21st Century Skills Sans 20th Century Inequality
It doesn’t take an economist to know that our economy is in trouble. Most people are afraid to talk about the economy, yet every community has been touched by the effects of the financial downturn of 2008. I just spent a week at a summer institute I helped organize in the field of “new economics”. 26 doctoral students and 11 faculty members convened to discuss pertinent 21st century problems like climate change, unemployment, wealth inequality, and over-consumption. We discussed solutions that would lead to a more just, sustainable, and equitable society and what roles we’d play in building that society. Sounds great, right? It was – but do you know what was missing? The perspectives of educators like you.
How do you solve 21st century problems? The simple answer would be “with 21st century skills!” I’m sure many of you are aware of the merits of project based learning (PBL) as a method for teaching 21st century skills, so I won’t go into it too in depth here. To get our economy (and ecology) moving in the right direction we need young people comfortable with 21st century skills like collaboration, communication, and critical thinking, not to mention technological proficiency. While I’m completely behind the promise of PBL, as a sociologist of education, I’d like to issue a warning to educators that I hope could be met with the level of innovation that you folks are used to employing in your classrooms:
Project Based Learning will reproduce existing inequalities if we don’t intervene early.
Cultural Capital in the classroom
If you haven’t read Annette Lareau’s book Unequal Childhoods it would make a great summer read. Lareau is a sociologist at Penn who uses Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital to understand why class values (taught at home) can play such an important role in who gets a head in a classroom, and of course later in life in the workforce. I won’t preach to the choir here, you already know this. You know social class matters. So how do you intervene? Lareau tells us that students from middle class backgrounds experience a sense of entitlement whereas students from working class backgrounds experience a sense of constraint. It’s all in what Bourdieu calls your “habitus”, which is basically a fancy made-up word for your way of being in the world.
I hear educators promise that 21st century learning environments (like PBL) will allow for the individual dispositions of learners to thrive. I’d like to believe them, but I can tell you from my research on adults in open education that disposition is nowhere near as important in determining what a person will learn (and what they will do with what they learn) as social class. A simple example I give when teaching this to college students is with the concept of extensions in college. Typically, the middle class kid knows that a conversation with a professor about a late paper can earn them an extension on the paper and they won’t be penalized. Instead, the working class kid believes in authority and believes that asking for a rule to be changed is absurd. I’ve seen this simple difference in how a student understands authority play a significant role in a student’s end of semester grade.
How are you intervening?
Take that example and apply it to project based learning in your classrooms. How are you ensuring that your classroom and your projects are allowing your students to learn the material and be innovative, regardless of their class background? In what ways do you need to intervene when a student might automatically give authority to someone in the group, or shy away from conflict, or collaboration, or fear the kind of critical thinking that they’ve resisted in their life because critical thinking leads to questioning, which could lead to trouble. In what ways are you ensuring that we aren’t teaching 21st century skills into a 20th century model of inequality? I’d challenge you to not only privately ponder this question, but to also actively engage in conversations with your colleagues and find out what your school is doing to address this very important question. And if you’d like to extend the conversation beyond the four walls of your home or school, please email me at LBCarfagna@gmail.com and we can begin working together to create the solutions that will eradicate 21st century problems, without reproducing existing inequality.
Today’s guest blog is by Lindsey “Luka” Carfagna who is a doctoral student in the Sociology Department at Boston College and holds an M.A. in the Social Sciences from the University of Chicago. She works as a research assistant for Juliet Schor as part of the MacArthur Foundation’s Connected Learning Research Network and is currently studying open education. Luka’s research interests are in economic sociology and the sociology of education with a specific focus on how institutional and organizational mechanisms facilitate the reproduction of inequality. In her free time she likes to play soccer, mountain bike, and golf. You can follow her on Twitter @LBCarfagna.