Of late, the term 21 century skills has caught the fancy of employers, educators and the business world as something to reckon with, and deemed essential. This urges me to say that in a transient world, where new trends are emerging at an unprecedented rate, we need newer skills to adapt, or else ‘we die like dinosaurs ‘.

I am quite intrigued by the new ‘skill set’- termed as 21 century skills, that has emerged as indispensable and wonder whether it will render a certain segment of learners or professionals obsolete in terms of the abilities and skills they possess in times to come.

What are these  21st century skills?  How can these be developed in the present scheme of ELT to equip learners to succeed at work and in life in changing times?  There are quite a few that have figured in the educational context of which the 4 C’s seem to find their way into the English language classroom; communication, collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving.

I will discuss my ideas on problem solving skills that work in tandem with collaboration, communication and critical thinking skills. In addition, building capability to blend in digital and technology skills will help bring in areas of global citizenship.

Problem Solving Skills:

 Engaging learners in tasks that reflect real life problems facing their society or community can be hands –on learning and ensures focus. In the process they  negotiate for language, appropriate register and present solutions. This is a transferable skill and will give them the confidence to deal with similar things in real time.

 Getting learners to think, reflect, question opinions and ideas, analyse and find solutions to problems will develop their critical thinking skills and these can easily find their way in any language classroom be it general English, spoken or business communication. 

Consider these –

‘‘Discuss ways to prevent people in the world from going hungry’.

 I used this topic to elicit ideas and solutions while doing a lesson on Food aid.  The students in groups brainstormed ideas as a matter of course, the other ‘C’s namely-collaboration and critical thinking came naturally into play.

For lower level groups I choose topics that are more connected to their immediate environment and most trending. For instance, a lot of news was doing rounds with regards to the menace caused by stray dogs in those days. There were diverging views and opinions from different groups in the national press. I decided to take that up as a class room discussion activity-

“How to deal with stray dogs.’

Such tasks will see learners engage in discussions, argue and defend their view point, and have the opportunity to analyse others opinions, evaluate and come up with solutions. In the process a lot of language points can be embedded. For example, it might be a good idea to weave in modal verbs (should/ ought to/must, mustn’t) making language learning stimulating and meaningful. Further, considering how students will present their solution, the learning outcome could take the form of a letter, article, blog or even a presentation. In the above example, I put up the analysis as an article for a local daily newspaper.

In the discussion process students resort to critical thinking, communication and collaboration, reinforcing key functional language (agreeing/disagreeing/expressing opinion/asking for opinion, language for interruption) and vocabulary. The learning and experience will serve them well in their adult life.

Let learners think about problems and suggest solutions from different perspectives.

For example – Problems related to schools, what can be the pros and cons of working abroad, issues on moral dilemmas etc. Students brainstorm in pairs or small groups and prepare a final draft. By weaving in small bytes of language input to deal with the task (conditionals, if we move abroad….may, might, language for speculation, linkers- although, however, nevertheless….) opportunities can be created for learners to think, debate, refute, rebut, contemplate, and communicate  naturally and effectively.  Picking up activities like these to complement the course book material can avoid boredom.

Having said that, if the lessons are designed around such tasks and activities that promote critical thinking and problem-solving ability, this may well translate into a habit, a behaviour that will stand students in good stead in their life to withstand and respond to the changing and challenging times.

Equally important is digital literacy and technology skills in the 21st century. While being digitally literate is an important 21st century skill, going beyond that and being able to handle the tools to face the deluge of information and deal with it, is a skill we need to endow them with.

Combining digital tools with the pedagogical aims of the lesson can generate interest and contribute to dynamic teaching. For example, encouraging learners to write, respond, react to a particular statement on a blog or expressing their own views in their blogs can go a long way in promoting digital literacy and writing skills. In this way they are exposed to a different genre of writing. An upshot of this for example can be that learners take to digital platforms to respond, comment, critique on major issues which will foster creativity and collaboration.

Gone are the days when communication was limited to face-to face encounters where eloquence and oratory skills were considered supreme. Today communication happens on many forums and platforms such as twitter, podcasts, videos and synchronous meetings. In many cases the incumbent is expected to retaliate, reiterate and react in real time.

In my own growing up years, I learned and focused on debates, elocution and assembly speeches to improve my communication skills. All I had was the print media to rely on to enhance my learning. Today technology supports learning by way of applications, software, sites, blogs, e-learning, kindles and so on. It supports all kinds of learners and enables learners to read, react and contribute to the intellectual capital. Also, today learners learn differently and the way we teach in schools needs a change.

Knowledge of digital tools and how to use them in a media -suffused world is imperative for success.  I feel developing these skills and abilities are not enough if they are not used to connect, build networks and share knowledge with the community.

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