Listen to an episode featuring Audrey Bryan:

Teaching the Climate Crisis

Educating the 21st Century Child

by Audrey Bryan
Associate Professor of Sociology
Dublin City University

Singling out only a few FreshEd episodes to recommend to other listeners was very hard, because almost every episode has helped me to think very differently about an aspect of education I thought I already understood. In the end, I chose episodes that have inspired or illuminated my current research interest in how the figure of the “21st Century Child” is being discursively produced within global educational policy and how this figure is re-orienting educational programming, curricula and teacher-student relationships as well as (re)shaping teachers’, students’, and parents’ identities.

The role that datafication, quantification, and metrics play in reshaping subjectivities is addressed in Nelli Piattoeva and Rebecca Boden’s episode on Numbers!, which they claim has become “one of the main means to represent and discuss education”. Coming from different disciplinary backgrounds, and writing within, and about, different educational contexts, these contributors provide several compelling examples of how, “numbers start to inhabit the psyche of individuals within organizations”, and influence how “small children in schools see their value and their worth and their attainment in terms of the numbers.”

Will’s interview with Ben Williamson about the contemporary “EdTech moment” raises concerns about the logics, ideologies and interests behind the increasing emphasis on data analytics, progress measurement and personalized learning across educational systems, and the effects this is having on pedagogy, teachers and students. Williamson explains that organizations such as the OECD – in their quest to ensure that educational policies and practices are scientifically rigorous and evidence-based – are increasingly drawn to insights derived from psychology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning etc., in the service of what he calls “precision learning” and “brain optimization.”   This increasingly neuronal view of selfhood (or “brainhood”) is a central feature of the discourse of the 21st century child—a figure who is imbued with so-called “human-centric” or “21st century skills” in a digital economy increasingly characterized by automation, substitution and AI.

These 21st-century or social-emotional skills are discussed in You Yun’s episode on SEL Critiques and Alternatives. You Yun exposes the western-centric bias of social-emotional learning (SEL) and problematizes its application to geographical contexts within which far more interdependent and relational notions of selfhood are culturally embedded.  Drawing on real-world examples of how SEL is being enacted in Chinese kindergarten settings, You Yun’s intervention illuminates the hollowness of the discourse of “culturally-responsive” SEL and calls out Western SEL advocates for their lack of “ontological reflection”.  You Yun’s critique of SEL is echoed in Kathryn Anderson-Levitt and Meg Gardinier’s episode on competency-based education, which interrogates the “social imaginary” through which the ideal 21st century learner is envisioned.

Collectively, these episodes capture a rapidly evolving global educational governance landscape driven by actors for whom market reach, profit accumulation, workforce productivity, and “brain capital” matter above all else.  We ignore the (brave new) world-making significance of the OECD, Big Tech, and their beneficiaries at our peril.

January 1, 2023