Friday, April 12, 2013

#C21Can and the "skills" debate

This is a very good response from Tobey Steeves to a post on the C21 website by John Kershaw, the President of C21 Canada - a corporate financed education reform lobby group.

The original blog post that Tobey is critiquing is here:

Dear @C21Can, saw your post on 21CL + "skills gap" in Canada. Having researched teachers' work and 21CL policy in BC for my MA thesis (, I am somewhat disheartened to see similar themes popping up in this post. Specifically, in my study of 21CL policy I found an agenda that hollowed out the role of the teacher, and re-constructed teachers' work as an instrumental relay for "workplace skills". I took great care to demonstrate how these re-constructions of teachers' work contribute to a democratic deficit in education policy, and are likely to exacerbate teacher stress and burnout, increase in-school conflicts, and encourage coercive relationships among policy actors (i.e., students, parents, teachers, admin). On this basis, I must encourage a critical eye be applied to any and all pronouncements from C21 Canada, and this post strikes me as a meaningful example of why it's vital for anyone with an interest in public education in Canada to stand in opposition to this Canadianized version of the '21st-century learning' policy agenda.

First and foremost, it's important to foreground the fact that C21 Canada represents /elite/ interests, not the interests of educators across Canada. By that I mean to emphasize that C21 Canada - like it's sister groups elsewhere - is backed by tech corporations and edupreneurs. For instance, C21 Canada's board members include executives from IBM, SMART Technologies, Microsoft and Dell. This enthusiasm for 21CL among tech corporations is significant. "All freebies from the computer industry should be regarded as you would a free sample from your friendly neighborhood crack dealer." As well, C21 Canada's partners - who likely pay a hefty sum for the 'privilege' of being such - includes Pearson, the largest edu-corp in the world. Let there be no ambiguity: C21 Canada has a corporate agenda.

But, in case there was any lingering doubt, this post by Mr. Kershaw should lay the matter to rest. By drawing on a few of the claims and assertions in Mr. Kershaw's post, I will now endeavour to highlight the distance between C21 Canada's agenda and a democratic vision of public schooling in Canada.

/"C21 Canada applauds the federal budget’s focus on skills development. Our organization has consistently stated that highly skilled people are the economic and social drivers of the knowledge and digital age and more and more Canadians are recognizing this to be the new reality."/

First, the attention to "skills" is an immediate red flag. As I have noted in a previous comment on this site (, the emphasis on "skills" masks a reduction and impoverishment of education. To re-iterate, Pring (2004) understands this economic skills agenda as relying on “the bewitchment of the intelligence by a misuse of language.” Pring critiques the vocationalistic skills strategy by suggesting that a skilled philosopher is not necessarily a good philosopher. A skilled philosopher, for instance, may be quite adept at the mechanics of philosophical argumentation without actually having “anything philosophically interesting to say.” This critique holds for lawyers, authors, musicians, and other professions. Therefore, Pring suggests that “to focus on skills traps us into a limited language which transforms and impoverishes the educational enterprise.” In other words, there may be noble hopes animating the push for skills and embedded in policies, but they may actually “impoverish the educational enterprise.”

So I am immediately sensitive to the fact that C21 Canada's emphasis on "skills" may be relying on a "bewitchment of the intelligence" and contributing to an "impoverishment of the educational enterprise." Notwithstanding, an emphasis on "skills" - "impoverished" though it may be - is just one problematic feature of the very first paragraph in Mr. Kershaw's post.

/"C21 Canada will not debate the wisdom of the solutions to the current skills gap proposed in the budget; we just welcome the priority on education and human capital."/

Among the many analytically potent details in this assertion is the construction of people as "human capital". This is a very particular discursive production of what it means to be an agent with agency. Specifically, it's an invocation of 'homo economicus' - a neoliberalized vision of the social. This discursive marker illustrates that C21 Canada has adopted an economistic view of agents, and connects C21 Canada's agenda with a broader frame of research into the catastrophic impacts of neoliberal policies throughout the world. In short, this single discursive marker demonstrates that C21 Canada has an agenda that is guided by commodification and profit, and is 100% contrary with a social justice agenda.

/"However, we offer a word of caution. While the federal government’s focus on skills is welcomed, any trend going forward to limiting the national debate on closing the skills gap to the post secondary sector is a mistake."/

Again, there is a discursive allegiance with 'management talk' and neoliberalism - this time via the invocation of a "higher education sector". Mr. Kershaw constructs an imaginary monolithic composite of post secondary institutions as though they were a some homogeneous pie ready and waiting to be understood, sliced up, and exploited.

But, more importantly, what I'd like to highlight is the absurdity of this narrative of a "skills gap". It's so vacuous as to be offensive, and I think Mr. Kershaw's legitimation of the narrative powerfully illustrates the pro-corporate and anti-democratic agenda of C21 Canada.

First, it is helpful to consider what % of Canadians are unemployed? According to Stats Canada - which, interestingly enough, is getting ravaged by neoliberal policies - Canada's employment rate sits at around 62% ( Would corporate Canada like to see 100% participation? Why or why not? What would a higher employment rate do to wages? Corporate profits? What relationship can be drawn between corporate profits and hiring practices? As profits rise - which they currently are - do corporations have a tendency to raise wages? What I mean to illustrate here is that there are political and structural incentives for Corporate Canada to have an interest in maintaining profits - not jobs or the interests of workers.

There are people with PhDs unemployed and/or driving taxis. There are folks with two MAs working as janitors. There are folks with professional credentials who work at fast food restaurants. There are more unemployed recent college graduates than at any time since the Great Depression. There is no skills gap. There is a capitalistic agenda to keep profits high. And that doesn't necessarily include the interests of workers or the public. More importantly, this corporate agenda is inconsistent with a democratic vision of schooling and teachers' work - which would emphasize the needs of the commons and the public, not the desires of the wealthy elite.

/"At long last Canada’s economic leaders are recognizing Canada’s K-12 systems as an essential element of Canada’s economic competitiveness."/

Another prime example of neoliberalism as normal and ideal: Idolizing “economic leaders” and normalizing states as competitors. This naturalization of economic values and competition is one of the key indices of both neoliberal and managerialist ideologies. It induces dis-trust among agents by encouraging them to negotiate the social as a game of accumulation, and creates the myth that there's some grande 'competition' to be won - or lost.

Beyond this point, I think it worth adding that folks with a clue do not emphasize competition as a guiding feature of social action. This is particularly true with regard to public education, where an inevitable outcome of competition is that kids lose. In so doing, the democratic purpose of teachers' work becomes subjugated beneath competition and an imposed set of de-humanizing corporatist values.

/"What needs to be done? As first steps, Provinces and Territories must infuse 21st century competencies into their targeted learning outcomes and invest in technology enabled learning systems."/

Oddly enough, Mr. Kershaw, I find strong warrant for offering an alternative injunction: What needs to be done? As first steps, defenders of public education and the commons must organize to resist the corporate drive for reforming schooling Canada.

Beyond this very substantive divergence, the above assertion is remarkable for its invocations of "invest[ment] in technology" and "learning systems".

In the first place, the emphasis on technology is suggestive of 'techno-positivism':

"The technopositivist ideology is defined as a ‘compulsive enthusiasm’ about e-learning ... that is being created, propagated and channelled repeatedly by the people who are set to gain without giving the educators the time and opportunity to explore the dangers and rewards of e-learning on teaching and learning." -

We should also remember that "[A]fter 2 years of total and unlimited access to technology by carefully selected students whose parents had chosen the program and whose teachers enjoyed unlimited amounts of technical and instructional support, small class sizes, and half of each day to devote to preparation, the best that Apple could say about the achievement scores of ... students was that they had not declined." - Robertson (

Second, the emphasis on "learning systems" is another example of what I analyze in my MA thesis as "learnification" - a reconceptualization of everything there is to know and say about education and teachers' work within discourses of 'learners' and 'learning'. As noted by Gert Biesta, discourses of learnification help instrumentalize and de-humanize relationships in schools, and contribute to a "democratic deficit in education policy". On this basis alone, I see warrant for educationists across Canada to mount opposition to C21 Canada's agenda.

It is worth contrasting this emphasis on "invest[ment] in technology" and "learning systems" with investment in educational /resources/ (e.g., teachers, books, tech) and /specialists/ (e.g., librarians, counsellors, special ed). How many teachers have been laid off in Canada over the last 10 years? How many more or less learning specialists are there in Canada's schools, 2012 vs. 2000? What is the current level of job satisfaction among teachers in Canada? What % of new teachers in Canada are still teaching after 5 years? What % of teachers thought about a career change last year? How does that % contrast with teachers' attitudes in 2000? 1990? 1970?

I suspect that if we asked tech corporations what they would like, they might say things like "invest[ment] in technology" and "learning systems". Nevertheless, I would contend that if we asked teachers what they would help them teach better and get better educational outcomes, they might say things like "We need more educational resourcing!" and "We need more access to specialists!" One path offers a vehicle for normalizing the values of corporations, the other holds the potential of democratization and social justice. They aren not commensurable values or agendas.

Although there were many other analytically salient features within Mr. Kershaw's post, I think I have adequately foregrounded the corporate values lurking within C21 Canada's agenda and justified resistance to - not enthusiasm for - C21 Canada's "urgent call" to "modernize Canada's education systems."

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