21st century snake oil

Roger Partridge
The National Business Review
9 June, 2018

After 11 years as a cowboy in America’s wild west, Clark Stanley claimed to have created a medical cure-all from secrets learned from a Hopi medicine man.

He began marketing his Snake Oil Liniment in the early 1900s. Then, following the passage of the Food and Drug Act in 1916, Stanley’s concoction was examined and found to be of no medicinal value.

Stanley was fined and banned from selling it. His legacy is not a miracle wonder-drug, but a metaphor for claims not supported by science.

At last weekend’s researchED ‘Festival of Education’ conference in Auckland, 250 teachers and educationalists from around New Zealand had an opportunity to expose a modern-day version of Stanley’s snake oil: the so-called ‘ 21st-century learning movement.’

The approach advocates ‘modern learning environments’ instead of classrooms, with 80 or 90 school children and a few ‘free-ranging’ teachers. The teachers are expected to promote child-centred, ‘inquiry-based learning’ rather than teacher-led instruction.

Rather than teaching knowledge, 21st-century learning professes to develop transferrable skills like creativity, collaboration and critical thinking. In place of exercise books that help students remember new knowledge it favours digital devices, in which students record their individual learning journeys.

The foundations of 21st-century learning rest on a romantic notion that children are ‘spontaneous learners.’ Set free from the constraints of the traditional classroom, they will flourish from their natural curiosity and open access to “all of the world’s knowledge” via the internet (or so the theory goes).

There is only one problem with 21st-century learning; despite its seductive underpinnings, there is no scientific evidence it is equal, let alone superior, to more traditional, teacher-led instruction. And there is lots of evidence it fails children, particularly the disadvantaged. So 21st-century learning is seductive snake oil, not science. And it is dumbing down children’s learning, by limiting their exposure to the wealth of knowledge their parents gained at school a generation ago.

Cult-like true believers
Now this wouldn’t matter if this 21st-century snake oil was simply being promoted by a few Mr Stanleys. But it is not. It is advocated by our own Ministry of Education. Even the briefest foray onto the ministry’s website reveals how embedded 21st-century notions have become in the ministry’s approach to education. And it was the same under National.

What is even more concerning is the cult-like status the 21st-century skills approach occupies within many schools. Teachers at the researchED conference talked about being afraid to express their concerns that modern learning methods were not working. It is as if the 21st-century skills approach has a sacred status; anyone questioning it is at best a Luddite and at worst a traitor to progress.

And this culture has taken hold in our schools – which should be safe spaces for pursuing truth and learning, not experimental mind-labs where our children’s education is sacrificed at the altar of future-focused pseudo-science.

Not surprisingly, the 21st-century results of education’s embrace of ‘21st-century learning’ are damning. Since the turn of the century, the performance of New Zealand school children in reading, maths and science has fallen dramatically in international tests. And the decline is not gradual, it is startling.


Whether it is the PISA, PIRLS or TIMMS rankings, since the beginning of the millennium our children have been sliding down the international league tables. And they are not just falling behind the rest of the world, they are falling behind their 20th-century predecessors.

When 21st-century orthodoxy has dominated ministry thinking for so long, it takes either bravery – or perhaps naivety – to shout out that the emperor has no clothes.  Yet that is what happened at the researchED conference in Auckland on Saturday. And for many it was cathartic. One senior educator described the event as like finding his spiritual home.

As with most myths, once revealed the shortcomings are obvious. The notion that learning should ‘relate to the child’ is like saying the blacksmith’s son should only learn about being a blacksmith. Or, to use a modern example, the dairy farmer’s daughter should learn only about dairying.

Yet surely we want our schools to open our children’s minds to the world’s rich reservoirs of knowledge? Led by their more knowledgeable teachers, our children should be standing on the shoulders of giants – not limited to ‘researching on the internet’ to expand what little they know.

It is only once they are armed with an arsenal of knowledge that our children will be able to think critically and solve the problems that the 21st-century world will throw at them. The next generation of leaders will have no prospect of solving the Middle East conflict if they do not know where the Middle East is.

We heard that in some schools, children know so little, that their learning literally does ‘relate to the child.’ So 21st-century learning has led to a new genre of study, ‘Mesearch’. Yet social media is already making our millennials history’s most narcissistic generation. We hardly need our teaching pedagogy to reinforce this.

And the effect of 21st-century learning is much more insidious than just a general dumbing down. Children fortunate enough to live in more affluent suburbs generally have access to more traditional schools. With the cultural capital these children gain from living in homes with books and newspapers, they can benefit from traditional schools, delivering knowledge-rich curricula.

Their peers from low socioeconomic suburbs, where books are less abundant, are not so fortunate. Yet they are more likely to find themselves at the type of ‘21st-century school’ that will encourage them to direct their own learning. Far from making up for their knowledge deficit, their schooling will exacerbate it.

The great irony is that the purveyors of 21st-century learning are likely to care passionately about social justice. Yet their evidence-free teaching pedagogy may be committing our generation’s greatest social injustice.

They are not just selling snake oil. They are selling out our 21st-century children.

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