5 future skills our students will need

Ken Beatty
Ken Beatty
A silhouette of several buisness people stood by a desk, in the background are skyscrapers.

Elevator to the future: English skills

“Would it be safer to take the stairs?”

The question came to mind in Montreal last week when I visited a 1929 apartment building and came face-to-face with its equally ancient caged elevator. An elderly woman shooed me inside the polished brass and oak confection and, as we ascended, confided that there was still an elevator operator when she first moved into the building.

Ah, an elevator operator – it’s a career and skill set we’ve almost forgotten. But just as hard as it is for us to imagine doing a job that only involves opening and closing doors and pressing buttons, an elevator operator from 50 years ago would find it impossible to imagine much of today’s work. And, in turn, we may not be able to imagine the jobs our students will have in the coming years. Fortunately, imagining the education that will take our students there is less difficult.

To educate today’s students, we should heed the advice of Ali ibn Abi Talib (599-661 CE): “Do not raise your children the way your parents raised you; they were born for a different time”.

Today’s students are different in five key ways: visual learning, collaboration, critical and creative thinking, digital involvement, and control of their learning.

1. Developing visual literacy

Today’s learners grew up with the rich multimedia of computers and are used to exploring ideas independently. They’re less dependent on teachers for the information they want, and often find it in surprising ways. For example, avoiding dictionary definitions and instead doing image searches to understand new words.

What you can do

Develop students’ visual literacy. Do they know the differences between bar charts, pie charts and Gantt charts? Can they interpret the data in line graphs and Venn diagrams? Can they apply what they know to present and explain ideas in dynamic ways? Expose students to a range of visual formats, from illustrations to diagrams, and give them tasks where they have to use them.

2. Encouraging collaboration

Schools were traditionally organized around competition, aimed at separating the most able students from the least able. But teachers today can’t ignore those who seem less able; we need to be more like doctors, devoting the greater part of our time and resources to those who need it most. Our aim should be to bring everyone up to the same level.

What you can do

Collaboration involves offering more tasks where students can help each other, particularly getting more able and less able students to work together to benefit from peer teaching. More able students may resist, but remind them that one who teaches learns twice.

3. Facilitating critical and creative thinking

Critical thinking has become far more important than schools’ traditional focus on memorization. Employers expect that students will become problem solvers. Gone is the factory model of employees doing repetitive jobs; those are now more efficiently and effectively done by machines.

What you can do

Traditionally, teachers have asked questions for which they know the answer and for which there is only one answer. Try to ask more open-ended questions for which there may be multiple answers. Ask questions to which you don’t know the answer. Encourage creativity. Ask students to brainstorm, and then use analytical skills to determine the best answers.

4. Leveraging the digital environment

Today’s students are digital natives. They first learned to type on digital keyboards and, since then, have embraced phones as a key resource. English writer Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) said there were two kinds of knowledge: knowing a thing or knowing where to find it. For today’s students, finding information has never been easier.

What you can do

Many teachers dread phones in the classroom, but they are powerful computers that let students connect to online learning resources and learn what they want, when, and where they want. Steer students toward using their phones to improve their English but also teach them to be reflective about the sources of the information they choose to use.

5. Offering autonomy

Today’s students are too often referred to as clients, suggesting that the teacher-student relationship is no more than a business arrangement. It’s wrong to think so but, at the same time, we recognize that today’s students are savvy about assessing what they need to learn and how they would prefer to learn it. They have grown up with ideas about multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1993).

What you can do

Open a dialog with your students to see if they have learning preferences and whether these preferences can be accommodated in the classroom. Give more individual projects letting students choose topics based on their needs and interests.

Even among elevator operators, there were those who were better or worse at their jobs. Perhaps the greatest skill for students today is a sense that they need to take responsibility and examine the needs of any task or career that interests them, and figure out how to learn the skills that will get them there.


Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple intelligences: The theory in practice. New York: Basic Books.

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    • Understand how to plan for, build, and include collaboration with peers who are colleagues and experts in the field.

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    Your students.

    Sergio Correra is an inspired young teacher at the Jose Urbina Lopez Primary School on the US Border with Mexico. After a year of teaching uninspired curriculum to disengaged students, he returned to the drawing board. He spent time researching ways to improve student engagement and performance and stumbled across exciting research that could be boiled down to one question: Why? Or rather, getting students to ask the question: "Why?" At the beginning of his next school year, he arranged the desk in a circle, sat his students down and asked: "What do you want to learn about?".

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    Mr. Correra was inspired by research and reports based on the work of the Indian educator Sugata Mitra. The principle behind Mr. Mitra's approach is to drive student's curiosity by letting them carry out their own learning. In one of his most famous examples, he walked into a classroom in India with computers loaded with information. He explained to the students, now curious about the big shining boxes that held inside something interesting.

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    Keeping your curriculum up to date

    These students who were given freedom are much more likely to ask questions out of curiosity, motivate themselves and learn without guidance. And while this may be wonderful for learners, this isn't exactly helpful for teachers. To get to the 21st-century skills and inspire motivation, do we have to throw away our syllabus and books and trust only in our learners to motivate themselves?

    Fortunately for those of us who have chosen a career in education, that is not the case. We as educators can take lessons from Mr. Correra and Mr. Mitra and use these as a way to inspire interest and engagement in our own classroom while building these skills in our learners.

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