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Progress in 21st century education?

Jane Gilbert

The term 'progress', as it is usually used, means moving in a particular direction in order to arrive somewhere. In educational contexts, students 'make progress' by passing through—and successfully completing—a series of developmental stages. Step by step, they come to know and be able to do more—and harder—things. This concept of progress is, however, the product of a particular period in history, and a particular set of cultural understandings. This paper unpacks some of the assumptions, values, and goals that underlie the concept of progress, with a particular focus on its use in educational thinking. It argues that these assumptions, values, and goals are 20th century (or, in some cases, 19th century) ideas, and that we need to think about them differently if we want to build a 21st century education system.

The paper has three parts. The first outlines how and why the idea of "progress" is important in modern thought. The second looks at some postmodern critiques of progress—in particular, the role it plays in organising our thinking about education. The third part explores some alternative ways of thinking about learning—about building it and measuring it—that could be more appropriate as a framework for developing a 21st century education system.

Paper presented at the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER)  Conference: Making progress - measuring progress, Wellington, 13 March 2008. p.63-73

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Jane Gilbert