James Taylor: What does the term 21st century skills mean to me?

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There is no doubt that 21st century skills is a popular buzz term at the moment, which is interesting as we are already quite a long way into the 2000s.

But if you’ve been to an ELT conference recently then you’ve probably heard the phrase used in numerous talks and you might be convinced that this is the next big thing in education. Or you might also be wondering what all the fuss is about.

I don’t blame you for having either reaction as on one hand, the appeal of 21st century skills is clear. The world has changed, undeniably, and people are communicating in new ways at a volume and with a diversity that we have never seen before. But on the other hand, we are language teachers so what’s all this talk about technology, citizenship and thinking got to do with us? I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle, and is to some extent defined by how we decide exactly what 21st century skills are.

Perhaps the easiest way to start defining the term is by saying what it shouldn’t be. A quick online search for 21st century skills will bring up countless blogs and articles arguing that our lessons should be full of activities based around apps and lipdub videos and Instagram, and as I write this I can see an oncoming tsunami of Pokemon Go posts heading my way. These articles usually have one one overriding problem: a serious lack of pedagogy. They have a tendency towards the shallow, suggesting that technology be used because it exists. As educators, that shouldn’t be a good enough reason for us, we need to think more deeply about how our activities will help our students improve their English.

A more nuanced approach to 21st century skills is to think of them as the ways that that our students need to interact with the new(ish) world of technology, and go beyond just thinking about them using the devices in their pockets. There are many aspects of Internet usage that require skills that don’t just come to us naturally, the most important of which is the ability to critically engage with a text. This can include understanding bias, checking the source material, understanding satire and sarcasm and other tools that help us understand that anything that we read is written from a perspective and is potentially unreliable. In practical terms, this means not believing everything you see in your Facebook feed. Other crucial aspects include understanding how our data is used and how advertising works.

The counter argument to this is that we are language teachers, not technology or social skills teachers so why should we be dealing with these things? I have to say I have some sympathy for this point of view and the advocates for teaching these skills seem to sometimes forget that we do have other priorities, in our case, teaching English. But I would counter this by saying that unlike teachers in other disciplines, we don’t teach a subject but rather a way of speaking about subjects so there’s no reason why we couldn’t ask our students to engage critically with the texts that they are going to see and hear anyway.

You could argue that this is our real responsibility as teachers, and that these are the real 21st century skills our students need. A focus on higher order skills will be of great benefit to our learners and doesn’t require us to compromise our main objective, improving their English.

To read more of my thoughts on 21st century skills, click here.