Teaching digital natives to become more human

Mike Mayor (Director of the Global Scale of English) & Tim Goodier (Head of Academic Development for Eurocentres Global Language Learning)

Much has been written about the changing face of the workplace and the impact that technology is having today – and will continue to have in the future. Robots are taking our childrens’ jobs, These jobs will no longer exist in 2030 and the like, are familiar headlines. Should we be worried – or is this simply scaremongering? Should we be training up a workforce of digitally-savvy robotics engineers? Or is there something else that is going on – beneath the apocalyptic headlines?

Many of us will no doubt class ourselves as “digital immigrants” – a generation not wholly brought up with computers, mobile phones and social media. In many cases, our students are more comfortable with technology than we are – but is this where we need to focus our energies? On digital literacy? As English language teaching specialists, this may not be our forte. But maybe there are other ways in which we can prepare our digitally-native students for the future of employment.

“Change is inevitable, change is constant” – B. Disraeli

There is no denying that digital technologies are having an impact on the way we live and work. A range of international organisations, including Pearson, have carried out research into the future of work in 2025, 2030 and beyond. Many reach similar conclusions: that some jobs will disappear completely, some will decline and others will be created. According to a UNESCO/World Bank report from 2015, 65% of today’s 12 year olds will end up applying for a job that doesn’t currently exist. Whilst some will find this unsettling, others will philosophically conclude: ‘twas ever thus!’ Have we already forgotten the impact of the Industrial Revolution?

The good news for English language teachers is that English is generally surfaced in reports as a key employability skill of the future. The 2018 British Council report into the Future of English in Europe: 2025 notes this as one of its key findings – and our own Pearson research, carried out in collaboration with LinkedIn in 2015, found that 91% of respondents believed it was commercially beneficial if their employees spoke English.

That said, there are concerns raised around candidates’ English language skills – which are not necessarily those required to be successful in business. The Society of Human Resource Managers in the US found that English language skills in Reading, Writing and Speaking made up 3 of the top 5 skills gaps among applicants across a range of industries (2014) – a statistic that is all the more alarming when you understand that this does not just relate to non-native English language speakers! So, although English language teaching is here to stay, and English language skills are important, we may need to revise the skills we teach.

Can a general English course prepare students for the English they will need for employment?

At Pearson, we thought not – and developed a set of CEFR-like Can Do statements specifically for the workplace: Global Scale of English Learning Objectives for Professional English.

But what if we look beyond “content knowledge” and “subject matter expertise”? What skills do our students need to be building for life after the end of formal education? Pearson’s Future of Skills 2030 report on research carried out in collaboration with Nesta and Oxford Martin School focuses on what are often referred to as “soft skills” such as problem-solving, collaborating, active learning and originality. These are not a million miles away from the set of skills we have been talking about in language teaching for a number of years now: 21st Century Skills. And for anyone following a communicative, task-based or project-based approach to language teaching – critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity will no doubt already be a part of your classroom activities. We offer practice opportunities for pair work, group work, problem solving – but we (and our students) probably focus more on the English outputs (Did I get my meaning across? How accurate was my grammar? Did I win the argument?) than on the other skills. Success criteria is often linked to assessing performance and proficiency. And maybe this is where we need to change.

In his book The Problem Solvers, Charles Leadbeater offers an interesting take on the “digital revolution”, arguing that we should not be focusing on training our students to do things that robots can do better:

“Current education systems risk preparing us to become second-rate robots. Instead, we should do what robots cannot do well, by learning to become more human.”

By which he means we should be focusing on those skills that humans excel at – communication, cultural sensitivity, creativity and so on. As language educators, we set up the opportunities for students to practise these skills in English - but can we go further than just giving them practice opportunities? Can we “teach” these skills alongside English language skills? Do we – and should we – assume that the basic “soft skills” have been developed in the students’ first language? We probably do – and we probably shouldn’t!

What does success look like?

To be able to ‘teach’ or ‘train’ a skill we need a clear idea of what success in that skill will look like. Success in language control is self-evident and a mainstay of the language classroom, but to target improvement in interpersonal communication skills we need to describe features of success ‘in action’ with as much clarity (and brevity) as we can. The key is to be specific but also have enough flexibility to revisit those skills in novel ways to build confidence. Success will also, of course, mean different things at different levels of language ability and in different contexts, and we need to agree what is reasonable to expect learners of a given level to focus on.

This is where Can Do statements can help orient the work of the 21st century communicative classroom as learning aims and outcomes, and stimulate new thinking on how to build ‘‘soft skills’’ in practical tasks and scenarios. Developments such as Global Scale of English Learning Objectives for Professional English come in the context of a wider paradigm shift in language education to exploit Can Do statements in the classroom (and not just in assessment) as a lingua franca of communicative achievement at each level.

We are not alone

The communicative needs of our language learners are morphing and expanding in a hyper-connected world, and the recent first-ever update to the CEFR in a ‘Companion Volume’ acknowledges this, adding descriptor scales for areas such as online interaction and, significantly, ‘mediation’. Mediation in the CEFR is a broad umbrella term that encompasses a range of specific skills and strategies for facilitating understanding and collaboration, in ways that relate squarely to the current dialogue on 21st century skills. This takes us beyond a view of communicative ability as purely an asset of the individual, and focuses on how learners can achieve meaningful connectedness and collaboration with others.

This is good news as we now have in the CEFR a detailed consensus and roadmap for improvement in these skills across languages and levels in ‘plurilingual’ education, while projects for specific languages like the Global Scale of English, and the Eurocentres curricula for English and French, interpret the CEFR into relevant learning aims, activities and outcomes for courses. A key premise is how the updated Can Do statements, used in a selective targeted way, can inspire dynamic learning activities and approaches designed by teachers for teachers and, most importantly, for the learners of tomorrow.

Taking a step back

In a typical language classroom, teachers will set up a series of activities that build into a larger task – that is assessed (by the teacher or the students) to check that a particular language function has been mastered. Success criteria are set – and the output is assessed against these criteria. So, the next time you are setting up pair or group collaborative activities, why not set some success criteria for what productive collaboration looks like? Focusing not only on the language outcome but also on how they got there:

  • Did the students work effectively and respectfully with each other?
  • Did they listen to each other?
  • Did they encourage each other?
  • Did they exercise flexibility?
  • Did they make necessary compromises to accomplish a common goal?
  • Did they assume shared responsibility for the task?
  • Did they value individual contributions made by each team member?

Feedback on these criteria alongside feedback on the language used will help raise awareness among students, placing importance on skills that might otherwise be overlooked. Making use of relevant Can Do statements for the level in a user-friendly format can focus this process further.

Defined roles within the group (note-taker, someone in charge of making sure everyone contributes, someone in charge of preventing interruptions, etc) can also “train” students in successful collaboration. All too often, there is an expectation that students know how to work as a group, especially adult students – but as anyone who has ever worked in a company can tell you, many adults are not skilled in collaborating or taking part in group discussions. Defined roles are not just useful for the classroom!

English language teachers are ideally placed to train students in the skills they will need for their future job – whatever that may be. English itself will be a valuable asset – but as more and more students become increasingly proficient in English, it may be the softer skills that secure the job offer. In which case, it’s time to start crediting and rewarding those skills in the classroom.

To learn more about our thoughts on this prevailing topic, come to our session on Friday 5 April at IATEFL.

Mike Mayor

Mike Mayor is Director, Global Scale of English at Pearson. In this role, Mike heads up research into creating audience-specific learning objectives aligned to the Global Scale of English, working with Content teams to ensure that these learning objectives underpin all new products and services. On leaving university, Mike worked as a teacher of English in France before entering the world of publishing as a lexicographer. Mike joined Pearson in 2003 and headed up the dictionaries list until his move to the Global Scale of English in 2013.

mike  mayor

Tim Goodier

Tim Goodier is Head of Academic Development for Eurocentres Global Language Learning. His work includes recent contributions to the development, authoring and validation of the CEFR Companion Volume with New Descriptors. Tim has senior oversight of quality and innovation at Eurocentres, and has worked on numerous international curriculum projects such as the launch of the 'my.Eurocentres' blended learning platform for English and French, and the design of preparatory pathway programmes to higher education. His previous roles in education include teacher, examiner, course-developer, school inspector, and teacher-trainer and EAQUALs Trustee. He won the 2015 British Council ELTons award for ELT masters dissertation with King’s College London, concerning the pedagogic exploitation of CEFR ‘can do’ descriptors.

tim goodier