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Developing Skills for the 21st Century: A New Perspective

Bruce Rogers

The world is becoming increasingly globalized and linked by Information and Communications Technology (ICT). Rapid changes have placed new demands on knowledge-seekers and education systems. In the twenty-first century, English-language learners need more than the ability to simply comprehend and communicate in English. They require a portfolio of tools and skills enabling them to meet and respond to the demands of the classroom and the workplace. In this plenary, we will examine four of the most important of these skills:

• Critical thinking: Critical thinking is “the ability to look at an issue and challenge possible assumptions that may underlie the issue.” Critical thinking, unlike rote learning, involves problem solving and analysis. It asks students to consider their own relationship to a topic and to formulate and express their own opinions about it. 

• Visual literacy: This is “the ability to interpret, negotiate, and make meaning from information presented in the form of an image.” A quick look at textbooks from twenty years ago and then at the textbooks, software, and videos now used to teach language shows how much text has been augmented by visual images. Aristotle once said, “Without images, thinking is impossible.” Today the ability to understand and explain the images around us is key.

• Cultural literacy: Cultural literacy rests on the idea that “understanding someone in any meaningful sense requires understanding cultural context.” In other words, for non-native learners to understand language—at least beyond a basic level—they most know more than grammar and vocabulary. They must have some familiarity with the culture in which that language is spoken.

• ICT skills: Electronic technology in the classroom is nothing new. Teachers have used tape-recorders and overhead projectors since the 1950’s. But the introduction of digital technology in the last decades has practically revolutionized teaching methodology. Technology can make teachers more creative and learning more enjoyable for students. The dilemma for instructors is to determine when to use technology and to determine which technology truly enhances language-learning. 

In this presentation, we will compare these “new” skills with the traditional ones we expected language-learners to have. We will examine whether current exams take these new skills into consideration. We will also discuss the implications of these skills for teachers: for example, how teachers can help students develop their critical thinking skills, and how technology can be most effectively used in the classroom.