experimentation and for envisioning new models of education’. Every cloud has a silver lining, and the pandemic has been a godsend for private companies selling digital learning (see my post about this here) and for those who want to reimagine education in a more corporate way.

Schleicher’s presentation for DEFI was a good opportunity to look again at the way in which organisations like the OECD are shaping educational discourse (see my post about the EdTech imaginary and ELT).

He begins by suggesting that, as a result of the development of digital technology (Google, YouTube, etc.) literacy is ‘no longer just about extracting knowledge’. PISA reading scores, he points out, have remained more or less static since 2000, despite the fact that we have invested (globally) more than 15% extra per student in this time. Only 9% of all 15-year-old students in the industrialised world can distinguish between fact and opinion.

To begin with, one might argue about the reliability and validity of the PISA reading scores (Berliner, 2020). One might also argue, as did a collection of 80 education experts in a letter to the Guardian, that the scores themselves are responsible for damaging global education, raising further questions about their validity. One might argue that the increased investment was spent in the wrong way (e.g. on hardware and software, rather than teacher training, for example), because the advice of organisations like OECD has been uncritically followed. And the statistic about critical reading skills is fairly meaningless unless it is compared to comparable metrics over a long time span: there is no reason to believe that susceptibility to fake news is any more of a problem now than it was, say, one hundred years ago. Nor is there any reason to believe that education can solve the fake-news problem (see my post about fake news and critical thinking here). These are more than just quibbles, but the main point that Schleicher is making is that education needs to change.

Schleicher next presents a graph which is designed to show that the amount of time that students spend studying correlates poorly with the amount they learn. His interest is in the (lack of) productivity of educational activities in some contexts. He goes on to argue that there is greater productivity in educational activities when learners have a growth mindset, implying (but not stating) that mindset interventions in schools would lead to a more productive educational environment.

Schleicher appears to confuse what students learn with the things they have learnt that have been measured by PISA. The two are obviously rather different, since PISA is only interested in a relatively small subset of the possible learning outcomes of schooling. His argument for growth mindset interventions hinges on the assumption that such interventions will lead to gains in reading scores. However, his graph demonstrates a correlation between growth mindset and reading scores, not a causal relationship. A causal relationship has not been clearly and empirically demonstrated (see my post about growth mindsets here) and recent work by Carol Dweck and her associates (e.g. Yeager et al., 2016), as well as other researchers (e.g. McPartlan et al, 2020), indicates that the relationship between gains in learning outcomes and mindset interventions is extremely complex.

Schleicher then turns to digitalisation and briefly discusses the positive and negative affordances of technology. He eulogizes platform companies before showing a slide designed to demonstrate that (in the workplace) there is a strong correlation between ICT use and learning. He concludes: ‘the digital world of learning is a hugely empowering world of learning’.

A brief paraphrase of this very disingenuous part of the presentation would be: technology can be good and bad, but I’ll only focus on the former. The discourse appears balanced, but it is anything but.

During the segment, Schleicher argues that technology is empowering, and gives the examples of ‘the most successful companies these days, they’re not created by a big industry, they’re created by a big idea’. This is plainly counterfactual. In the case of Alphabet and Facebook, profits did not follow from a ‘big idea’: the ideas changed as the companies evolved.

Schleicher then sketches a picture of an unpredictable future (pandemics, climate change, AI, cyber wars, etc.) as a way of framing the importance of being open (and resilient) to different futures and how we respond to them. He offers two different kinds of response: maintenance of the status quo, or ‘outsourcing’ of education. The pandemic, he suggests, has made more countries aware that the latter is the way forward.

In his discussion of the maintenance of the status quo, Schleicher talks about the maintenance of educational monopolies. By this, he must be referring to state monopolies on education: this is a favoured way of neoliberals of referring to state-sponsored education. But the extent to which, in 2021 in many OECD countries, the state has any kind of monopoly of education, is very open to debate. Privatization is advancing fast. Even in 2015, the World Education Forum’s ‘Final Report’ wrote that ‘the scale of engagement of nonstate actors at all levels of education is growing and becoming more diversified’. Schleicher goes on to talk about ‘large, bureaucratic school systems’, suggesting that such systems cannot be sufficiently agile, adaptive or responsive. ‘We should ask this question,’ he says, but his own answer to it is totally transparent: ‘changing education can be like moving graveyards’ is the title of the next slide. Education needs to be more like the health sector, he claims, which has been able to develop a COVID vaccine in such a short period of time. We need an education industry that underpins change in the same way as the health industry underpins vaccine development. In case his message isn’t yet clear enough, I’ll spell it out: education needs to be privatized still further.

Schleicher then turns to the ways in which he feels that digital technology can enhance learning. These include the use of AR, VR and AI. Technology, he says, can make learning so much more personalized: ‘the computer can study how you study, and then adapt learning so that it is much more granular, so much more adaptive, so much more responsive to your learning style’. He moves on to the field of assessment, again singing the praises of technology in the ways that it can offer new modes of assessment and ‘increase the reliability of machine rating for essays’. Through technology, we can ‘reunite learning and assessment’. Moving on to learning analytics, he briefly mentions privacy issues, before enthusing at greater length about the benefits of analytics.

Learning styles? Really? The reliability of machine scoring of essays? How reliable exactly? Data privacy as an area worth only a passing mention? The use of sensors to measure learners’ responses to learning experiences? Any pretence of balance appears now to have been shed. This is in-your-face sales talk.

Next up is a graph which purports to show the number of teachers in OECD countries who use technology for learners’ project work. This is followed by another graph showing the number of teachers who have participated in face-to-face and online CPD. The point of this is to argue that online CPD needs to become more common.

I couldn’t understand what point he was trying to make with the first graph. For the second, it is surely the quality of the CPD, rather than the channel, that matters.

Schleicher then turns to two further possible responses of education to unpredictable futures: ‘schools as learning hubs’ and ‘learn-as-you-go’. In the latter, digital infrastructure replaces physical infrastructure. Neither is explored in any detail. The main point appears to be that we should consider these possibilities, weighing up as we do so the risks and the opportunities (see slide below).

Useful ways to frame questions about the future of education, no doubt, but Schleicher is operating with a set of assumptions about the purpose of education, which he chooses not to explore. His fundamental assumption – that the primary purpose of education is to develop human capital in and for the global economy – is not one that I would share. However, if you do take that view, then privatization, economization, digitalization and the training of social-emotional competences are all reasonable corollaries, and the big question about the future concerns how to go about this in a more efficient way.

Schleicher’s (and the OECD’s) views are very much in accord with the libertarian values of the right-wing philanthro-capitalist foundations of the United States (the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation and so on), funded by Silicon Valley and hedge-fund managers. It is to the US that we can trace the spread and promotion of these ideas, but it is also, perhaps, to the US that we can now turn in search of hope for an alternative educational future. The privatization / disruption / reform movement in the US has stalled in recent years, as it has become clear that it failed to deliver on its promise of improved learning. The resistance to privatized and digitalized education is chronicled in Diane Ravitch’s latest book, ‘Slaying Goliath’ (2020). School closures during the pandemic may have been ‘a great moment’ for Schleicher, but for most of us, they have underscored the importance of face-to-face free public schooling. Now, with the electoral victory of Joe Biden and the appointment of a new US Secretary for Education (still to be confirmed), we are likely to see, for the first time in decades, an education policy that is firmly committed to public schools. The US is by far the largest contributor to the budget of the OECD – more than twice any other nation. Perhaps a rethink of the OECD’s educational policies will soon be in order?

References

Berliner D.C. (2020) The Implications of Understanding That PISA Is Simply Another Standardized Achievement Test. In Fan G., Popkewitz T. (Eds.) Handbook of Education Policy Studies. Springer, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-8343-4_13

McPartlan, P., Solanki, S., Xu, D. & Sato, B. (2020) Testing Basic Assumptions Reveals When (Not) to Expect Mindset and Belonging Interventions to Succeed. AERA Open, 6 (4): 1 – 16 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/2332858420966994

Ravitch, D. (2020) Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public School. New York: Vintage Books

Schleicher, A. (2018) World Class: How to Build a 21st-Century School System. Paris: OECD Publishing https://www.oecd.org/education/world-class-9789264300002-en.htm

Spring, J. (2015) Globalization of Education 2nd Edition. New York: Routledge

Yeager, D. S., et al. (2016) Using design thinking to improve psychological interventions: The case of the growth mindset during the transition to high school. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108(3), 374–391. https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000098

All things told, it’s been a pretty good year for thought leaders. The face-to-face gigs have dried up, but there’s no shortage of online demand. Despite being identified, back in 2013, as one of the year’s most “insufferable” business buzzwords and clichés, thought leaders have hung on and are going strong. In fact, their numbers are increasing, or at least references to them are increasing. Ten years ago there was a tussle on Google Trends between ‘thought leader’ and ‘edtech’. The latter long ago zoomed into the stratosphere of search terms, but ‘thought leader’ has been chugging along quite nicely, despite a certain amount of flak that the term has taken. Concern about the precise nature of what is and what is not thought has been raised. There was a merciless parody-deconstruction of a TED talk by a comic pretending to be a thought leader (2.3 million views). Anand Giridharadas (2019) devoted a whole chapter of his best-selling ‘Winners Take All’ to the difference between thought leaders and critics. The former, Giridharas scoffs, love ‘an easy idea that goes down like gelato, an idea that gives hope while challenging nothing’. Elsewhere, in the New York Times, another writer jokes about thought leaders as a sort of wannabe highflying, good-doing yacht-to-yacht concept peddler. Thought leadership, in the withering words of one new book (Daub, 2020), is what some people in tech think is thinking.

But thought leadership is not rolling over and going away just yet. If you think you may have spotted a thought leader, the probability is that they have something about their thought leadership skills in the first line of their bio. You can double check someone’s aspiration to being a thought leader by their use of phrases like ‘reimagining’, ‘innovation’, ‘inclusivity’ and ‘disruption’.

The last of these is a real shibboleth and has to be used carefully. Everyone knows it is a nonsense of sorts: for every Uber there is a Hutzler 5711 banana slicer (I highly recommend the customer reviews on Amazon!). Still, you can get away with talking about ‘disruption’ if you’re in the right group of people.

We don’t have enough thought leaders in ELT. I’ve checked and there don’t seem to be too many of them out there. Broadly speaking, they can be divided into two types. There are those who are sometimes referred to by others as a ‘thought leader’ and there are those who only get referred to in that way when they’re talking about themselves. A good place to look for them is the British Council, whose remit includes thought leadership: it’s part of their ‘what we do’. But when you investigate more closely, it’s hard to identify who exactly is a ‘thought leader’ and who is just a ‘leading expert’. There’s a certain coyness about naming particular thought leaders. Not long ago, I saw a job advert for OUP which required ‘thought leadership on the exploitation of data science to drive the innovations in Assessment products and services’. I hope they filled the post satisfactorily. And Cambridge English has a Director of ‘Research and Thought Leadership’, but you can’t blame him for the job title.

Pearson offers webinars where you can find out about ‘what’s being discussed amongst our Thought Leaders’, but the presenters don’t come labelled ‘thought leader’, so you don’t know who’s a thought leader and who’s not. It’s all very tricky. TESOL is also quite oblique, promoting TESOL partnerships where you can reach ‘fellow thought leaders’ … who are never further identified.

There’s a clear need for these thought leaders to be made more visible. Who exactly are they? What’s their typical profile? ‘Who pays them’ would also be an interesting question.

Unfortunately, the BETT Show, which is a good place to spot a thought leader in the flesh, has been covid-cancelled. BETT has the laudable-sounding goal of ‘Creating a better future by transforming education’, but the future has been postponed and the transformation will be technological, enabling ‘educators and learners to thrive’. In March 2021, you can catch up with thought leaders, though, new and old, at BETT’s replacement event: Learnit Live. It’s ‘a five-day, global online event featuring global education leaders’ where you can acquire ‘the tools [needed] to thrive in a rapidly changing world’. Yes, the Future of Learning is Now.

The image is worth deconstructing a little. We’ve got measurement / accountability in the bar chart at the top. We’ve got inclusive collaboration in the handshake, insights with the electric bulb and an all-seeing eye, which I don’t think is meant to refer to data privacy issues. I’m not sure what the money icon is meant to represent, either, but perhaps I’m being obtuse. One thing is clear. The future of learning is on a screen banged down on a UK-centred globe. The event also guarantees no Zoom fatigue, and a refund is offered if you find the whole thing tedious. A General Ticket costs £160.00: thought leaders don’t come cheap.

Thought leaders are interlopers in the world of education. They really belong in the discourse of business, as reflected in the webpage of Global Thought Leaders . The adjectives say it all: changing, efficient, financial, forward-thinking, sustainable, technological, transparent. Education, however, sits a little uneasily with some of these attributes, and, for that reason, I, personally, find it hard to use the term without irony.

You can check out the list of the World’s Top 30 Education Gurus for 2020 here and it includes some of the usual suspects: Salman Khan, Sugata Mitra, the late Ken Robinson, John Hattie and Dylan William. White men, mostly. For more specifically ELT thought leaders, perhaps we should let them stay anonymous. Guruism, as Paola Rebolledo has reminded us, can be detrimental to our professional health. ‘Become your own guru,’ she calls and I would add, ‘Become your own thought leader’.

You can do this by reading Ayn Rand and ‘Talk like TED’ by Carmine Gallo. You might consider an online course on ‘Becoming a Thought Leader’ (the price includes a shareable certificate) to help you develop a compelling message, build influence, maximize your visibility, and track your impact. Or save money and buy ‘The Thought Leadership Manual: How to Grab Your Clients ….’ (I’ll leave you to complete the title). Find your niche, but focus on tech, that’s my advice.

Happy new year!

Philip

Daub, A. (2020) What Tech Calls Thinking. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Giridharas, A. (2019) Winners Take All. New York: Knopf

Whenever a word is frequently used in arguments trying to persuade people to believe some opinion or other, our mental twists and turns to make the opinion plausible involve shifting from meaning to meaning without realizing it. This has happened to creativity on a grand scale.’ (Perry, L. (1987). The Educational Value of Creativity. Journal of Art and Design Education 6 (3) ) quoted in Pugliese, 2010: 8)

If you take a look at the word ‘creativity’ in Google’s Ngram viewer, you’ll notice that use of the word really took off around 1950, the year when J. P. Guilford published an article entitled ‘Creativity’ in American Psychologist. Guilford’s background was in the US military. His research was part funded by the US Navy and his subjects were US Air Force personnel. His interest was in the classification and training of military recruits.

With the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union hotting up, Guilford’s interests increasingly became a matter of national security. In 1954, Carl Rogers, argued that education tended to turn out ‘conformists […] rather than freely creative and original thinkers’ (Rogers, 1954: 249) and that there was a ‘desperate need’ for the latter. He warned that ‘international annihilation will be the price we pay for a lack of creativity’. When Sputnik scared the shit out of the American military, creativity became more important still. It ‘could no longer be left to the chance occurrence of genius; neither could it be left in the realm of the wholly mysterious and the untouchable. Men had to be able to do something about it; creativity had to be a property in many men; it had to be something identifiable; it had to be subject to efforts to gain more of it’ (Razik, 1967).

It wasn’t long before creativity moved beyond purely military concerns to more generally corporate ones. Creativity became one of the motors driving the economy. This process is tracked in a fascinating article by Steven Shapin (2020), who quotes the director of research at General Electric as saying in 1959: ‘I think we can agree at once that we are all in favour of creativity’. Since then, the idea of creativity has rarely looked back.

By the end of the century, the UK government had set up a National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education, chaired by Ken Robinson. Creativity was seen as a ‘vital investment in human capital for the twenty-first century’ (National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education, 1999). Quoting the prime minister, Blair, the report stated that ‘our aim must be to create a nation where the creative talents of all the people are used to build a true enterprise economy for the twenty-first century — where we compete on brains, not brawn’.

A few years later, in the US, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills was founded, supported primarily by the corporate community with companies like AOL Time Warner, Apple and Microsoft providing financial backing. The ‘21st century skills’ required by global employers (or more specifically that global employers wanted national governments to pay for) could be catchily boiled down to the 4Cs – communication, collaboration, critical reflection and creativity. What was meant by creativity is made clearer in Trilling and Fadel’s bible of 21st century skills (2009: 56):

Given the 21st century demands to continuously innovate new services, better processes, and improved products for the world’s global economy, and for the creative knowledge required in more and more of the world’s better-paying jobs, it should come as no surprise that creativity and innovation are very high on the list of 21st century skills. In fact, many believe that our current Knowledge Age is quickly giving way to an Innovation Age, where the ability to solve problems in new ways (like the greening of energy use), to invent new technologies (like bio- and nanotechnology) or create the new killer application of existing technologies (like efficient and affordable electric cars and solar panels, or even to discover new branches of knowledge and invent entirely new industries, will all be highly prized.

In this line of thought, creativity is blurred with ‘innovation skills’ and inextricably linked to business (and employee) performance. It involves creative thinking techniques (such as brainstorming), the ability to work collaboratively and creatively with others, openness to new ideas and perspectives, originality and inventiveness in work, and understanding real-world limits to adopting new ideas (Trilling & Fadel, 2009: 59). Although never defined very precisely, the purpose of creativity in education (as well as 21st skills more generally) is crystal-clear:

A fundamental role of education is to equip students with the competences they need – and will need – in order to succeed in society. Creative thinking is a necessary competence for today’s young people to develop. It can help them adapt to a constantly and rapidly changing world, and one that demands flexible workers equipped with ‘21st century’ skills that go beyond core literacy and numeracy. After all, children today will likely be employed in sectors or roles that do not yet exist’. (OECD, 2019: 6)

Creativity, then, has become first and foremost about the development of human capital and, by extension, the health of financial capital. In the World Economic Forum’s list of ‘5 Things You Need To Know About Creativity’, #1 on the list is ‘Creativity is good for the Economy’, #4 is ‘It’s important for leadership’, and #5 is ‘It’s crucial for the future of work’. For the World Bank, creativity is more or less synonymous with entrepreneurship (World Bank, 2010).

Given the importance that the OECD attaches to creativity, it was inevitable that they should seek to measure it. The next round of PISA tests, postponed to 2022 because of Covid-19, will incorporate evaluation of creative thinking. As the OECD itself recognises (OECD, 2019), this will be no easy task. There are problems in establishing a valid and agreed construct of creative thinking / creativity. There is debate about the extent to which creative thinking is domain-specific (does creative thinking in science different to creative thinking in the arts?). Previous attempts to measure creativity have been less than satisfactory. But none of this will stop the OECD juggernaut, and shortcomings in the first round of evaluations can be taken, creatively, as ‘an opportunity to learn’ (Trilling & Fadel, 2009: 59). There will be a washback effect, but this is all to the good in the eyes of the OECD. One of their most significant objectives in measuring creativity is to encourage ‘changes in education policies and pedagogies’ (OECD, 2019: 5): ‘the results will also encourage a wider societal debate on both the importance and methods of supporting this crucial competence through education’. To a large extent, it is an agenda-setting exercise.

Creativity’s most well-known cheerleader is the late Ken Robinson. His advocacy of creativity in education for the purposes of developing human capital is clear from his contribution to the National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education (1999) report. Subsequently, he changed his tune a little, and was careful to expand on his reasons for promoting creativity. Creativity, for Robinson, became something of broader importance than it was for those with a 21st century skills agenda. ‘There’s a lot of talk these days about 21st century skills,’ he said, ‘and I go along with a great deal of it, my only reservation about the idea of 21st century skills is that when they’re listed, they often include skills that were relevant at any time, in any century, it’s not that they’re a completely brand new set of things that people need to learn now that they didn’t have to learn before, but the context is very different’. In another interview, when pushed about creativity as an ‘essential 21st century skill’ – ‘why is creativity especially important right now?’ – Robinson again avoided going too far down the 21st century skills path. In reply, he offered a number of reasons, but the economy was the last that he mentioned. Human capital mattered to Robinson (‘any conversation about education that doesn’t take account of the economy is really, in some respects, detached and naïve from the world that we live in’ he said in another interview), but he made a point of downplaying it. As a highly accomplished rhetorician, Robinson knew how to tailor his messages for his audiences. His success and fame were due in large part to his ability to craft messages for everybody, and his readiness to allow the significance of creativity to shift from one meaning to another played, in my view, a large role in his appeal.

In ELT, there is no doubt that creativity is, as Maley and Kiss (2018: v) put it, ‘a fashionable concept’. In addition to Maley & Kiss’s ‘Creativity and English Language Teaching’ (2018), recent publications have included ‘The Creative Teacher’s Compendium’ (Clare & Marsh, 2020), ‘Hacking Creativity’ (Peachey, 2019), ‘50 Creative Activities’ (Maley, 2018), ‘Creativity in English Language Teaching’ (Xerri & Vassallo, 2016), ‘Creativity in the English language classroom’ (Maley & Peachey, 2015) and ‘Being Creative’ (Pugliese, 2010). In addition, there have been chapters on creativity in recent books about 21st century skills in ELT, such as ‘21st Century Skills in the ELT Classroom – A Guide for Teachers’ (Graham, 2020) and ‘English for 21st Century Skills’ (Mavridi & Xerri, 2020). Robinson is regularly cited.

What is striking about all these publications is that the kind of creativity that is promoted has virtually nothing to do with the kind of creativity that has been discussed in the first part of this article. The notion of language learners as human capital is absent, the purpose of creativity teaching is entirely different, and the creativity of the 4 Cs of 21st century skills has transformed into something else altogether. Even in the edited collections with ‘21st century skills’ in their titles, creativity has little or nothing to do with the creativity of the OECD. In most of these titles, ‘21st century skills’ are not mentioned at all, or only briefly in passing. In the 330 pages of Maley and Kiss (2018), for example, there are only three mentions of the term.

Instead, we have something that is not very ‘21st century’ at all. Definitions of creativity in these ELT books are very broad, and acknowledge the problems in even providing a definition. Recognising these difficulties, Nik Peachey (2019: iv) doesn’t even attempt to provide a definition. Instead, he offers a selection of ideas and activities which have something to do with the concept. Maley (in Xerri & Vassallo, 2016: 10) takes a similar approach, offering a list of attributes, including things like newness / originality, immediacy, wonder, curiosity / play, inspiration, finding / making connections, unpredictability, relevance and flow. Pugliese (2010: 114) asks teachers how they interpret creativity and this list includes problem-solving, the teacher’s aesthetic drive, a combination of the previous two, and a search for Rogerian self-actualization. Both writers focus heavily on the teacher’s own commitment to creativity. For Pugliese (2010: 12), ‘creativity is about wanting to be creative’.

In practice, the classroom ideas that are on offer can usually be put into one or more of the following categories:

  • Activities that involve the arts: drama, stories, music, song, chants, poetry and dance, etc. Maley (2018) is especially interested in poetry, and Pugliese (2010) explores music and the visual arts in more detail.
  • Activities that involves the learners in personalized self-expression, with emotional responses prioritized.
  • Activities which are in some way exploratory, unpredictable or ‘different’. The work of John Fanselow (e.g. 1987) is an important inspiration here.

The overall result is a relabelled mash-up of ideas that have been around for some time: exploitation of literature, music and art; humanistic approaches inspired by Stevick, Rinvolucri and others; a sprinkling of positive psychology; and, sometimes, suggestions for using digital technology to facilitate creative expression of some kind. I hope I am not being unfair if I suggest that the problem of definition arises because the 21st century label of creativity has been stuck on bottles of vintage wine.

Most of these writers seem content to ignore 21st century OECD-style creativity, to pretend that it is not the driver of the ‘fashionable concept’ they are writing about. However, the reason for this silence surfaces from time to time: most of these ELT writers disapprove of, even dislike, the OECD version of creativity. Here, for example, is Chris Kennedy in the foreword to Maley & Peachey (2015: 2):

It is worrying in our market-driven world that […] certain concepts, and the words used to express them, lose their value through over-use or ill-definition. […] The danger is that such terms may be hijacked by public bodies and private institutions which employ them as convenient but opaque policy pegs on which practitioners, including educators, are expected to hang their approaches and behaviours. ‘Creativity’ is one such term, and UK government reports on the subject in the last few years show the concept of creativity being used to support a particular instrumental political view as a means of promoting the economy, rather than as a focus for developing individual skills and talents.’

And here’s David Nunan (in Mavridi & Xerri, 2020: 6) dishing out some vitriol:

I have been unable to find any evidence that the ability to solve such [problem-solving 21st century-style creativity tasks] transfers to the ability to solve such problems in real life. This has not stopped some people building their careers out of the concept and amassing considerable compensation in the process. Robinson even garnered a knighthood’.

This is all rather strange. It is creativity as a 21st century skill that has made the topic a ‘fashionable concept’. The ideas of Alan Maley et al about creativity become more plausible because the meaning of the key term can shift around. His book (with Nik Peachey) was commissioned by the British Council, an organisation that is profoundly committed to the idea that 21st century skills, including creativity, are essential for young people ‘to be fully prepared for life and work in a global economy’. In this light, Maley & Peachey (2015), which kicks off with a Maley poem before the Chris Kennedy foreword, may almost be seen as a subversive hijacking, a détournement of British Council discourse. But détourneurs can be détourné in their turn …

Maley’s co-author, Tamas Kiss, on ‘Creativity and English Language Teaching’, a book which so strenuously avoided the discourse of 21st century creativity, chose to discuss this work in the following way for a webpage for his university:

‘Dr Kiss explained that creativity has been the subject of investigation in several fields including psychology and business, as well as language teaching, and is one of the ‘core skills’ of most 21st century educational frameworks:

“People have realised that traditional knowledge transfer systems are not necessarily preparing students for 21st century jobs,” said Tamas, “New educational frameworks, for example those developed by the Council of Europe, emphasize cross-cultural communication, problem-solving, and creativity.”’

The university in question is Xi’an Jiaotong University, to the west of Shanghai. In the same year as the publication of the book that Kiss co-authored with Maley, Barbara Schulte gave a conference presentation entitled ‘Appropriating or hijacking creativity? Educational reform and creative learning in China’ (Schulte, 2018). She noted the increasing importance accorded to creativity in China’s educational reforms, the country’s increasing engagement with OECD benchmarks, and the way in which creative approaches ‘originally intended to empower learners are turned into their exact opposites, constraining learners’ spaces even more than with conventional approaches’.

Creativity is a classic weasel word. Its use should come accompanied with a hazard warning.

References

Clare, A. & Marsh, A. (2020). The Creative Teacher’s Compendium. Teddington, Middx.: Pavilion

Fanselow, J. (1987). Breaking Rules. Harlow: Longman

Graham, C. (Ed.) (2020). 21st Century Skills in the ELT Classroom – A Guide for Teachers. Reading: Granet

Guilford, J. P. (1950). Creativity. American Psychologist, 5 (9): pp.444–454

Maley, A. (2018). Alan Maley’s 50 Creative Activities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Maley, A. & Kiss, T. (2018). Creativity and English Language Teaching. London: Palgrave Macmillan

Maley, A. & Peachey, N. (Eds.) (2015). Creativity in the English language classroom. London: British Council

Mavridi, S. & Xerri, D. (Eds.) English for 21st Century Skills. Newbury, Berks.: Express Publishing

National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education. (1999). All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education http://sirkenrobinson.com/pdf/allourfutures.pdf

OECD (2019). PISA 2021 Creative Thinking Framework (Third Draft). Paris: OECD.

Peachey, N. (2019). Hacking Creativity. PeacheyPublications.

Pugliese, C. (2010). Being Creative. Peaslake: DELTA

Razik, T. A. (1967). Psychometric measurement of creativity. In Mooney, R. L. & Razik, T. A. (Eds.) Explorations in Creativity. New York: Harper & Row

Rogers, C. (1954). Toward a Theory of Creativity. ETC: A Review of General Semantics, 11: pp. 249-260

Schulte, B. (2018). Appropriating or hijacking creativity? Educational reform and creative learning in China. Abstract from Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) Conference 2018, Sydney, Australia.

Shapin, S. (2020). The rise and rise of creativity. Aeon 12 October 2020 https://aeon.co/essays/how-did-creativity-become-an-engine-of-economic-growth

Trilling, B. & Fadel, C. (2009). 21st Century Skills. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

World Bank (2010). Stepping Up Skills. Washington: The World Bank

Xerri, D. & Vassallo, O. (Eds.) (2016). Creativity in English Language Teaching. Floriana: ELT Council