The report to UNESCO, Learning: The Treasure Within (1996), was among the first official documents to explicitly advocate for an integrated vision for education. According to it, all education should be based on four pillars: learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together and learning to be. The report was written in January 1996 and, over time, through quite some renaming and resizing, the four pillars have made their way into our school curricula, teaching materials and training programmes. No exception should be made for the virtual classroom.
When teaching online, in fact, we can offer plenty of opportunities for our students to:
- collaborate and communicate more clearly and effectively through the technology available; interpret and question the information contained in coursebooks, slides or websites, and then manipulate it creatively to produce texts of their own (learning skills);
- select relevant information and respond to it using a wide variety of media and technology platforms (literacy skills), be more responsible for their own learning, manage their own work and help their peers do the same, as well as deal positively with praise, setbacks and criticism (life skills).
So what should we consider for our online classroom?
- Which skills and when: 21st century skills aren’t a snack box from which we should take out one special treat called Learning, Literacy or Life skill each time and feed it to our students in the form of one or two selected activities (and only “if time allows”.) We should rather see the teaching of these skills as an attitude to learning – not a mechanism for learning to happen – and give our students the chance to engage, develop and refine more than one 21st century skill “at the same time as” they’re learning language and other skills and strategies. In order to do this, we can:
- introduce simple procedures into our teaching routines - even if it’s a word or structure that we may want to teach, for example, we can always put our students into pairs and ask them to work out its meaning (from context, when available, or from a list of options), then find the “answer” in the dictionary, on the internet or coursebook, and finally, creatively reuse it in texts of their own, be they sentences, articles, presentations or posters;
- use the resources we already have available to create our own tasks that allow multiple-skill use and development: grammar exercises, songs, stories, videos, in fact, can all be turned into open class discussions, show-and-tells and roleplays.
- Technology: there are definitely plenty of tools that we can propose in our classes, but we shouldn’t fall into the trap of using too many just because they might add to the liveliness and fun of our lessons. We should rather select a sensible variety of applications and websites that our own students can (or can be trained to) handle, learn from and enjoy while doing so. As you’ll see in the lesson plan, most tasks can be run by simply using the technology we already have available: breakout rooms, collaborative whiteboards, online word processing applications.
- Language: before we ask our students to be creative drawing pictures to represent a story or poem, collaborate to share ideas and opinions or simply to agree on something, we first need to make sure that they have the language to do it. In the case of creativity, this could be the vocabulary and structures that they need to reuse to talk about their pictures. For students to collaborate more effectively, they will need to know how to signal turn-taking verbally, expressions for giving or asking other students to give their opinions, agreeing and disagreeing, and so on.
Formative assessment online
Formative assessment is an opportunity for students to refine yet another important 21st century skill, i.e. learning to learn. To help our students take control of their own learning, we can provide them with time and space to reflect on which set of skills they are learning and how they are learning these. Depending on our students’ age, this can take the form of questionnaires, open-class discussions, individual tutorials or simple “Now I can...” statements that they can answer, participate in or fill out at the end of a task or unit of work. As soon as we start collecting these invaluable data, we should also make sure they stay valuable, and we can do this by storing them into virtual folders that we can easily share with our students.
One of the messages that we can get from all that has been written and said about 21st century skills so far, is that they give students power. This sounds like quite a huge responsibility, hard work, maybe a little challenging, too. Some of us as teachers may even feel that we might not be the perfect example of creativity, technology expertise or leadership ourselves. But let’s make the most of the time we spend with our students in class, be it virtual or face-to-face, to at least try and show them a way.
International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century, Delors, J., & Unesco. (1996). Learning, the treasure within: Report to UNESCO of the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century.
– https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000109590 [Retrieved 24th February 2021]
About the Author
Riccardo Chiappini is a Delta-qualified EFL teacher, teacher trainer and materials writer based in Madrid. He has developed materials for publishers and institutions like the Spanish Ministry of Education. Most recently, he has been doing research on how to use mediation in the ELT classroom to help primary and secondary students develop critical thinking and leadership strategies.