21st century skills is a term that everyone seems to be talking about, yet no-one seems entirely sure what exactly it means. Or rather, everyone interprets it slightly differently.

However, most people would agree that 21st Century skills are those skills which are or will be needed to succeed at work and in life over the coming century.

Traditionally, career progress has been seen as quite a linear thing. One job or role leads to another further up the ladder. However, the workplace is changing. Organisational structures are becoming much flatter. Roles are becoming much less defined, and teams are often dispersed across different countries. I have experienced all of this first hand, working with different publishers through rounds of restructuring.

The professionals of today and of the next generation are less able to progress up a traditional career ladder. This is partly because in a flatter organisation it is harder to develop people by moving them upwards, and partly because the goal posts keep moving.

People need to be much more versatile and flexible, and most of all, they need to be willing to keep learning something new.

The World Economic Forum recently published a report specifying the skills which will be considered important in the workplace of 2020 (not so far off). 

Top 10 skills in 2020

  1. Complex problem-solving
  2. Critical thinking
  3. Creativity
  4. People management
  5. Coordinating with others
  6. Emotional intelligence
  7. Judgement and decision making
  8. Service orientation
  9. Negotiation
  10. Cognitive flexibility

Top 10 skills in 2015

  1. Complex problem-solving
  2. Coordinating with others
  3. People management
  4. Critical thinking
  5. Negotiation
  6. Quality control
  7. Service orientation
  8. Judgement and decision making
  9. Active listening
  10. Creativity
Source: Future of jobs report, World Economic Forum

Creativity jumps up in importance, largely, the theory goes, because while robots and machines may be able to crunch data more effectively than we can, they aren’t yet able to produce creative ideas. (So my job as a materials writer is safe for the moment.)

Workplace teams are becoming more and more diverse, both in terms of geography and backgrounds, which means that we need to be increasingly sensitive to how we communicate and to how our communications are received. So emotional intelligence and people skills such as people management and co-ordinating with others are key.

And, of course, the top two skills are complex problem solving and critical thinking.

So, as well as teaching our students English, we also need to be helping them to develop their creativity, communication skills, emotional intelligence and critical thinking skills.

This might seem a little daunting for teachers, but, in fact, I think that many of the tasks that we are already familiar with in the language classroom can lend themselves very well to developing these skills.

We often ask our students to work together in groups on a task. But how often do we ask them to analyse how well they have worked together or what they could do to improve their collaboration? Asking one member of the group to observe and take notes on, for example, how many contributions each group member made or who took a leadership role, and then discussing the notes as a group, can help to make this 21st Century skill more visible.

Or looking at emotional intelligence, we often ask students to identify the attitude of the author or speaker, which is, in fact, a key skill in empathy. We could develop this a little further, by asking students not just to look for linguistic clues, but, using video, to look at what we can read from the speaker’s facial expressions, tone of voice and body language, as well as what they say.

Critical thinking, of course, includes a great many sub-skills, but just to give one example, we endlessly ask students to give their opinions on different topics. Just by asking them to justify their opinions with a reason or example, we are taking the activity up a notch and developing a critical thinking skill. Or, when giving students a task where they have to, for example, decide which holiday would best suit which couple or family, we can be explicit about the problem solving skills required in making a decision (defining the problem, listening pros and cons, weighting options according to importance and so on).

Rather than completely changing the way we teach or the content of our lessons, we mostly simply have to re-evaluate what we are already doing in the light of thinking more consciously about 21st century skills. We need to make these underlying skills more explicit and noticeable so that our students can both become aware of and start to develop the skills that they need to succeed in the modern world.

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