A Profitable Education: Countering Neoliberalism in 21st Century Skills Discourses

A Profitable Education: Countering Neoliberalism in 21st Century Skills Discourses

Rohit Mehta, Edwin Creely, Danah Henriksen
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-1461-0.ch020
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In this chapter, the authors take a multifaceted critical approach to understanding and deconstructing the term 21st century skills, especially in regard to technology and the role of corporations in the discourses about education. They also consider a range of cultural and political influences in our exploration of the social and academic meanings of the term, including its history and politics. The application of the term in present-day educational contexts is considered as well as possible futures implied through the term. The goal in this chapter is to counter ideas that might diminish a humanized educational practice. Specifically, the authors offer a critique of neoliberal discourses in education, particularly the neoliberal and corporate narrative around 21st century teaching and learning. They raise concerns about what an undue emphasis on industry-oriented educational systems can mean for the core purposes of education.
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21st century skills are touted as desirable for classrooms in order to prepare students for future employment and educational needs. They are often linked to digital technologies and to a range of creative and critical thinking skills and competencies (Kereluik, Mishra, Fahnoe & Terry, 2013; Mishra & Mehta, 2017; Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2019; Suto & Eccles, 2014). The notion of 21st century skills has evolved to occupy an important place in curriculum and policy frameworks internationally (Suto & Eccles, 2014). Sociopolitically, they are also associated with the private-sector, neoliberal facets of globalization, and the increasing transnational mobility of work and education (Brown, Green & Lauder, 2001; Jones, 2008). Underlying the notion of 21st century skills are assumptions that are not always understood or interrogated in popular or academic discourses. In this chapter, we offer a nuanced and critical view of this notion by exploring the range of ideas and discourses that shape our understanding of the term “21st century skills,” interrogating the foundations of and intentions behind its present-day applications in education.

We begin by examining a historical trajectory for the idea of 21st century skills, looking at the past, present, and future of the ongoing discourses in this area. We then consider the neoliberal influences on education, and potential concerns around the uncritical adoption of private-sector thinking into the public sphere of education—sharing examples of corporate or utilitarian perspectives on education and the potential for misalignment with deeper educational purposes in learning. Finally, we explore the potential of democratizing or humanizing pedagogies, and consider ways of still adopting but possibly reconceiving the notion of 21st century skills and accompanying discourses. We offer ways of considering the future of education that are not dismissive of workforce needs and economic potential but also do not overemphasize an economic and instrumental imperative for 21st century thinking in education.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Globalization: Is an economic move to internationalize trade, finance, and investment so the international market can be dominated by capitalistic models. Some scholars fear this also promotes neo-colonization and cultural homogenization.

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