As 21st century skills become a hot topic in the world of ESL, teachers regularly face the challenge of integrating the 4 C’s (creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication) into an often already busy curriculum and perhaps more importantly, the challenge of making them accessible to their students. This is where culture, or more specifically, students’ educational philosophy comes into focus, as their beliefs and prior experience shape how easily these skills can be taught.
In this article, I reflect on my own experiences of the challenges faced in incorporating the 4 C’s into a Chinese classroom. Whilst the activity ideas all link to a story class, they are all adaptable to different class types and student levels. It is my hope that through reading this article, teachers will take away practical ideas as well as some key techniques on how to make 21st Century Skills accessible for students.
Critical Thinking: Making Predictions
When reading a story in class, having students make predictions about the upcoming content is a great way to practice critical thinking. After reading the beginning of the story, students can be encouraged to make predictions about ‘what happens next?’ throughout the story or to predict the ending.
I found my students were reluctant to do this at first; either because it was a new task or because they just wanted the answer. I found scaffolding this task helped, as I provided example predictions from which they could choose if they didn’t have their own idea. After a few times of doing this over different classes, I removed the scaffolding (example predictions to choose from) and they were able make their own. In turn, it raised engagement in the story and made vocabulary within it more memorable for them as they had personalised the story by making their own predictions.
Communication: Sharing Predictions
Once students became comfortable making their own predictions, the logical step was to have them share ideas with their classmates. A common problem when giving students the independence to share ideas, is that they often resort to speaking at each other, rather than to each other (sometimes without even making eye contact). I’ve learnt that if we just expect students to ‘speak to each other’ it can often flop in this way.
To avoid this, I tried scaffolding language for interaction, from the examples they gave in the following froamework on the board:
A: What do you think happens next?
B: I think……………………………………….
A: Wow! Good idea! /Hmmm, I’m not so sure/ No Way!
B: What about you?
A: I think…………………..............................
B: Wow! Good idea! /Hmmm, I’m not so sure/ No Way!
Allowing an opportunity for students to give a reaction meant they bought into the interaction more. The safety net of the visible framework meant students were being set up to succeed. This coupled with the modelling of the activity with a student to show the class how it looked, resulted in meaningful interaction and communication between students that I was looking for from the outset.
Collaboration: Ordering story events
Getting students to work together was not as easy as I first thought. In this activity, I set the students up to collaborate on a task of ordering the events in a story. Each small group was given paper slips with story events written on them/scene pictures and set about putting them in the correct order.
This didn’t pan out how I had expected as my students were very used to working on their own. Rather than discussing their ideas as a group, one or two students would just do it all (often in silence), which defeated the purpose of doing the tasks in groups. Despite my prompting and encouragement, students were still reluctant to work together.
I decided that I needed to really think about how to introduce and encourage this concept of ‘working together’. Chinese students are very used to competing against each other and previous classroom management systems I had used often took advantage of this to encourage participation. In order to move away from this competitive environment, I began to award points for teamwork and set targets for each team to achieve in the class. Gradually, I started to see a change in the student’s behaviour and over time students became more comfortable and willing to work with each other.
Creativity: Act it out!
For a final activity and a chance for students to showcase how well they knew the story, acting is often the most natural finishing point for a story class.
The first time I did this in class, it lacked creativity as students would reluctantly read aloud their designated part of the story without any desire to add actions or emotion. When I spoke to my Chinese teaching assistant, she told me most students aren’t used to this kind of task and are more used to receiving information.
With this in mind, I realised that I would need to be patient and incorporate more steps to prepare the students to get creative and embrace it. The part they seemed to struggle with most was naturally adding dramatic gestures for relevant parts of the story. Therefore, I allocated more time to practising this, first as a class, then into groups. I had to over emphasize when giving examples in order for students to become engaged and feel comfortable enough to do the same. I also allowed time for students to create props for their section of the story.
I repeated this activity as part of story classes that came up, and as students became more familiar with it, the drama and creativity just kept getting better and students seemed to enjoy it more and more!
A Holistic Standpoint
So far, my emphasis has been on my student’s learning culture, but I’d also like to share how I initially didn’t consider what the parents of my students would think of me for incorporating these skills. Some parents would often communicate they wanted their students to learn all the new words in the story and it was at the point, whilst I was explaining how they had learnt to read around new words from context, that I realised there was a difference in learning philosophy.
The parents shared with me how their child could ROTE learn 15 words for a test during HW and asked why I was spending an hour teaching only 6 words from a story? I explained, with my teaching assistant translating, what my aims were with regards to the 4C’s, and the parents were grateful for my explanation and seemed reassured.
Parent education is worth taking the time as without them on board, it restricts the effectiveness of this methodology to become a part-time skill instead of it’s true intention to build full-time ‘life skills’.
Incorporating 21st Century Skills into a Chinese classroom has been a big challenge for both me and my students. It has taken time for students to get used to my expectations and for my activities and instructions to become more accessible for them.
For teachers facing similar problems, I would give the following advice;
• Adopt a long-term perspective when incorporating the 4Cs into your classes; have patience & persistence and keep a log of what works/what didn’t and why and what you’d do differently next time (Sun, 2014)
• Learn more about student’s educational philosophy here in China to understand any potential barriers but also to see where student’s strengths lie.
• Keep a ‘growth mind-set’ to be a role model for students. Don’t commit yourself to ‘oh, my students wouldn’t be able to do that’ or give up after one attempt.
• Share; if you’re anything like me, it’s not always easy to come up with original activity ideas. Don't be afraid to look out for tried and tested activities.
• Get parents on board; don’t take it as a given that parents know and understand all this effort your putting into classes.
You’ll notice with the activity ideas I give, I place a lot of emphasis on creating opportunities for students to interact with each other. This ensures each student gets optimal practice. Look out for my next blog for more on this: Class Ratio: Maximising opportunities for all students to play an active role in the class.
If you're a teacher in Hong Kong looking for professional development workshops, check out English for Asia's calendar for upcoming sessions here.
Sun, Y. (2014). Major trends in the global ELT field: A non-native English-speaking professional’s perspective. Language Education in Asia, 5(1).
Rachel Sims is the Teacher Training Leader at York English, a prospering English school for children aged 3-18 based in Fuzhou, China. She has worked in ESL for over 7 years teaching a wide variety of ages and levels for different purposes and creating and delivering training for teacher development. She is working towards a DELTA qualification, having already passed module 3 with merit, specialising in teaching young learners. Rachel is an ELT enthusiast who regularly reads ESL articles and seeks ways to make theory digestible and relevant to teachers she trains and mentors. Having always loved languages, she holds a B2 level certificate in Spanish and studied French to degree level and is keen to learn more!