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Seven essential 21st century skills for secondary learners

The world of work and communication is changing rapidly. As teachers we need to prepare our secondary learners with the 21st century skills they need to thrive in today’s digital and globalized society.

Here are seven essential 21st century skills your teenage students need to learn and some ideas about how to teach them.

1. Critical Thinking

One of the most important 21st century skills to teach our learners is how to think critically. With so much information available online, it’s crucial that young people analyze, question and challenge what they are being told. They should remain open-minded, evaluate situations and think outside the box when approaching tasks.

Encourage critical thinking in class by having students predict what is going to happen in a reading or listening activity, giving them challenging problems to solve, using a variety of games and puzzles and asking questions with multiple answers.

You could also try class debates where learners have to examine the advantages and disadvantages of the different scenarios before starting.

These opportunities will make learning more exciting, help create a classroom culture where asking questions is positive and also arouse students’ curiosity.

2. Communication

Communication is the skill many students find challenging to acquire, especially in a second language, so it’s essential you give them plenty of practice.

Good communicators will not only speak English more clearly and confidently, they’ll also excel outside of the class when it comes to studying, working or traveling.

Learners need to be able to express their opinions on a range of subjects, make themselves understood to others and work well in groups.

At the start of a course, try making a set of ‘communication rules’, which all the students should agree to follow. Include things like, only speaking in English or listening to others when they are talking.

Ensure that your students listen carefully to their partners by having them face each other when working in pairs, provide them with speaking frames to help them formulate their ideas, and use authentic audio and video materials as much as possible.

3. Collaboration

This skill links nicely with communication, as good collaborators work effectively with others to achieve a common goal. Learning how to take turns, respecting other people’s opinions and being a good team player is vital for the success of your class.

Teamwork skills will also help students when they leave school and find jobs, as many of them will have to work with people from different backgrounds or cultures.

Include pair work, group work and collaborative projects frequently in your lessons, making sure to vary who students work with so that they can collaborate with different types of people.

Also try assigning different roles to students when working in groups, so that everyone gets a chance to be the leader and doesn’t feel left out.

Doing team building activities at the beginning of a course, will also help break down barriers and make students feel more comfortable with their new classmates.

4. Creativity

Everyone has a creative side – they just might not know it yet! It’s your role as a teacher to help students explore their creativity and stimulate their imaginations.

Similar to critical thinking, students should be encouraged to think of new and innovative ways to solve problems. As well helping them in their other subjects at school, it will also benefit them when entering higher education or the workplace.

Traditional arts and crafts are a good place to start, but there are many other things you can do in class to boost creativity.

One idea is to give students some random objects from around your house (or around the school) and get them to come up with weird and wonderful new uses for them. You can also spend time in class listening to music, singing songs and reading poetry. You can also include drama in your lessons and put on a class show once a term.

Whatever you do, you should praise students for the things they do well and draw attention to positive behavior and actions in class. By taking the focus off negative things in class, you’ll create an environment where errors are acceptable and your students won’t be afraid of making mistakes.

5. Cultural Awareness

More than ever, we are living and working in multicultural environments. Learners need to be able to understand differences between themselves and people from other countries who have different cultures or traditions.

Developing respect and understanding for others will help students find common ground with anyone they meet, whether it’s at school or later when they are studying, working or traveling.

You can create cultural awareness among your students by using authentic materials whenever possible. One way to do this is to watch videos that show life in other countries or regions and always try to expose students to different cultures around the world; including their music, clothes, food, traditions and beliefs.

You could do this bringing in speakers from other countries to speak to the class, having a class charity which helps people from abroad or even simply having students research a country and hen give a presentation to the rest of the class about what they discovered.

6. Digital Literacy

Although it’s getting to the point where our teenage learners have a better understanding of the digital world than we do, it’s important to use technology in our classes so that our students are engaged and motivated to learn.

We need to remember that many of the younger generations do not know a life without Google, social media or smartphones. It’s therefore important that the way we teach reflects this.

Incorporate smartphones into your classes to research projects, check definitions of words or play interactive quizzes like Kahoot. Use interactive whiteboard or projectors to show authentic videos or have students make their own.

If you are worried about your students chatting to friends or getting distracted by this technology during your class, you can try giving them a 30 second technology break in the middle of the lesson where they can check their notifications.

It’s also crucial that we encourage learners to use technology safely, educate them on the potential dangers they face online and teach them about what information or websites they can trust.

7. Autonomy

Many young people study English because it’s part of the school curriculum, or it might be that their parents have signed them up for extracurricular classes. Unfortunately, this often causes a lack of motivation among teenagers.

It’s therefore important to personalize your classes. Speak to your teenage students about the benefits of learning English and how it will help them in the future when studying, traveling or looking for a job.

You should also give students a choice in class. Like adults, teenagers like to be trusted and given the responsibility to make their own decisions. Let them decide between homework tasks or even the type of activity they are going to do next.

Also have them come up with the class rules and even get them to include one or two for you. You will soon see that the more independent learners they become, the more ownership they’ll take for their learning.

Dedicate time to self-reflection and peer feedback and personalize the lessons when possible.

Materials with 21st century skills in mind

Pearson offers a range of secondary courses which ember 21st century skills in a natural way and prepare students for the opportunities and challenges they will encounter in the real world.

Wider World, another one of our courses written in collaboration with the BBC, reflects the way that today’s teens access information and entertainment from the internet, using personal devices such as tablets, laptops and mobiles. The content and the style in which it is presented is designed to inspire and challenge teenagers.

By interacting with the content, rather than just practising, students acquire the language at a deeper cognitive level.


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