Seventeen thoughts about 21st century skills that will not blow your mind!

On Sunday morning (bright and early) at the 2016 KOTESOL International Conference I will be hosting a workshop entitled, “Is it okay to teach English instead of 21st century skills?” Yeah, I think it is a sexy title, too. In this session I mostly just want to talk and think about (what I see as) the push towards 21st century skills. I’d also like to figure out what 21st century skills means to other people. Here is the abstract for the session, which in some ways repeats parts of what I just said:


Korea TESOL 2016 International Conference poster Source:

The phrase, 21st century skills is something of a buzzword and a common theme of ELT conferences in the region and world. These skills are, of course, related to the theme of this conference. The need for English teachers to focus on these 21st century skills appears to be largely unquestioned. More teachers are focused on enhancing students‘ creativity, critical thinking, and 21st century technology skills. Is this the right path? In this interactive session, reasons for and against these expanding roles will be considered. Participants can expect to walk away from the session with a clearer sense of their actual roles and desired roles as English teachers and their reasons for choosing these roles.

As part (a large part!) of the session I’d like to share some opinions on 21st century skills that I’ve heard and ask the participants to give their thoughts on these. Below is the start (or the rough draft) of my list. If you have any additions please feel free to let me know. Also, if you have any thoughts on any of these please feel free to fire away. Without further delay here are the opinions I’d like to hear participants’ (and your) opinions on:

  1. If you are trying to teach critical thinking skills in an EFL situation where the students are below upper-intermediate you are doing them a disservice. It is hard enough to learn English let alone have to worry about critical thinking too! If you really want to teach critical thinking then you should become a subject teacher in the students’ L1 or work with very high levels.
  2. If you are teaching English to adult students or even college students and you are trying to teach them how to collaborate you are wasting both your time and their time. If they don’t know how to work with others yet they are never going to learn and it is not your duty or concern.
  3. Some people say that 2st century skills are just another fad but I can’t see it like that. These are things students will need and this is not changing anytime soon. We, as a profession, need to step away from our old-fashioned thinking and modernize our teaching practices.
  4. My issue with this push for creativity training (and all the other stuff) is that the teachers who profess the need for it are not adequately trained to do these sorts of things. Kudos to KOTESOL for putting this front and center but there needs to be even more training and support for teachers who are taking the important and necessary plunge into these new waters.
  5. If 21st century skills are so important why do our students even need to waste their time learning to speak English? Why not just teach them to code or something?
  6. 21st century skills is nothing but jargon designed to sell textbooks and bring people to conferences. This term doesn’t mean anything or change anything. Let’s focus on important and real things instead.
  7. I think this push to teach Asian students to be more creative is borderline racist. These teachers come from “native English speaking countries” and try to save students the education system that supposedly kills creativity. Maybe just do the you are hired to do. We don’t need another hero.
  8. This is the ELF era and what is most important is collaboration with people who don’t share an L1. When they start working, many of our students will be speaking on conference calls to English users from places like China, Japan and Malaysia so we need to prepare them for this reality. Old style grammar and writing focused classes are a waste of time and the key is giving students practice in situations they might really be in.
  9. I am afraid that too many teachers these days are attracted to shiny new webtools and use them without considering the pedagogical value of such sites and tools. What we need is a return to solid pedagogical principles.
  10. If you are hired to teach history you teach history. If you are hired to teach English you teach English. It’s very simple. I am not sure why we need to add all these new roles to the job. Our field is filled with this sense of inadequacy and doom so we are always looking to do more. In this case it is shortsighted because it takes away from our main job which is teaching English. Anything else is an unnecessary distraction.
  11. It’s not a just a buzzword when it can change students’ lives for the better. I honestly don’t understand the reluctance of some to face reality. What are they fighting against. We are in the 21st century so of course we should be helping students cope with this in any way we can regardless of our job title.
  12. I think Mike’s title for this workshop (it’s really just a discussion isn’t it?) is a bit off. He asks, “Is it okay to teach English instead of 21st century skills?” Why does it have to be either or? Can’t it be both? Do we have to choose just one?
  13. It is our duty to prepare students for the globalized world out there and if we stick to just teaching grammar and vocab we are robbing students of a chance to compete in the global marketplace.
  14. English is inextricably linked to both the internet and globalization. To attempt to teach English without helping students develop skills related to tech is cruel and unusual punishment.
  15. I feel sad for those students who are stuck with dinosaur teachers who refuse to do anything that is not in the textbook. Creativity is the name of the game these days and the students will suffer from the bad luck of having stubborn and antiquated teachers.
  16. I am sorry but I think the people who are talking  up 21st century skills have never really considered why they are important. What is the big deal? If it is important won’t students learn it on their own?
  17. I think anyone who criticizes focusing on creativity in language class is missing the point! When students’ creativity is explored and exploited they have more fun, activate their brains, and learn more. It is that simple.

Again, any comments and suggested additions are very welcome!


  1. Marc

    Yes! Adult collaboration, when it fails, seems dickish (it is usually a dude thing, in my experience) but, like you say, wgat can you do. People are people. We are English teachers, at best cross-cultural communication teachers but if you’re a dick in your 1st language, sure you’ll be one in your second, too. Excellent point. I don’t get paid Silicon Valley money so I am not working as a Life Coach.

  2. Carol Goodey

    This is another session that I’d really like to attend. I’ve never really understood the need to talk about 21st century skills as if they are somehow very different to what we’ve needed before. That said, I admittedly haven’t put a lot of effort into investigating what is meant by the term but it would be really interesting to get a chance to sit down and hear what others think in a face-to-face situation where it was easier to ask questions, see facial expressions, hear groans 😉 etc. I tend to think, like one of the above statements suggests, that the idea of 21st century skills is some sort of marketing ploy. And, while I’m not sure that it is NOT part of our role to help people we work with to develop skills other than English, I don’t think it is useful to package things together and call them 21st century skills. I’m intrigued by what number 16 above might mean. Is English important? And, if so, wouldn’t people also learn this on their own too?

    I’ll look forward to hearing what you find out in your workshop 🙂

    • mikecorea

      I think that is an interesting thought, Mark. My cynical sense is that it is about marketing but this could very surely be a part of it.

      Maybe 21st century skills seem easier to do?

      On Sun, Oct 16, 2016 at 12:06 PM, ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections wrote:


  3. livinglearning

    I guess this is mostly a comment on point 3. Something that came up in a conversation I had recently is how students in the 1920s might have used the skills they learned in school (math and grammar and sciences and whatever) compared to in our tech-nified world today. Now calculators do math and Google answers the questions we used to need libraries for. In terms of language learning, I don’t think there are any shortcuts. For other subjects, I wonder if teachers also wonder “If my students can just Google this anyway, what _should_ I be teaching?”

  4. ahesler

    I think a lot of what you hit in your post is sensible. The title “21st century skills” is, in part, just a repackaging of previous ideas. But as I read this, I couldn’t help but disagree on a few.

    In particular, critical thinking skills and collaboration are rarely taught in older ages. A teacher rarely stands before his or her class and goes, “Hey everyone. Today we’re going to learn the skill of application.” They’re encouraged through the types of questions and activities you engage in. And, fortunately, these are not mutually exclusive from strong ELL pedagogy. Problem-based learning, as an example, is beginning to shape learning trends around the world by granting students further autonomy in their learning (and therefore greater motivation). Learning becomes exploratory, and teachers begin to fulfill greater roles as facilitators over lecturers.

    Students engage with language critically by determining what information they want to use. We as teachers help students by offering the essential questions that show them HOW. This is where critical thinking becomes essential. If a student can think more deeply about a subject, the lower-level thinking skills are covered. Application of language thereby becomes more varied, by both media and concept. This leads to a greater commitment of language to working memory.

    And this is where the definition of “21st century skills” shifts some. Is coding a 21st century skill? Perhaps. Will it endure the next ten years? Maybe. But 21st century skills go far beyond a student’s interaction with technology and into equipping students to interact with information in ways not common to the 20th century. As another person above mentioned, if students can just google the answer, what am I teaching? The answer is how to qualify that answer they googled critically. The answer is how to take that knowledge and create meaning from it. And through this process, ELL is enriched.

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