They are mentioned at conferences, in articles, and are used as buzzwords when someone comes selling a new book or learning product. Early in my career it was ‘learner autonomy’. Later, it was ‘formative assessment’. Then, ‘digital natives and immigrants’ became the hot topic. Brain-based learning. CLIL. PBL. Blended learning. Gamification. They have all come and gone (and in some cases come back again) without a clear definition ever being given.
Lately, one such term that seems to get thrown about to oohs and aahs in educational discussions is ‘21st Century Skills’. We are told that our learners must develop them, we as teachers must be aware of them, they are necessary for an ever-changing world of work and study... and yet, I have rarely heard definitions of what they are exactly.
Some link them to modern technology and highlight the importance of digital literacy. Our students need to be competent and comfortable with using a range of devices, software, apps, and hardware. They need to be able to decode and evaluate information presented to them online.
Others stress the importance of critical thinking. Without a foundation in this area, students will find it difficult to evaluate and adapt their learning experiences. Collaboration is also cited as a key area to equip people with skills to take on large scale projects and produce results.
There are many more elements that are commonly listed and there is not enough space to go into them here (this is part of the reason the term is so loosely defined). I will therefore now focus on what I see as the key skills needed in the 21st Century for language learners, educators and everyone in general.
I have long seen this as the key to successful learning. If students are able to personalise content and skills to match their own interests and needs, their engagement will increase, their enthusiasm will increase, and their ownership and control will increase. Unfortunately, learning programmes are often quite rigid and language covered in class is often quite forced. We have all been there when, sure, the learners are using present simple throughout the lesson but they are listing off standard actions (get up, wash my face, brush my teeth, get dressed) in mundane detail. Give them a chance to actually talk about what they do every day, explore the differences (Who is a morning person who enjoys a leisurely breakfast? Who runs out of the door with a piece of toast hanging out of their mouth?) and adapt the language to be meaningful to them and we have our first skill.
In order for the above to happen, we need to be flexible. As teachers, we need to recognise that a pre-determined plan should only provide us with a starting point and a guide. We must be ready to adapt and respond to our learners. We also need to explore new ideas and not just settle into a comfortable corner of “I’ve always done it this way.” We need to engage with different ideas, consider how they might impact on our teaching and be willing to try them out.
We need to pass this skill onto our learners too. As they progress through different stages of language development, they too ned to adapt and be flexible. They need to try new things and avoid being dependent on the security of familiarity. This is something that will help them in the wider world as well. I have recently witnessed the panic and anger caused amongst teachers by the introduction of a new online class register, for example. If we approach such changes with a flexible attitude and an open mind, such stress and resistance can be easily avoided.
Collaboration is often cited in the 21st Century skills discussion but I think that ahead of that should be the ability to work and think independently. When I consider my own development as a teacher and a trainer, the majority has come from initiatives I have taken myself. At various points in my career, I took the decisions to start blogging, send proposals to conferences, explore different applications of technology, write articles and pursue further study. I did not wait for support from my employers or the chance to work together with colleagues. If I had done so, I would probably still be waiting...
For our learners, we need to encourage them to take charge of their own learning. There is only so much that can be done in a few hours of class time a week. We need to incorporate learner training into our lessons to promote the idea of independent learning. Getting them to seek out language learning opportunities, notice the English they encounter in their daily lives, and find a way to record and reflect on it will help them advance a lot more than a gap-fill worksheet for homework. This also allows for the chance to personalise the learning process further and encourage a flexible approach from each student.
All of the above means very little without on-going reflection and evaluation. As we come to our own understanding of big ideas, explore ways to adapt them, and pursue our own objectives and learning paths, we need to analyse and think about it all. This is the key to identifying what works well for us and what needs to be changed. It is a constant cycle of action, reflection, evaluation, adjustment, and improvement.
The same applies for our learners too. If they are to become independent and to truly have an open mind for trying new things, they need to self-evaluate, adjust and move forward. This is a key part of learner training and a way we can encourage our learners to keep going and do more beyond simply turning up for class.
The bigger picture
It can’t all be focused on ourselves of course. At some point, we need to work with others to find those new ideas and alternative approaches that being flexible will allow us to incorporate into our own learning and teaching. A key point of the reflective process is to think ‘what next?’ How can we relate our own experiences to others so that they can engage in their own reflective process? How can we engage with their ideas so we can relate them to our own experiences? For me, blogging has been a great way to engage and exchange with other teachers. Conferences and webinars have helped too. Writing articles has helped me consider how others might benefit from my experiences.
For our students, it is all about keeping their goals and motivations in mind. This is the key to ensuring that they can work independently by identifying and responding to their own aims, be flexible in terms of adapting their learning as their goals and needs evolve, and personalise the experience to best match their own preferences.
A personal definition
Of course, these are just my ideas. Yours may be similar or they may be completely different. Most likely, they will not be exactly the same… But that is kind of the point – in the 21st Century, we need to be independent enough to make our own informed choices. We need to reflect, adapt and evaluate what we think and do to move forward. We need to personalise and relate information to our own context. And perhaps most importantly, we need to recognise, value and reflect on the different ideas of others.
David Dodgson, originally from the UK, works for the British Council in Bahrain as an ICT coordinator. He has also worked in Turkey and Gabon, gaining experience with young learners, adults, ESP and EAL classes. He runs two blogs, davedodgson.com, which is about his teaching and learning experiences, and eltsandbox, which focuses on using digital games as authentic materials for language learning.