Monday, 16 February 2015

21st century skills: hovercraft to school and robots for teachers?

First impressions

When I first heard the latest buzzword in ELT: ’21st century skills’, what immediately sprang to mind were those flawed visions I grew up with (in the 1970s to the 1990s) of the impending new millennium: space holidays, permanent bases on the moon and possibly on other planets, cities under the sea, hovercraft or spaceships transporting us to work and school, robots replacing teachers as well as those of computers in every home... (oh, hang on, that’s actually happened!) and home schooling by computers... (which also seems to be happening to some extent – with adaptive learning, online learning platforms, LMSs and whatnot, more about all of which probably in a later post).

Then I looked into what the term meant and I found out it was something quite different. (Being an ardent sci-fi fan, I was a bit disappointed it had nothing to do with spaceships.)

Back in the 20th century 

The reason we didn’t talk about ’20th century skills’ when I began my learning then teaching career then was twofold: 1. we were too near the end of the century to name anything after it, and more importantly 2. the difference between the speed of change in the world we lived in. Our teachers’ generation and our teachers’ teachers’ generation passed on their accumulated knowledge and life experience to a new generation, safe in the knowledge that most of their skills are still relevant and useful for the young. Of course, there were changes and developments, shifts in priority, but in broad terms, the skills they could teach us, drawing on their own personal experiences, were the skills we needed to learn.

As far as ELT was concerned, the teacher was the primary, and in many countries, the sole source of knowledge and of learning materials in English. Often, the teacher was one of the few people, if not the only person, learners could communicate with at all day to day, using the foreign language they were learning. Books, magazines, newspapers in English were difficult to come by – and they were often expensive. (At least to us in the Eastern Bloc – we’re talking about the 70s and 80s when we’re talking about my student years.) Teachers were therefore the access points to English as well as the primary role models of non-native language users.

21st century developments

Not so in the past decade or so. With the spread of the internet, access to materials in English is unlimited – written, audio as well as visual materials fill the web and spill over into the real world. Knowledge and learning experiences can now be shared among learners around the globe 24 hours a day, thanks to social networks. A lot of this flood of English is free of charge, too. ... and a lot of it is rubbish. What has changed quite significantly therefore is that learners no longer really need a provider of English, but they need a guide. They need someone to show them how to locate relevant information, filter what is irrelevant or unreliable and to use critical skills to judge the value of whatever is left to use.

The role of teachers is changing, and publishers all seem to be queueing up to ride on the ’21st century skills’ bandwagon. A lot of this activity brings benefits to the learning experience: there is more variety in content and media, more integration of language and other disciplines than ever before. Judging from some of the most recent frontlist publications, there is also a renewed enthusiasm for original (or neatly updated) teaching concepts after a couple of decades of ’if it works, don’t fix it’ formulaic curricula – especially in schoolbooks publishing. 

Find out more about 21st century skills

Steve Taylore-Knowles provides a rationale for why ’21st century skills’ (or ’life skills’ in their preferred corporate parlance) are vital (Why should we teach Life Skills?) on the Macmillan Life Skills website, while Robert Balaguer Prestes gives an informative overview of how learners fit into this whole paradigm (21st century students and skills) on the Pearson 21st century learning website, where there are also a number of related articles by Nick Dawson which I’ve found quite useful. OUP meanwhile runs workshops on the subject, some of which I recently delivered myself in Indonesia and Serbia.
What educators and policy-makers need to bear in mind about 21st century skills is that it is originally a business initiative, a sort of corporate think-tank project (The Partnership for 21st Century Skills) to groom the next generation of workers especially skilled at being adaptable. It was probably quickly realised by the stakeholders that if the scheme is to work, introducing these flexibility skills must obviously start much earlier on – when school education begins. They drew up a helpful diagram to illustrate how this all fits together (image taken from

What's in it for us?

But what exactly is new about teaching our students the value of Critical thinking, Communication, Collaboration or Creativity (the famous 4Cs of ’21st century skills’)? Well, as far as I can tell, nothing really. It is the application of these skills to how language is used as the medium of interaction rather than as the subject of analytical study, to how classroom skills become transferable to life skills, to how ICT skills become integrated with language skills, that makes 21st century skills meaningful to education.

In my opinion, the idea is certainly worth exploring further – especially how it could be applied to benefit language learners. But the concept of ’21st century skills’ is not without its sceptics. CUP organised a debate in 2013 (21st century skills - a 21st century problem?) where some of the speakers questioning whether there was anything novel about these skills at all before exploring its implications for assessment especially. One of the most vocal opponents is Diane Ravitch who outlined her criticism in his article on the subject subtitled An Old Familiar Song (21st century skills - an old familiar song). Ravitch went on to dedicate her blog (Diane Ravitch's blog) to the subject, where she even proposed the promotion of ’19th century skills’.

Like it or not, though, 21st century skills are here to stay. And if you’re a teacher, you’ll no doubt find a meaningful role of it all in your classroom – as you always do with each passing trend in the profession.

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