Book review: 21st Century Skills in the ELT Classroom

This book from Garnet Education explores various issues around the integration of 21st Century Skills in the ELT classroom (!). In the foreword, Christopher Graham (Editor) states that while each chapter is framed with reference to research, the focus is more on practical takeaways for teachers.

The resource doesn’t have to be read cover to cover. Each chapter provides a concise take on a specific aspect of teaching 21st Century Skills, so teachers can dip into the resource as needed.

Each chapter has been authored by a different expert in the field; Graham stresses that this may result in contradictions or repetition, as authors were encouraged to share their own take on things with disagreement providing a springboard for discussion.

Here are the topics covered:

This book is not an evidence-based defense of the teaching of 21st Century Skills. It offers no real critique of policy, planning and implementation of 21st Century Skills frameworks in education. All told, it is also fairly research-light (although this depends on the chapter). You won’t get tons of studies or meta-analyses mentioned to underpin the practical activities. The premise is that the need for 21st Century skills development in ELT is clear and widely accepted, so the focus in on developing such skills.

I admit that I expected something different. I thought this was more Garnet’s answer to the Express Publishing book that came out recently, but it hasn’t set out to view the 21st CS topic through a more critical lens. With that in mind, I’m taking it more at face value and thinking of it as a practical classroom resource. Well, apart for the first bit, but that’s because it’s the chapter which frames the whole concept of 21st Century Skills, so if ever more detail was needed it should be there.

Okay, one small criticism of that premise…

In the foreword, Graham shares a teaser for each chapter. This summary is useful although it does raise a question about the approach taken. Graham states that for the overview chapter, 21st Century Skills are viewed from the perspective of general education and training rather than specifically from ELT. Graham justifies this, stating:

…I think it is important because ELT is increasingly becoming part of mainstream education. We as practitioners need to have an understanding of some of the global approaches being implemented outside of the ELT bubble…’ (Page 6)

A valid point. However, after the framing chapter, the focus then moves specifically to ELT methodology and classes. This seems at odds with viewing 21st Century Skills as ‘cross-curricular’, ‘interdisciplinary’ and ‘woven through the [more holistic] curriculum’, as outlined by Dr Helen Soulé in Chapter 1. This takes nothing away from the chapter content itself, although it does suggest that the resource as a whole may have too narrow focus given emerging trends.

The framing chapter

Dr Helen Soulé’s overview briefly explains how the need for 21st CS came about, and how a framework for developing these in education was devised. She points to the Framework for 21st Century Learning as being a widely recognized and adopted list of 21st Century skills*, and introduces each skill through diagrams and concise descriptions (no more than a page for each).

The 21st Century Skills Framework from P21.

There could certainly be more detail in this chapter and more references for further reading. Occasional clarity is added, such as when Soule expands on what constitutes life and career skills. Nevertheless, the chapter gives some insight into the topic and would be an essential starting point for novices like me.

Selected further chapters

Creativity and Innovation in ELT Classes (N Peachey)

Practicality is one of the key concepts of this book. With that in mind, Nik Peachey has probably interpreted his chapter remit better than anyone else. He shares a wide range of ideas for bringing creativity and innovation into the classroom and exploiting technology to do so. Podcasts, videos, ePortfolios, SMS fiction, themed blogs, soap operas… this is a neatly written listicle which is a good ideas bank for teachers. Some procedural details, plenty of links (so the ebook format is useful) – this chapter gives a better feel for what the resource sets out to achieve.

Chapter I’d like to see to accompany this: Creativity and innovation in tech-light contexts

Critical Thinking and Problem-solving in ELT (JJ Wilson)

I guess my comments on the premise of the book makes a chapter on taking ‘nothing at face value’ (p50) kinda ironic.

Anyhow, this chapter from JJ Wilson is fantastic. It starts by exploring the concept of critical thinking, highlighting how prevalent is has been throughout history and in different fields (politics, education, etc). Wilson attempts a definition and covers some misconceptions of critical thinking, then moves on to discussing the role of critical thinking in ELT, including whether it should even have a role. General principles for implementing critical thinking in the classroom are covered, then Wilson shares a range of practical activities – thought experiments, questioning techniques, dilemmas and real-world problems, etc.

Wilson lumps critical thinking and problem-solving (works fine) into the same chapter but develops both concepts well. This chapter is great and would certainly complement ‘How to Write Critical Thinking Activities’ (ELT T2W) if this comes up in your writing remit a lot.

Key takeaway: Wilson mentions how much critical thinking tasks have become embedded in global exams these days (with examples)

Dubious bit: Wilson states that Bloom’s taxonomy has stood the test of time. Has it?

Chapter I’d like to see to accompany this: What critical thinking means in different international contexts.

Communication and Collaboration in ELT Classes (C Lorimer)

If there were an ELTon for the most amount of buzzwords used in one chapter then this would be a finalist…

This is a great read as it deals well with, in my view, two of the more interpretative terms in the 21st Century Skills framework. Lorimer chose to explain how communication and collaboration can be encouraged in ELT classes by sharing a case study from an EAP course undertaken in the author’s context. The chapter is (for me) a good snapshot of how 21st CS actually play out in practice, especially in educational settings I’ve worked in recently such as the British Council. Am I saying that the approaches are valid? This chapter is open to critique but it is written with honesty from a teacher’s perspective (a highly-skilled one it sounds like, apart from the loose take on ‘student-centred’ at one point).

Chapter I’d like to see to accompany this: Tips for developing oracy

Global Citizenship in ELT Classes (J Shoenmann)

This chapter is basically three lesson plans from three different teachers. Lesson procedures are provided, and the lesson is summarized in relation to how it addresses the topic of global citizenship and then the 4Cs. It’s alright. I like the lessons for sure, and it’s great to gain a real insight from practicing teachers. It’s just… this chapter misses a marketing trick for the publisher. These are the type of resources that could accompany the book as an add-on, something which (given the practical focus) they could have provided readers (or continue to provide as a subscription for example). As the lessons stand, they are interesting but need adapting – printable resources would have been better.

Chapter I’d like to see to accompany this: Developing International mindedness

21st Century Skills and ELT Methodology (N Meldrum)

This chapter provides lots of examples of how 21st Century Skills are already integrated in many ELT resources. It shares actual examples of coursebook (activity book, etc) pages and shows how activities often inherently include the 4Cs, then suggesting how we might go beyond that and enhance such skills development.

Some practical examples in the latter part of the chapter are worthwhile (e.g. mention of teacher talk and questioning techniques). It also includes lots of examples of coursebooks providing opportunities for 21st Century Skills development, but less overall on the process itself of developing those skills (snippets of that only). I feel like the author’s mistake was using student-facing resources to drive home the point, which usually tell only a small part of the story. This chapter was still pretty interesting though, especially from a writer’s perspective.

Chapter I’d like to see to accompany this: Developing the 4Cs – stages and strategies

The last two chapters

Editor Chris Graham provides a bit more depth to discussion in the book. He explores some of the challenges of implementing these skills, and discusses possible future trends that might impact on the need 21st Century Skills development. The chapter on challenges provides some good insight and a few suggestions for exploring such challenges in your own practice. I’d say this is one of the best chapters to be honest, alongside the Wilson one.

Overall

This is a practical resource offering plenty of suggestions for integrating 21st Century Skills in the classroom. It’s great to read such varied perspectives on this topic, and to get an insight into how other practitioners are dealing with challenges in this area.

With the focus on practicality, some chapters only scratch the surface regarding skills development. There’s a feeling from multiple chapters in this volume that teaching 21st Century Skills is often simply about providing opportunities or conditions for skills practice rather than development. There is also a tendency to focus on the 4Cs, and very few writers address the challenges involved in integrating 21st Century Skills into an ELT curriculum. Reserving that for one chapter means it’s lost within the context of different skills development.

Judging the book solely on its practical purpose, I’d say there’s lots of value there. I would have liked the resource to be more comprehensive, more critical, and more responsive given how ELT provision in various contexts is changing, but that’s beyond the scope.

ELT Planning rating: 4.25/5

3 comments

  1. “Dubious bit: Wilson states that Bloom’s taxonomy has stood the test of time. Has it?”

    Hasn’t it?

    I don’t say that to suggest you are wrong so much as find out what the basis of your query is.

    But my guess is that (much like myself) for most people it really consists of a diagram, the pyramid or the inverted ‘flower-pot’, labelled with Remembering, Analysing, etc. in the appropriate places.

    In other words, it’s handy as both a ‘To do list’ / checklist as well as suggestive of where problems might lie (i.e. HOTs are going to be difficult if unsupported by LOTs)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha, the ‘flower-pot’!
      My query is, as you draw attention to there in final paragraph, the need for a hierarchy. I don’t think it’s right to see the different thought processes (often reduced to just verbs) as more/less important given that X support/facilitate Y. There’s a lot of reduction like this in education that comes from lack of engagement in, say, research, policy, planning, etc. Like when ppl jump on the bandwagon with ‘we are too focused on knowledge-based curricula’ but reduce that concept to being an accumulation of facts, when it is far more than that.

      Personally, I feel like Bloom’s hierarchy must be a misrepresentation of his overall views on learning. It doesn’t seem to align with mastery learning which (based on training during the PGCEi) still receives coverage.

      The focus these days seems less (in general) on the encoding of knowledge and more on retrieval. I feel like variety and opportunity in learning to practice the thinking skills outlined by Bloom is a given, its more about how we can effectively draw on what’s learnt and connect it with other knowledge.

      All that said, if I were writing an ELT lesson plan I’d probably tick some boxes by saying ‘this activity is a chance for learners to move from understanding to applying’ etc as it’s not really critiqued.

      Like

  2. Just having a look at an inspection copy as I type. Love the idea of 21st Century Skills in the ELT classroom. Very interesting to plan, loads of great content in the classroom, helps students think about their learning. What I really want to see is how we (as teachers) assess 21st-century skills. One of my workmates in Korea wrote her PhD on assessing 21st-century skills, need to have a look at that.

    Liked by 1 person

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