Knowledge and educational research in the context of 21st century learning
Educational researchers and academics cannot ignore the ever-present call for education and schooling in particular, to reflect the needs of the 21st century knowledge economy. Since the 1990s, national curricula and education systems have reflected this call in their focus on technology and shifting pedagogy to increasingly constructivist paradigms that aim at the development of competencies rather than the acquisition of knowledge. Despite these shifts in thinking about education and the process of schooling, there remains evidence of irregular or inconsistent practice. Furthermore, national education systems seem still to have little impact on social inequalities that continue to plague post-industrial nations. Against this background, an underpinning question in this paper is to ask what should be the key questions for research in the context of ‘21st century learning’? It suggests that these questions arise from the knowledge—competencies nexus. Does knowledge continue to play a role in education and education research? Does the interest in competencies devalue or undermine knowledge? Does a curriculum that is centred on key competencies mean that knowledge is abandoned? Does a social constructivist paradigm necessarily dismantle disciplinary knowledge? As noted, education systems seemingly continue to struggle to achieve social equality, thus an important further question is to ask what the relationship is between knowledge and improving the life chances for the marginalised. There is a growing body of educational research over the past decade drawing attention to the notion of ‘21st century learning’. Does the focus on 21st century learning address the on-going issues of social inequality in post-industrial society? This paper therefore has two related concerns: the first is the role of knowledge, and the second is the concept of 21st century learning. They are closely related issues, because the former appears to be under attack by the latter—or at the very least, subject to significant transformation. Methodology, Methods, Research Instruments or Sources Used Using a critical theoretical methodology, I will consider the questions I have raised firstly by asking what the social realist and emergentist positions have to offer that helps to address these questions. The ‘emergentist’ position is represented by Osberg and Biesta, who have written extensively on the topic (2007a, 2007b, 2008, 2010). The ‘social realist’ position is taken up by education sociologists (Moore, 2007; Moore and Maton, 2010; Young, 2008; 2010; 2012a; 2012b; and Young & Muller, 2010), and more recently, Rata (2012). Second, I will address these questions from the perspective of recent qualitative New Zealand research that contributes significantly to the concept of ‘21st century learning’, conducted by Bolstad and Gilbert. The first two groups of writers agree that knowledge springs from the social, but creates new meanings that transcend the conditions of their production. However, they also both reject reductionist approaches to curriculum that regard the purpose of education to be a relay for the transmission of competencies that will prepare the young for a pre–determined economic future. In contrast, the latter writers argue for a notion of knowledge closely tied to competencies and preparing students for a complex economic future. Conclusions, Expected Outcomes or Findings My intention in this paper is to synthesise these three perspectives on knowledge, and to determine what might be an appropriate way forward for education research in the 21st century.