Monday, February 25, 2013

Saying it like it is - Exposing the Premier's Technology Council on #bced

What do teachers do? What should teachers do? Who should decide?

These are some of the questions both posed and answered in the new BC Education Plan and now, thoughtfully examined, by Cory (Tobey) Steeves, a Vancouver teacher. Steeves' work is available online here:

In  (De/Re)-Constructing tachers and their work: A Discourse analysis of British Columbia's 21st-century policy, Steeves looks beyond the obvious to uncover some of the "problems" with 21st-century learning. His focus is on British Columbia, and he uses the Premier's Technology Council (PTC) report, A Vision for 21st Century Education as a basis for identifying underlying themes. In the process, he exposes aspects of the agenda to reformulate what teachers do and who controls what they do.

Steeves situates his work in the company of other education theorists who have described the impacts of corporate education reform on what teachers do and who tells them what to do. He uses a discourse analysis to "problematize" these components of the 21st-century agenda. To do this, he looks at certain textual features of the report and identifies elements that match the "learnification" and "accountingization" of education.

"Learnification" is a fancy word for reducing the process of education to just learning. This has the effect of simplifying all educational processes to a singular narrow focus - the outcome of what has been learned. Anyone living in our test obsessed culture can identify with this. For example, this can be teaching to the test so the student will do well on the test. But more generally, it is the process of narrowing not just the curriculum, but all aspects of eduacating, into only what is to be learned. Of course missing then is relationships and socializing, the role of teachers' professional judgement, and a role for society to articulate what education is and is for.

"Accountingization" is also a fancy word more easily described: turning teaching into an activity whose every component part can be itemized, counted and judged. Similar to learnification, the net effect is to influence what teachers do (teach what can be counted) and how they do it (judge them on student test results).

Using this conceptual framework, Steeves goes on to the look at the language used (or not used) in the PTC report. Steeves locates the document within a genre of "management talk" - a perfectly apt description.  By considering some of the language use, Steeves then goes on to identify "managerialist features" in the text, such as this one - a word cloud showing the use of modal verbs:

As he articulates: "the overwhelming emphasis given to "will", "must", and "should" suggest a willingness to determine the roles and vlues of others."

It is a bit of a tough read (I will candidly admit that anything with the word "discourse" in the title usually ends up back on the shelf in my household), but his conclusions and motivation made it worth the wade through some unfamiliar territory. I certainly agree that one aspect of the #bcedplan is that "transnational technology corporations become mingled with the values of teachers, and 'good teaching' is re-imagined as a vehicle for constructing a knowledge-based economy."

I found the emphasis on teaching and teachers was a unique lens to approach this topic. While I typically start from the profit-making intent of technology companies and the incompatibility of this with genuine education (which I equate with human well being, first and foremost), Steeves looks at the same topic through the view of what teachers do and who tells them, and this is refreshing and important. To this end, despite our theoretical differences, I found myself hopeful that I was one of the "friends" in mind in his dedication: "I dedicate this work to the friends of the commons and the defenders of a more democratic otherwise: May it bring you tools for play-and battle."

And since I haven't said it before, to all you readers, friends, fellow activists out there, that is my dedication too.


  1. As I only have time to follow a few people on Twitter, I do value both your and Toby's commentary on the 21C Learning. Thank you both for educating and validating me, as I try to make sense of the apparent New World Order.

    Question: When will the lens of the PARENT be critically used to dissect 21C Learning? I was at the Vancouver Island Parent Conference this weekend and thought to ask Gabor Mate about his thoughts on the subject matter. If you are familiar with his work, as I am now becoming, it should not come to any surprise that he views any sort of learning that weakens a student's adult attachments as not one that should be promoted! He made it very clear that the move towards online learning will lead to increased peer attachment/weakened parent attachment.
    Coorporate profits and learnified classrooms aside, I do not want to send my kids to more screen time and less adult human interaction time,PERIOD! They are surrounded by their peers for enough hours of the day-- how are we to provide guidance and true life skills, if they are in cyberspace for over 8 hours a day?
    The BCED Plan has completely dropped the ball, in my opinion. Government had an opportunity to enhance the system-- instead, they decided to turn it on it's head.
    (Potentially, good news for Victoria district, though... It will have my 2 kids commuting from Langford each day to attend a high school that is Teacher-centred; should Royal Bay be the only option for French Immersion.)

    1. Hi D. Bjornson,

      I absolutely agree that the role of the parent in 21CL policy is also worthy of analysis. In early drafts of my thesis I looked at constructions of teachers, parents, and students - but this was far too much for a MA thesis and my committee urged me to pick one construct to focus on.

      With that said, I can say that the PTC's doc constructs parents as rational consumers - shopping for learning like they might shop for a new TV, or a new condo. In addition, parents were constructed as paranoid, dependent on quantifications of their child's worth and relative competitiveness.

      Anyway, the parent angle is, again, well worth further analysis, and I do hope that others are encouraged to take up a ball and run.

    2. Hi Dana,

      Yes - I'd have to agree with Tobey above that the dominant role for parents in 21st CL is as "shoppers" for schools - hence the Fraser Institute reports, etc. This is particularly problematic as it has the effect of stratifying children based on socio-economic status. Just as private schools are only available to those who can afford them, so programs of choice are inhabited by the children of parents who stand in line, drive their kids across town, and otherwise have the "social capital" to end up savvy enough to live in the right community, seek out the programs and help their kids apply. There is a great article about this I've been meaning to send you by Alfie Kohn: It's called "Only for My Kid"...

    3. On the technology piece I totally agree. Interestingly, this relates to the class issue vis a vis parents. Dumbed down, online tech schools are basically for working class kids to do working class jobs. Same goes for kids who can "fill in the bubble". They don't need to be able to think, and if they can, that is just a threat to the social order. Have a look at New York schools - they have them all - tech free for the upper middle class creative types, high tech high for the high achieving upper middle class parents who want their kids to be engineers, career college type high schools for those in the middle, and blended/online learning factories for the poor. Interestingly, I don't think that private schools in BC will change much as a result of the #bcedplan, and no doubt that is where the Christy Clark's of the province will continue to have their children educated. Nope, the Royal Bays will be for the growing working class neighborhoods like Langford and the children who live there.

  2. It almost feels like we're living in a communist or fascist state, except that our BCed plan is not driven by ideology, but by corporate profits.

  3. Hi Tara,

    I'm very glad to hear you found my thesis worth the effort to "wade through some unfamiliar territory".

    I assume that if it were more familiar territory, maybe it would've taken less work to research + write. ;)

    The stress given to 'good teachers' and 'good teaching' in education policies was necessary for highlighting the importance of a democratic politics of authority. That is, if policies were enacted /with/ teachers - not /for/ or /on/ them - I assume that it would be possible to find a more cooperative way forward.

    Beyond this point, as you note, an underlying intention of the thesis is to offer "friends of the commons" with tools to be put into use. Simply put, my agenda here was to help fuel teachers' critical engagements with education policies. In this spirit, I hope that, in some small way, you are able to put it to work in your advocacy for public education in BC.