A ramble through the 21st century.

Some people call their writing far-reaching, others will go for the more honest term ‘rambling’. This one is a ramble but I wanted to see where it went. Quite by chance I recently had something of an ELT flashback on the internet, when I came across some activities and recordings from a course called ‘Access to English’, by Basil Coles and Michael Lord, published in 1974 by OUP. It was the first course book I ever used.  Looking at it now, of course it seems dated, innocent almost. But it made me think a lot about how the world of ELT has changed, and indeed how it hasn’t.

‘Access to English’ is based around a character called Arthur Newton and his life in a town called Middleford. The storyline revolved around Arthur’s adventures and, in particular, his relationship with the focus of his romantic attentions, Mary Stephens.

Looking at ‘Access to English’ and at more recent course books, while the HOW, the approach to teaching, has changed significantly, (notably in the way we teach the four skills), the WHAT, the language itself, has not. At least not that much. What a quick look revealed is perhaps rather less flexibility of usage in certain grammatical forms than we have now, lots of very stilted and formal language and a lot less functional language. For me, the lack of a book map in the student book is a remarkable indicator of how the students’ relationships with their own learning has changed. This, and the fact there is very little labelling of what the students are supposed to be learning shows how the role of the teacher has evolved too. There are of course some inevitable changes in vocabulary – Arthur would after all have been a stranger to ‘mansplaining’ and ‘sexting’.

One of the big content changes that has been happening in ELT course books over the last few years, and it’s really buzzing now, is the addition of the higher order thinking ‘21st century skills’. There are many ways to classify these skills, but I find these four categories useful:

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving;

Collaboration and Communication;

Creativity and Imagination;


If you want to know more about this, visit the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, http://www.p21.org/index.php.

The job of ELT teacher is in my view getting a whole lot more complex. Arguably, 21st century skills are not new in ELT, some of them have certainly existed in our course books before in other guises with other names, but their overt presence and teaching is relatively new. I’m really very positive about this, ELT needs to be much more embedded in real life. As a profession, we need to provide support and inspiration for our students’ journeys through their studies and working lives, as well as general preparation for this increasingly connected and globalised existence.

There are however some issues about the teaching of 21st century skills. The problems, it seems to me, fall into at least two areas.

Culture and politics.

Students from certain cultures can find it difficult to respond to, and indeed put into practice, the high degrees of questioning that can be needed for problem-solving and decision-making or critical thinking. This is not necessarily some sort of cultural imperialism, but I think it’s fair to suggest a degree of cultural over-assumption might be at work here. If you know your theoretical frameworks, these are the cultures that are high on Geert Hofstede’s ‘Power Distance Index’ or low on his ‘Individualism vs Collectivism Index’. Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner’s model would refer to ‘Communitarianism’ and ‘Inner Direction’ to discuss these cultural characteristics. You can visit http://geerthofstede.com/ and http://www2.thtconsulting.com/ to find out more. The cultural issues are of course complicated when the political regime that certain students find themselves living under is not one where questioning is either encouraged or indeed possible. The way we teachers deal with these circumstances requires a lot of teaching and classroom management skill, particularly in mixed culture groups where barriers and anxieties can emerge.

Personality and emotional intelligence.

Many of the 21st century skills require a degree of public performance – presentation skills and many of the collaborative tasks, creative and teamworking activities that we set spring to mind here. This type of performance and involvement does not suit the psychology of some students and learning can become an ordeal, with self-confidence plummeting. As 21st century skill mastery becomes closely linked to success in English classes, there are serious risks of feeling left behind or somehow excluded for the more reticent students. While this phenomenon is not uncommon in ELT classes, an increasing expectation of effective public performance seems to be allied to some 21st century skills teaching.

Intimately linked to the two points above is the question of how we assess or measure performance in 21st century skills, if at all. The ‘if at all’ seems the key issue, as while we as teachers are reasonably well-equipped to assess language improvement I am not sure if we have the tools to measure collaboration or critical thinking for example. The backdrops of culture and personality complicate this even more. There are certainly ways of identifying and measuring outcomes from 21st century skills activities but these may be beyond the ‘comfort zone’ of many English teachers. The issues around assessment are also muddied by the distinction between 21st century skills activities that are language-specific or language-dependent and those that are free-standing. By ‘free-standing’ I mean those activities in which success is measured in pure outcomes rather than linguistic performance. For example, a student with a low level of spoken English can be the most collaborative member of a working group, employing gesture, demonstration and a positive attitude.

There seem to be two directions that we need to explore to ensure that 21st century skills are integrated smoothly into our ELT classes. The first direction, as ever, is teacher development. 21st century skills (and study skills) are becoming so central to our work that they need to feature in initial teacher training such as the CELTA.  A straw poll I did suggests that some CELTA trainers do reference them, but here and in DELTAs there is a need for some allocated time to be spent discussing the issues. Ad hoc teacher development and long-term CPD need to reference 21st century skills too, especially in post-adoption orientation sessions for new material.

The second direction is more teacher-driven. The importance and ease of application of the 21st century skills might be more apparent to students if the general classroom ethos reflects the values of these skills. For example, collaborative ‘noticing’ and discussion of grammar points, increased student-led learning and encouragement of peer correction and support all help to reinforce the work done on 21st century skills, especially if the teacher makes overt reference to this.

We seem to live in turbulent times and the ability to make informed decisions, separate fact from ‘fake news’ – lies in other words, and the ability to collaborate and share with others seems more important than ever. We are English teachers, yes just that, but our responsibilities and opportunities go well beyond the language.

“..  and this your mountainous inhumanity.” William Shakespeare, ‘Sir Thomas More’.


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