IATEFL Poland: Piotr Steinbrich on 21st century skills

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In this semi-plenary, Piotr Steinbrich cast a sceptical eye over the idea that we should all be teaching '21st Century Skills' in our English language classes. He began by listing buzz words and concepts which have impacted in various ways on ELT in recent years: the ELP; Blended leaning; ELF; the CEFR; Multiple intelligences; CLIL and the Lexical Approach. He suggested that all had come and gone leaving a limited impression on language teaching. He wondered whether "21st Century Skills" would suffer the same fate.

21st Century Skills is a set of guidelines for the modern world which is being embraced by many areas of education, including language teaching. In order to contextualize the rationale for this set of guidelines, Piotr quoted Trilling and Fadel (2009), ‘To be productive contributors to society in our 21st century, you need to be able to quickly learn the core content of a field of knowledge while also mastering a broad portfolio of essentials in learning, innovation, technology, and career skills needed for work and life.’ Piotr was scathing about the idea of 'quickly learning the core content', as if learning English were a minor obstacle to be overcome before moving on to the real business.

 Piotr put up a slide showing the famous 21st Century Skills rainbow diagram. In this diagram, the core content is the inner arc in green. For ELT teachers, this core content is English language. The outer arc is divided into red - life and career skills; yellow - learning and innovation skills and blue - information, media and technology skills. He devoted the rest of the talk to questioning the validity of focusing on these outer arc skills in the ELT classroom.

 Piotr dismissed the red segment (life and career skills) completely, saying that it isn't possible to know how the world will have moved on by the time today's school kids are out on the job market. He devoted quite some time to demonstrating how wrong well-respected thinkers in the past had been in their predictions.

 He was less clear-cut about the yellow segment (learning and innovation). This segment includes critical thinking, communication, creativity and collaboration. He wondered if approaches which are intended to foster these skills might favour some learning styles over others. He also suggested that some of these approaches are already mainstream, and not an innovation brought in with 21st Century Skills.

 As regards the blue segment (information, media and technology skills), Piotr seemed to be more nuanced. He suggested that, rather than learning how to use all the technology available, students would be better off learning to be discerning and critical in their technology use.

 In conclusion, Piotr seemed to be suggesting that instead of being so distracted by these 21st century skills, we should keep our eye on the core subject, which, for us in the ELT profession, is teaching English.   



There are different categorizations of 21st century skills. Piotr selected one, which is neither logical nor useful. That is why it was easy to criticise them. If a teacher teaches reading and writing which are technology-based language skills, he or she has to teach technology-based language skills - which were not even mentioned in this presentation. Moreover, it is a populist trick to discourage people from using tech in language learning in a country where only 20% of inhabitants are interested in using new inventions and technology in their daily activities. It is an easy way to tell teachers, what they want to hear, but it is deceitful.

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