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The Ideology and Materiality of 21st-Century Skills: On Educational Technology and "Creativity"

Mon, April 16, 10:35am to 12:05pm, New York Hilton Midtown, Floor: Second Floor, Gibson Suite


Educational technologies are bound up in the promise to prepare students for the 21st century. This paper explores whose knowledges, values, and interests are encoded in contemporary educational technology, by focusing on “creativity”, one of the core “21st century skills.” The paper first presents a brief genealogy of the term, illustrating how the “creativity dispositif” (Hodges, 2005; McRobbie, 2015; Reckwitz, 2014) emerged. Where creativity was an elite affair in the 19th century, it was a radical, subversive force in the 1960s. Only from the 1970s did it become self-evident that everyone wants to – and must – be creative. The paper draws on social theory which argues that this normative “imperative to be creative” (Reckwitz, 2014) is tied up with permanent technological innovation, with the entrepreneurial self (Miller & Rose, 2008), and with the precarious project work of an “aesthetic capitalism” (Böhme, 2016).

The paper then presents findings on how “creativity” is constructed in educational policy and encoded in educational technologies. It draws on discourse theory, material-semiotic analysis and corpus linguistic tools to, first, analyze policy on the Digital Agenda across Europe (i.e. European policy and approx. 20 national policies). Creativity is associated with new educational technologies in almost all policies. However, the term remains “empty” (Laclau, 2005): its affective component is not articulated with concrete issues or contexts. Second, the paper analyzes 50 learning apps that foster creativity. Most apps invite students to enthusiastically develop aesthetic projects on fun topics. Overall, the paper suggests that in policy and technology, pedagogies of creativity have been tamed, neutralized and made productive, where productivity refers to both making aesthetic projects and being successful in a global market economy.

However, analysis also identifies a small number of digital tools in which creativity is untamed and made generative, where generativity refers to both making aesthetic projects and formulating a “generative critique” of social inequity (Haraway, 2000; Sedgwick, 2003). These tools invite students to, for instance, collect and share oral histories, or make documentary films after viewing prompts on issues such as refugees and HIV. They challenge the assumption that creativity is primarily a means of integrating young people into the aesthetic economy. Linking these examples to critical approaches to education and technology (e.g. Emejulu & McGregor, 2016; Pangrazio, 2016; Selwyn, 2013; Strommel, 2014; Watters, 2016) suggests “diffractive” (Haraway, 1997) pedagogies for creativity which recover its hopeful political impetus and think public education forward towards more equitable futures.

Overall, the paper highlights that creativity, as an essential 21st century skill, is not a neutral term, and shows how it is entangled with specific political and economic imaginaries. It suggests how the policies and technologies of digital education are helping to institutionalize a particular understanding of creativity as an unquestioned set of values. Creativity is being dissociated from social justice and equitable social change. The paper also points to alternatives to this understanding, and proposes a conceptualization of creativity that values generative critique.


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