Building 21st Century Skills in the Young Learners’ Classroom (Part Two)

Kathleen Kampa, Charles Vilina

What We’ve Learned So Far

In our previous article, we introduced a concept that is rapidly gaining prominence in young learners’ classrooms around the globe: namely, creating a classroom environment in which the 21st century skills of critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication are effectively employed to develop fluency in English. 

We focused on Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy, which lists the thinking skills that students use when learning new content. We discussed the natural progression of learning in this taxonomy: beginning with the lower-order skills of remembering and understanding content, then moving up to the higher-order skills of analyzing, evaluating, and creating content. We argued that as students are challenged to think more critically and creatively about the world around them (using targeted and guided English as their means of expression), their motivation and willingness to participate increase–along with opportunities to build stronger language skills. 

Finally, we discussed the benefits of collaboration in the classroom, whereby students progress from individual work, through pair work and group work, and then ultimately to whole class discussions. Throughout this collaborative process, target language is reinforced along with the students’ confidence in speaking.

In this issue, we hope to elaborate further on this powerful new methodology, with the intention of providing specific and concrete ways in which teachers can put it into practice in their own classrooms. 

The 21st Century Primary Classroom

Primary English teachers often remark that while they understand the value and purpose of 21st century skills in the English language classroom, these skills are much harder to put into practice. This is because the 21st century primary classroom is more organic, more inquiry-based, and much more student-centered. Teachers often find traditional classrooms to be easier to manage due to a very specific class structure that has little variation: Desks facing forward, with students sitting quietly and listening to the teacher at the head of the class.

While a traditional class structure can be graded highly for efficiency, it faces the prospect of low student motivation and participation. Activities are often limited to remembering and understanding content, which may result in satisfactory test scores, but do not really contribute to language fluency. And when we speak of fluency, we are referring to the students’ ability to use English meaningfully, purposefully, and as a means to discover the world around them. 

So we would like to invite teachers to consider a new environment–the 21st century classroom–where the skills of critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication are the primary focus of learning and the means through which language fluency is built. Everything that contributes to self-exploration, inquiry, and discovery is welcome in this classroom–analog resources, digital resources, realia, and most importantly, our students’ own prior knowledge and experience that they contribute to the learning process.

Thinking Inquisitively

In the 21st century classroom, the teacher is less of an authority and more of a facilitator as students are motivated to ask questions and seek answers. In fact, the 21st century teacher is a role model for learning–demonstrating curiosity, inquisitiveness, and a sense of wonder about the world. This spirit of curiosity and wonder is found naturally within children, but is often “taught out” of them in a traditional classroom. With time and patience, it can be revived.

So for our first concrete example, learn to be a “wonderer.” As you introduce any new topic to your students, model some “I wonder” questions:

  • I wonder why most cookies are round.  What other foods are round? 
  • I wonder where rain comes from. Where does the rain go?
  • I wonder how animals sleep.  Do fish swim when they sleep?

As the teacher models curiosity, students are encouraged to ask their own questions. This may require some language guidance from the teacher as students search for the right words. By creating an atmosphere of inquiry, student curiosity is strengthened. And as students ask questions, there is a strong motivation for them to find answers–and with those answers come opportunities to use English meaningfully and memorably.

In any inquiry-based classroom, students use their prior knowledge and experience to talk about what they already know. If you ask, “What vehicles use flashing lights?” students may be able to use their prior knowledge. They may need guidance to use the words fire engine, police car, or ambulance, but their willingness to share their knowledge provides an opportunity to learn these words in English. 

Thinking Critically

We like to think of critical thinking as “making sense” of information. Beyond the simple comprehension of information, we want to challenge our students to think more deeply about it. If we are teaching topics such as animals, sports, vehicles, or professions, we want students to process the information to more fully understand and use it.

This can be done in many ways. Students can compare and contrast items within a group–with animals, for example, we can create a Venn diagram for carnivores and herbivores, with omnivores overlapping in the middle. We can list those same animals in a specific order based on criteria such as their size, their populations, or their risk of extinction. We can categorize animals based on the biomes they live in, their vertebrate class (mammal, reptile, amphibian, etc.), or for younger learners, the number of legs they have.

Let’s consider some critical thinking tasks for the topic professions:

  • compare/contrast: working inside, working outside, both;
  • list: by level of danger, by income earned;
  • categorize: by education required (high school, college, graduate school, doctorate, trade school).

Students can also compare and contrast stories in class. Consider the classic fairy tales Snow White and Cinderella. How are the two stories similar? How are they different? 

Students respond well to questions that stimulate critical thinking–questions that challenge them to come up with answers beyond simple comprehension.  These questions can be especially effective if students work together in pairs or small groups.  For example:

A. What is good about having a dog for a pet? What is good about having a cat for a pet?

B. If you could choose only one form of transportation to use for the next week, what would it be?

C. What four items would you put in a time capsule to represent 2017?  Why?

As students work together to answer these questions, teachers supply the language prompts they may need to communicate effectively. These prompts depend on the level of the students, the target language they are learning, and the additional language (words, phrases) they may need to communicate their ideas in English.

What makes these tasks effective is that students are motivated to come up with answers, and to share those answers with fellow students. As the activity progresses from pair work to group work to a whole class activity, their confidence in speaking increases.

Thinking Creatively

We like to think of creativity as the art of making the world malleable, like a ball of clay. Creative activities challenge students to take what they know and to make something new out of it. Creative activities often elicit joy, humor, and a bit of classroom magic by making new connections. 

One aspect of creativity is the ability to generate ideas. Brainstorming is a simple task that gets students’ creative ideas flowing.  You might begin like this:

Step One: 

Students brainstorm alone:  By yourself, draw pictures or make a list of things that are all yellow.

Give students only a few minutes to do this. (Other words that could be used for this activity include square, bumpy, round, purple, smelly, tiny, old, bouncy, etc.).

Step Two:

Students pair up to discuss and compare their two lists of ideas. Ideas that have been thought of by both of the students are circled. If either of the students has a unique idea, he or she draws a star next to it.  Students should have only a few minutes to discuss which ideas are similar and different.

Step Three:

Gather the entire class together to make a “class list” of all the things that are yellow. Students take turns calling out one word to add to the class list. As a word is called out, any other students in class with the same word should raise their hands, and then cross that word out on their own list. If any student in class calls out a word that no one else in the class has written, he or she can draw a second star beside that word. How many words did you think of that were unique? As students participate in activities like this, they are challenged to go beyond the common ideas associated with the topic. 

Step Four:

Form groups of three students. Each student chooses two words from the class list. As a group, they connect these six words to create something new, such as a yellow story, yellow song, yellow poem, or yellow picture. 

Another aspect of creativity involves making connections. The Japanese game Shiritori challenges students to connect the ending sound of one word with the beginning sound of a new word. This could also be done with English words. 

You can help students connect ideas in many different ways. Use picture or word cards for support. A student turns over the first card and names it (for example, bus). The next student says a word that connects with bus, such as driver. The next student says a word that connects with driver, such as uniform. If the next student cannot think of any new connecting words, a new card is turned over and the game begins again.

Creative activities will vary widely depending on our young learners’ ages and abilities, the topic to be taught, and the target language we wish to teach in the process. 

Working Collaboratively

Throughout the process of critical and creative thinking, we encourage students to work together. Many 21st century classrooms arrange student desks into groups of four. In this way, pairs of students can work together side-by-side (or face-to-face), then work together as a group of four students. Later, they can face the teacher at the front of the class for a whole-class discussion.

Is English always being used by the students throughout the collaborative process?  Most likely, no. As students explore information more critically and creatively, they may need the benefit of discussing ideas in their own language. However, the teacher’s role is to encourage students to use as much English as possible among themselves, to give support if students need words or phrases in English, and to help prepare them to explain their ideas in English when they present them to the whole class. This might be in the form of models or prompts in English, written on worksheets or on the whiteboard for everyone to see.

The stronger students can also assist those in the group who need more language support. This can strengthen the language skills among all students in a differentiated classroom.

Teachers need to know that the process of moving student dialogue (in pairs, groups, or whole-class) from L1 to L2 is a slow but steady one. Remember that students have a strong motivation to communicate their ideas when they think critically and creatively. As English words and phrases begin to replace native words and phrases, real learning can take place–and in time, fluency in the second language.

Communicating Fluently

This brings us to our own ideas about fluency. As we mentioned before, we view fluency as the ability of a student to use English meaningfully to share thoughts and ideas. This does not mean perfection in vocabulary or grammar, but rather that the focus is on communication with others. English then moves from being an academic subject (to be learned, tested, and sometimes forgotten) to a life skill (to be used as a natural means of communication throughout one’s life). 

We are convinced that the 21st century approach to learning English is highly motivating, challenging students to think critically and creatively while working together. This approach has the opportunity to create memorable experiences and lasting relationships in the classroom. English becomes a powerful tool for students to fully participate in the wider world around them–to ask questions, to seek answers, and to define who they are as global citizens.